Finding a good Iteration Manager

17 May

Recently I’ve been asked for recommendations around finding a “good Iteration Manager” (or what Scrum calls a “Scrum Master”), what skill-set they should have, how much experience is “enough experience” and if it’s better to hire an Iteration Manager (or “IM” for short) or find an IM within the existing team. As with most intriguing questions, there is no “one answer” or “formula” to apply when looking for an IM although there are a few hints I hope will be helpful:


Be clear on what you want your IM to do

Sounds easier than it is – from my experience of talking with Agile practitioners, the IM role comes in many shapes and guises and often varies depending on the size of your organisation, the criticality of your projects, team size, average project length and project domain. Are you expecting your IM to communicate to project stakeholders or will their main point of contact be the Project Manager? Are you expecting your IM to take over a coaching role as well as the IM’s role and guide the rest of the team in implementing Agile practices? There are many different (and sometimes conflicting) views out there on what an IM should and shouldn’t do – be clear about what you expect to work in your organisation.


Based on the role, what are the skills an individual will need to be successful?

So now that you know what you want your IM to do, what skills will they need to have to be successful? Do they need to have strong communication skills to liaise with stakeholders and decision-makers while successfully communicating with their peers? Do they need an in-depth understanding of technical Agile practices to get their peers up to speed? Do they need to have strong interpersonal skills to support the team in “gelling”? Ideally we would always get Ms or Mr Super-talented who is a proficient communicator, instantly invites confidence from everybody they meet, are an expert in their field as well as one or two other disciplines for good measure and are happy to work for praise and pleasure alone – however the world is rarely that kind to us mere mortals, so it pays to prioritise your expectations in your IM.


Will you hire or train?

Now you know what responsibilities and qualities your new IM should have, are you better off hiring a new IM or selecting someone from your existing team? Again, this will come back to your individual situation – if you require your IM to act as a coach and don’t have the time to skill a team member up to take on the role, hiring might be for you. On the other hand, if you don’t have Agile expertise available in your organisation, it may be difficult to competently hire a new IM (how will you know if they’re actually any good?).


Understand the pros and cons of any decision you’re making

This is the most important point in selecting an IM – whatever you do, understand the pros and cons of your decision. While this may seem logical (even simple you may say), this step will be significantly harder if you haven’t gone through the previous 3 steps. Here are a few examples of common decisions made around the IM’s role and what their potential impact may be:

The IM as a full-time role

The idea behind this is often that the team requires a lot of attention in the early stages and that the IM can also act as an “Agile coach” during this period. There are several downsides to this approach:

  • By not taking on another role within the team (e.g. as a tester, developer or BA), the IM doesn’t really experience the team’s “pain” and may not be able to represent the team’s needs and difficulties appropriately.
  • Coaches should be “outside” the team to gain a good overview and perspective of how the team members engage with each other as well as their environment. If the IM is also the coach, bias may sneak in and the advantages of distinct roles are likely to be reduced.
  • Once the team requires less guidance from the IM / Agile coach, the business can be at loss as to what to do with the freed up time. Some IMs then end up becoming the Project Manager’s right hand (wo-)man (read: documentation and reporting monkey), have to spread across several projects (and so fall victim to the negative impact of task-switching) or find themselves in a position where they have to justify their existence by “looking busy”.
The IM as a role fulfilled by a team member

While this has many advantages (such as solid domain knowledge, an in-depth understanding of the project and continuous work once the IM responsibilities have ebbed off), it’s important to remember that the IM role is likely to be a key role within your  team and any team member fulfilling this role in addition to other team duties should not become the team’s bottleneck. Especially in the early days of teams coming together or in times of crisis, the IM will experience a considerable number of interruptions, taking them away from the other role they are filling. This needs to be taken into consideration when building the team and planning the project to ensure the IM has sufficient time for his / her IM duties without impacting the team by not spending all their time on their “other” role

The PM / IM combo

Some organisations may decide to solve the issue of finding an IM by re-training their existing Project Managers – while they have the benefit of likely having knowledge of and connections in the project’s environment, there are several potential complications with this combination which I’ve discussed (at length, I’m afraid) in a post around the PM / IM Combo – 2 for the price of 1?

The newly hired IM

While this is often seen as the easiest / quickest / best solution, I believe there are a few pitfalls to be aware of:

  • If you hire a new IM to “buy” Agile expertise and experience, ask yourself if you have the knowledge to recruit for this. Will you be able to distinguish the candidate with genuine, hands-on experience from the person who read a book on the train to the interview? Are you in a position to find somebody who has a deep understanding of the value an IM can add to the team or are you listening for buzzwords and catchy phrases?
  • Have you defined the role in your organisation well enough to allow a new candidate to decide whether or not this role is suitable for them? The IM role comes in many shapes and guises at the moment and what you think the role should be may significantly vary from a candidates’ previous responsibilities. Be clear about your role specification and communicate this effectively – experienced candidates may even be able to help you form a better understanding of the role!
  • Will a new candidate be able to fulfil the role effectively? If you’re hiring for a new position in your agile team who will also take over the role of IM in addition to another duty, are you expecting too much? It is well documented (and, by many, well experienced) that it takes a significant amount of time for a new hire to “find their place” in your organisation, familiarise themselves with your working practices, etc – during this time, they may not be able to contribute much in their role as an IM.
  • As part of the servant leadership aspect of the IM role, you are likely to require your IM to liaise with project stakeholders and decision makers to support the team in raising and/or resolving impediments – this will be more difficult for a new hire than an existing team member and you need to be aware of the additional support a “newbie” will need to identify the right contacts and communicate effectively.
  • How do you ensure that the IM is able to communicate with all team members effectively? In order for the IM role to add value to the team, the IM needs to be able to communicate with all team members effectively – while this doesn’t mean they have to be everybody’s “mate”, they need to be in a position to support the team in “gelling”.  Many organisations are starting to understand and value the importance of “cultural fit” in new hires, but no matter how rigorous your hiring process, the only way to really find out how well a new team member “fits” is to wait and see…


Don’t be afraid to inspect & adapt

Whatever you do with your IM role, don’t forget what’s at the heart of Agile – inspect how you’re going and adapt according to the feedback you’re getting. Your chosen IM doesn’t work out as you hoped? See what you can do to improve the situation (oh, and just to clarify – that doesn’t necessarily mean “sack ‘em”!)? Your IM is the best thing since sliced bread? See what you can learn from that for the next time you need an IM!

I hope the above points help a little in finding a good IM for your Agile teams and would love to hear any other tips, tricks and recommendations! 

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