Managing self-managed teams!!?

Self managed teams became popular with the agile movement in software development. However, there isn’t a lot of advice on what it means to manage teams, nor what managers should do when a team self manages. (There is a lot of advice on coaching and organization culture.)

Line management has always been a fuzzy concept. It isn’t really taught, even in management schools. It was probably even less of a focus in software teams compared to non-IT businesses like retail, FMCG, pharmaceutical.

In this article, I won’t discuss whether you need a manager in a self-managed team. That decision varies depending on the organization and team. It can also lead to lengthy debate. Instead, if you are a manager, I’ll share some resources for what managers should do in self-managed teams.

Pete Deemer has a unique and insightful ( free) booklet, ‘ The Manager and Scrum’. He describes what managers should be doing in Scrum teams. Pete lists activities that managers might be responsible for. He then categorizes them as ‘Good in Scrum’ as opposed to ‘Conflicts’ or ‘Not Needed’.

The booklet also has an explanation for each of the activities listed, i.e., why they should be continued in Scrum or not.

2. Provide advice and input to the Development Team on technical difficulties that come up

Managers should be available to give advice or assistance whenever the Development Team asks for it.

This is a great resource to balance directing the team vs. coaching. (The value of Pete’s booklet is the explanations of what is and isn’t suited for Scrum.) An additional benefit is that the booklet forms a primer on line management.

Managing Test Teams

If line management is fuzzy, managing testing adds many layers to that fuzziness. Within the testing community and outside, no one shys from the meaning of testing or quality. However, more often than not, people misunderstand both testing and quality.

A good source of insight on managing testing is the book I often quote, ‘ Lessons Learned in Software Testing’. The book has two chapters on managing testing, ‘Managing the Test Project’, and ‘Managing the Test Group’. You can apply Pete Deemer’s approach to the list of activities/lessons listed in those chapters. I have listed the lessons at the end of this article.

For the lessons related to managing the test group, most of them seem like a manager could continue them in Scrum.

For the lessons related to managing the test project, most of them seem like a manager could coach testers or the team to perform those activities. For example, Lesson 174, ‘Use smoke tests to qualify a build’. A manager could coach a team on doing this, rather than leading this himself. Similarly, 169, ‘Ask for testability features.’, is something that a manager can coach the team on, along with developing a better understanding of testability in the long term. There are some lessons which may not be as relevant in Scrum/agile. I have categorize them as ‘Phased’ (Waterfall). There are a few lessons related to organizational culture. It may be appropriate for the manager to continue those activities in Scrum.

Managing Knowledge workers

One aspect of managing software engineers and testers which doesn’t get much attention is that software development is knowledge work. More than new technologies, software development requires on-going learning. A challenge for line managers and the organization as a whole is motivating engineers to keep learning. It isn’t enough to provide learning resources and check progress in line with organization milestones. A good example of motivating engineers is a talk by Illari Henrik Aegerter on getting team members to read books (Reading about this won’t do justice to the topic).

To me, this is a critical skill for line managers in software teams — the task of motivating engineers to learn and grow continuously. In addition to learning, there are a variety of soft skills as well as topics like critical thinking that don’t end with a course curriculum. In most organizations, managing knowledge workers requires a line manager to be self motivated to lead his team, beyond organization check boxes.

More Information

Managing the Testing Project

The lessons in, Chapter 8, Managing the Testing Project, in the book, ‘ Lessons Learned in Software Testing’, are listed below. I have categorized most of the lessons as coaching opportunities for a manager in Scrum.

Managing the Testing Group

The lessons in, Chapter 9, Managing the Testing Group, in the book, ‘ Lessons Learned in Software Testing’, are listed below. I have categorized most of them as activities that a manager can continue in Scrum. I have added an additional category for the different lessons.

Originally published at



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store