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Unblocking Middle Management Using Personas

Personas of roles like middle managers can be useful when going through an agile transformation. It’s easier to get something from middle managers if you understand the position that they are in. A persona helps in knowing what to ask or not ask a manager, increasing your chances of getting what you need from them.

Carl Whittaker and Clara Juanes-Vallejo, both from Thales eSecurity, facilitated a session on unblocking middle management at Agile Cambridge 2017. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

The session started with a short presentation on their experiences working with middle management at Thales. If you want to change something in your organization or introduce something new, chances are that your initiative gets halted by middle managers, they said.

For the exercises, the room was set up with six square tables each seating five people. Every group carried out the same exercises.

The exercises started with an icebreaker. Each person in the group got a card that described their weapon. On the table there were cards with questions face down so the players couldn’t read them.

The person who had the weapon that could cause the biggest damage started. This person picked a card from the table and would choose anyone from the table to ask the question stated the card. If the answer included any of the words on the weapon card of the person asking the question, then the person who answered got the question card. The person asking the questions just rotated clockwise around the table; they could pick anyone to ask the question. If somebody lost their card and there were spare ones in the middle, they could pick one up.

When not one word was mentioned, then the questioning rotated. The next person would choose a different person to ask. Only one person would answer at a time, but if that person would say the correct words then they could take all cards in one go.

After playing the icebreaker for a couple of minutes, the exercise was stopped. The one who has the most cards got a box of chocolates.

The purpose of this exercise was twofold: it helped get things started and helped people in the group learn about one another, and also showed how easy it was to get something from somebody if you know how ask. However, if you do not know how to ask it can be incredibly difficult, as was shown by the lack of cards being won by some people.

Whittaker and Juanes-Vallejo referred to the VersionOne State of Agile survey which lists management support as one of the main challenges in adopting and scaling agile. Middle managers often have to work under pressure. A lot of the work that middle managers do includes relaying information. Whittaker argued that it will be easier to get something from them if you understand the position that they are in and know what you want.

Personas can be useful when you are going through an agile transformation. One of the roles to model with a persona would be the middle manager. Whittaker gave an example of how such a persona can look. Having a persona helps in knowing what to ask or not ask, said Whittaker.

For the main exercise attendees got a case description. Their role was to be an engineer in a company that was going through some problems. They had to create a user persona based on information about one of the middle managers of their company. Whittaker suggested to think about how to categorize the information, what to put on the persona card, and how to design it. After some time creating the persona, the teams rotated and had to enhance another team's persona.

The purpose of the exercise was to practice making personas so that attendees can try it out in their own organization. Whittaker and Juanes-Vallejo asked the attendees what they found out about the person by creating the persona. One comment was that people learned that if they wanted to influence the middle manager, the best time was in the morning. Another thing they learned, was who were the key persons to ask if they wanted to get something done .

The key takeaways that the presenters shared at the end of their session:

InfoQ interviewed Clara Juanes-Vallejo after the session.

InfoQ: What problems did you have with middle management adopting agile?

Clara Juanes-Vallejo: The typical problems are stalling change or outright blocking it. The first sign of this happens when you try to make the very first multidisciplinary Scrum teams and then middle managers get territorial about "their people", excluding them from Scrum teams so that they don’t get "absorbed" by the teams. This is because if "their people" join a Scrum team they will magically be empowered and so they will lose all influence/power over them ... but the concept of owning people is crazy anyway! And so is the concept of people that just can’t wait to get out of sight from their manager! Good managers have good relationships with people based on mutual respect, not ownership and control.

The thing is, this behaviour is rooted in the fear of not being needed anymore when the organisation changes to agile. Everyone has heard that supposedly you don’t need management when you do agile and it’s an unsettling message which makes people suddenly worry about their job security. But agile does need managers! Just the right kind :)

InfoQ: How did you deal with this and what did you learn?

Juanes-Vallejo: Well, it’s interesting because some people will take a dislike to agile whatever you do, and however much you try to help them by coaching them to become facilitators rather than controllers. And then when they realise that their business really wants to change to agile ... they leave. That’s it, there’s nothing you can do about it (plus it’s better this way).

But the vast majority of managers come round to the idea that, actually, concepts like empowerment and transparency are very useful, because empowerment allows them to leave teams to it while they themselves can focus on strategy (which is much more interesting than operational stuff), and transparency enables them to really understand the situation and make decisions based on real data rather than people telling them what they want to/need to hear.

The main thing I learnt is: you just have to pitch things to middle managers by understanding them first. Then you can explain to them what is in it for them with this new methodology and how agile can actually help them. Because, really, agile has the power to make their life easier and, even going beyond that, to boost their careers as their organisation thrives using agile!

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