People Management in an Agile Setting

This was first published on the Cabinet Office website.

After speaking at AgileTeaCamp, I thought I would share how people management has evolved in the GDS Delivery Team.

What you get for free with agile

Agile product teams are self-managing. With the users’ needs in mind, the product manager defines what needs to be done and the team itself decides how to achieve it. This is instantly a more motivating approach. You’re trusting people to design the best solution to meet the need, rather than handing down a ‘solved problem’ to be implemented. You’re also making the most of the smart, talented people you’ve worked so hard to find.

The approach we’ve taken at GDS is to create high-performing multi-disciplinary teams.  These teams consist of designers, developers, user researchers, content designers, technical architects, delivery managers, product managers and experts in customer insight, web operations and product analytics. These people all work together to build digital products and services. Managers are no longer expected to tell people what to do and how to do it.

So what do the people managers do and do we still need them?

How the role of ‘manager’ has evolved

The role of the manager now focuses on:

  • looking after people (what used to be called ‘pastoral care’)
  • matching people to challenging, engaging work (ie understanding what someone’s skills and interests are and then matching them to an appropriate team and opportunity)
  • personal development and training (discussing with folks whether they want to deepen their specialism or widen their skill set, and helping them plan how to make that happen)
  • career guidance (coaching, mentoring and helping people find out what the opportunities are)

Communities of practice

Most of our managers are specialists in their own right and they’re extraordinarily good at what they do. They act as head of the specialism and they line manage the specialists in their area. They arrange training and regular meet-ups, and they create opportunities for work to be shared across the different product teams.

At GDS, these communities are at various stages of maturity. One of the best examples is our design team. Ben Terrett, head of design, holds regular ‘design crits’ in which designers share their work and receive feedback from other designers. The design team visit relevant exhibitions and attend design-related events.

The advantage of this approach is that most people can learn from their line manager, who is a specialist in their field. People also have the opportunity to work with colleagues with different skills and viewpoints. This diverse mix generates excellent solutions to challenging problems.

The future

We will of course continue to evolve our approach. We’re eager to hear about other people’s experiences of agile and their views on how traditional people management is changing. What needs to be preserved and what is no longer necessary?

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