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Engaging in Agile – the more the merrier?

Christo Martens
December 1, 2020

As a project manager and scrum master, I often get the question – why do suppliers sometimes offer a separate engagement (or contract) manager on top of the one or more Agile teams that are asked for in a request for proposal? In Agile environments, teams are self-organized, and the product owner is the only person in the team that makes decisions on scope and delivering the most business value with the available budget. So, why in some cases is such an engagement manager still added to the service offering?

In this post, I will answer this question by first looking at a basic Agile team situation and then how making this situation more and more complex by hiring staff creates a client supplier relationship. This blog won’t go into detail on the processes of the hiring of the organization itself, for example, contracting, budgeting, and (financial) reporting.

The basic Agile team situation

The simplest situation is when an organization that starts working in an Agile manner only uses its own employees. It assigns a product owner and provides this person with the mandate sufficient to deliver value. Next, a development team has to be found that can deliver the requested value using its knowledge of processes and technology. Finally, a scrum master is assigned to the team to facilitate the team and coach it towards an Agile way of working. The agile team is now complete – It just has to deliver.

If stakeholders in the organization aren’t happy with the result (the delivered business value), they contact the product owner and discuss their doubts. The product owner can adjust priority, and the Agile team can try to improve quality or velocity, or the Agile team can decide to switch team members when a required skill isn’t available within the team.

A clear situation without a lot of responsibility issues, I would say.

Hiring separate staff

A bit of a more complex situation arises when the organization doesn’t have sufficient resources to staff the team. Such an organization might want to wait with delivering the intended business value until the necessary staff is available. However, there’s often a need to actually deliver this value in the near future – and a decision is made to hire specific staff. Usually the hiring is limited to the expected time of the project.

The only difference with the previous situation is when the hired staff member has contractual issues (like underperforming, leaving early, or an early project-end) or when the project has an extended end date. In this case, the hiring manager is responsible for solving these contractual issues with the hiring party – either with the self-employed person directly or the staffing manager of their employer. The more staff has been hired, the more time the hiring manager will spend on managing these contracts – but overall, it remains a very clear situation with reduced complexity.

All in on Agile – hiring an entire Agile team

Complexity increases when an organization lacks a lot of staff with specific knowledge and decides to hire an entire development team with or without a scrum master. Of course, this hiring can be done on an individual basis, which would be similar to the previous situation. However, organizations often hire an Agile team from a supplier with certain expectations regarding results or even specific KPIs.

Neither the relationship between the organization and the supplier – nor the result or KPI expectations – are covered in Agile ways of working. While it is not in accordance with a pure Agile mindset, it is a daily practice in a lot of organizations. The situation inside the Agile team looks almost the same as in all previous situations. However, the situation at the supplier has suddenly changed. The contractual expectations (agreements) regarding results or KPIs have to be managed. Within some contracts, a penalty clause is present. These clauses result in financial risks for the supplier. Someone should be made responsible for managing the contract and its risks. This is the supplier engagement (or contract) manager role, and not the scrum master role. The latter serves as a leader of the team with its dedicated responsibilities, for example, facilitating the team, coaching the organization, and removing impediments.

The engagement managers won’t manage scope or budget, as long as it’s not in the contract. But when there are contractual obligations regarding these topics, they will manage these and take responsibility. They will also be the first contact on staffing or finance-related questions. Hiring multiple teams definitely makes the engagement manager’s job more complex due to the span of control.

So, by adding an engagement manager to a team-hiring contract, the related contractual matter can be handled out of the Agile team’s sight – and the team can keep its focus on delivering business value to your customers.

And if you’re looking to add more insight into better managing your Agile teams, drop me a line here.