Transition to Agile (part 4): The relation with the Project Manager

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I’m a couple of weeks further with the Agile transformation and wondering about my relation with some project managers in the organization. With some of them I build up a good relation and together we made good progress in starting up and manage their projects in an Agile way. But with others it is still […]

I’m a couple of weeks further with the Agile transformation and wondering about my relation with some project managers in the organization. With some of them I build up a good relation and together we made good progress in starting up and manage their projects in an Agile way. But with others it is still a struggle. After some clashes I came to the conclusion that the main problem is that, as an Agile coach, I can be to threatening for some project managers and that doesn’t help in the transition to Agile.
It is a difficult discussion, because the project managers all look at you in another way. Some project managers see you as a good help and counterpart and want to do things together to get the best results. Other Project Managers see you as a pain in the ass. They have to deal with you because management said they have to work Agile and they will get a coach, but they don’t see why they have to do things different because they are doing well. And there are all kind of project managers in between.
The reason that they could see you as a threat is because the improvement suggestions of coaches are often part of a report out to management about the Agile implementation. And management can interprets the improvements that things are not working well at all, or the project manager is not doing well. Another reason is that the team could think different about the project manager after you did some suggestions. Maybe the project manager thinks that he should have done the suggestion and now the team thinks he is not good enough. So it has something to do with how confident a project manager is about himself or how open a project manager is to learn new things and work together with a coach.
And off course it has everything to do with you, the coach. How good are your inter-personal and communication skills? How good do you know yourself? What kind of style do you have? When you have a more directive style you have higher risks to become more threatening. And does your style fit with the style the team and/or the project manager needs? Are you able to change your style in order to make the optimal fit?

I like to share some of the situations with you, so maybe you can use my lessons learned in your situation.

The first situation was during the stand-up. I did the suggestion that a team mate, who just came back from holiday and didn’t know what to do, could help a teammate who needed his knowledge and asked for that the day before. My intention was to stimulate the team to ask for help and offering help during the stand up. After the standup the project manager let me know that I was over the line with my suggestion (what line?), because that should do a project manager and not a coach. He was very irritated about it. So I asked why he was so irritated and explained my intention. He said that with my question I insinuate that the team doesn’t collaborate well and that was not true. I didn’t expect his reaction. So gave him back that doing improvement suggestions doesn’t mean that they are not doing good, but that they can do things different and more efficient.
I analyzed that this negative interpretation of my suggestion could  be caused by that other people think that he doesn’t do his job very well. This thoughts made him defensive. Another reason is that I was to direct in giving my feedback and that they are not used to it. What I learned is that I could change the way of giving feedback to prevent that I’m misinterpreted. Now I’m aware of the possible reactions, I can give suggestions in a different way next time. For example; first give the team a compliment and than give your suggestion (you are doing very well, what you can improve is…..). Or when it is more complicated, first discuss it with the project manager what you observed and discuss how to bring the feedback to  the team, before you give the feedback, or let the project manager give the feedback. The disadvantage of this could be that you will miss the moment and it will have less effect.

Another situation was during a team meeting with another team. They discussed a problem, but wanted to end up the discussion without really solving the issue. I asked the team “How can you help each other to solve this issue? Is it an idea that team mate John and Linda stop with their tasks and first help you with solving this issue?” Again my intention was to stimulate the team to solve the problems as a team and help each other in case of blocking issues.
After the meeting I had a discussion with an irritated Project Manager again. He said that I was over the line and had entered his territory by doing suggestions about who is working on what. We had a good discussion about what the terrain of the coach is and what the terrain is of the Project manager; Where is the line and is there a line? He said the coach should only say something about the Agile way of working in not about who is doing what. Off course that is true, but we have a grey area. Team ownership and collaboration are  important aspects of Agile and the best way of making the team aware of how to do this is during team meetings and stand-ups; just when situations happen. He could agree with that too. Sharing our thoughts and intentions helped to improve and build up the relation.

A lesson learned is when I start with coaching a new project, we first discuss the relation between the project manager and me. I explain that I’m there to help him/her to become successful in doing Agile and that I’m only succesful when he/she is succesful. Since that is the choice of higher management it is important for the project manager that he is good in doing Agile projects. We also discuss what he/she expects from a coach and how we will work together. During the project it is important to evaluate the relation and keep on track with each other. Sounds like Inspect and Adapt!!

Link to Transition to Agile (part 3)

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