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From Traditional to Agile Management – Why and How?

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“Your organisation is undergoing an Agile transformation.  Your people are now members of self-organized, empowered teams.  They are learning new skills from each other.  Someone called a “Product Owner” prioritises what the team will work on, organising and managing the Product Backlog and representing the customer in the development process.  A ScrumMaster removes impediments, escalating issues to ensure that team productivity and quality remain high.  Suddenly there does not seem to be a need for all the things you, the manager, did for your reports on a daily basis!  Is a manager even needed in this new agile world?” Solutions IQ

“The New Ways of Working (NWoW) is an initiative looking to boost flexibility and retention, largely by removing many of the barriers and management styles of the past and bringing them into line with a modern multigenerational workforce.”

Traditional Management

This is the fourth article in this series on Agile People Management.  The third article is “From Traditional to Agile Leadership – Why and How”.  In this article we shift our focus from Leadership to Management.

In “traditional”, hierarchical organisations, “leadership” generally means the executive suite, or the “real” decision-makers.  “Management” generally refers to layers below, that are responsible for implementing the decisions taken by the “real” decision-makers.

According to Forbes, Traditional management thinking is based on three fundamental assumptions:

  • Organisations need a top-down approach to strategy and objective setting
  • The role of management, and human resources, is to measure and control what is being done to achieve objectives, and to provide the corresponding incentives for performance or non-performance,
  • Monetary incentives motivate people.

This means that traditional leaders and managers decide on behalf of people, managers control the work of the people, and HR develops complex systems to decide on remuneration, and measure performance, incentives and consequences.

Despite indisputable research to the contrary – over 50 or more years – most organisations today have still not changed their management systems or thinking.  The problem is that we are using the management tools of the first industrial revolution, while we are entering the fourth industrial revolution.  It’s like using a wind-up gramophone to listen to modern music!  As Paolo Gallo, Chief Human Resources Officer of the World Economic Forum, said “I suppose it is easier to change a smart phone than a mental model.”

In her book Agile People , Pia Maria Thoren describes the difference between “traditional” management and agile management as follows:

Traditional Management   Agile Management
Build on Control Build on Motivation
Implement decisions taken by the Executives Encourage teams to make their own decisions
Formal Management Informal Management and Coaching
Micromanaging Explain why and what and leave the how to the people
Secret information Transparent information
Managers decide performance of employees Employees decide performance for themselves and colleagues
Decision making by managers Decision-making closest to the problem
SMART goals OKRs
Formal managers Self-management


Agile Management

The Agile methods of today focus on self-organising and autonomous teams, and team roles and dynamics.  Because of this emphasis, there’s sometimes a misperception that managers are no longer needed.  The fact is, good people management can help an agile team thrive, but “traditional” managers need to be trained, or retrained, to be able to successfully manage people in Agile work environments.  This is not a shift that we can take for granted.  In fact, “Traditional” style of management in Agile environments can limit:

  • Both the effectiveness of the team and the power of agile to help people grow and develop their skills, and
  • The team’s ability to develop self-organising skills, which are at the heart of the value agile brings to an organisation.

Influence over command and control.  Where “traditional” management often relies more on command and control, for agile teams, using influence rather than control, leads to far better results.  Letting go of control can be scary for some managers, and learning to trust is a difficult skill.

Allocation of work also changes in agile workplaces.  With agile, the team decides how they allocate work, by individuals committing themselves to the tasks.  This does not mean that the manager has no influence on work allocation.  Rather, it means that the manager needs to give advice about these decisions, and needs to ensure that the team has access to the knowledge, skills and tools needed.

The strict nine-to-five workday is outdated.  For employees across industries, flexibility is incredibly important and helps employers attract and maintain top talent.  Organisations that offer employees flexibility in the form of telecommuting, flexible schedules and unlimited personal time off, help employees maintain a positive work-life balance.

Working with a Purpose.  A strange anomaly is that managers complain that employees just work for a paycheque.  Yet most employees feel that they are just working for a paycheque because they don’t have a purpose in their work.  Maybe the most underrated desire of modern-day employees is the desire to work with a purpose.  Many employees would be willing to give up fancy perks or office game rooms in exchange for more fulfilling work.  Unfortunately, in many organisations, a sense of purpose is lost in today’s profit-focused world.  Employees would rather know that they are contributing to the greater good of society.

Hierarchical Careers are “So Yesterday”!  Young people who grew up with mobile phones and computers have different values and beliefs than previous generations.  They do not adapt easily to the industrial ways of working, hierarchical organizations, and bureaucratic decision-making modes that have been accepted by the other generations.  They are concerned with making a difference, meeting a challenge, and always progressing in their capabilities. These drivers, more than job stability and routine, motivate this generation of workers. They expect professional development of their skills and are not satisfied with remaining in the same position for long.  “Career paths” for knowledge workers are, therefore, more dynamic and less predictable than they once were.  The job stability preferred by the baby boomers is slowly being replaced by a desire for vigorous professional development and management has to be prepared for this.

RIP the Individual Performance Review.  Googles research into high-performance teams revealed an unexpected result – who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.  And, with teams becoming the focus area of modern organisations, so the focus of performance moves to the team.  The manager evaluates team performance, and team members manage individual performance.


“Traditional” management focusses on bonus-driven systems based on performance metrics, while Agile management focuses on shared vision and purpose, trust and autonomy.  “Traditional” management encourages a competitive work environment that encourages winners and losers, while Agile management focuses on creating an environment of trust and collaboration, and the success of the team rather than the individuals.

Good Agile people management can help an agile team thrive, but, without guidance about what it means to be a manager in an agile organisation, management can have the opposite effect.

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  • Has your company started to make the shift from traditional to agile management?
  • Are you losing out on the benefits of real agility because traditional management struggles with an agile workforce?
  • Is management unaware of the need for their own transformation?
  • Does your Leadership Development program include Agile Leadership and Agile Management?


The next article, “From Hierarchical to Growth-based Career Development – Why and How”, you won’t want to miss this one – it’s going to be your focus for 2020 and beyond.

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Our CORE™ Agile People Management program is aimed at anyone responsible for managing people in Agile workplaces – leaders, managers, and HR.  Learn how to adapt to this New Way of Working with online lessons and coaching in between.  Learn while Doing and Do while Learning – it’s the Agile way!  Click here to learn more.