Middle Management in Agile: A Newtonian Object?



Sir Isaac Newton*


The Agile ecosystem is a growing by leaps and bounds every day; there are countless examples of frameworks, canvases, or models to aid in agile transformation.  And yet even with all this there is a blind spot around “Middle Management.”  There have been countless words & ideas spilled in blogs, conferences, and books around helping teams/leaders/organizations transition to agile.  Even with all this there is little to nothing available  for assisting Middle Managers in their journey.

Middle Managers are a necessity in any organization; they oversee the day-do-day activities of teams in an organization, while still having insight into strategy.  Middle Managers are very close to the “trenches” of a company.  Successful Middle Managers who have transcended from “manager” to “leader” are highly influential; they have established a “bubble” where they influence corporate cultural norms.

Truth be told Middle Managers can make or break an agile transition.  Almost every agile practitioner I know state that Middle Management is the hardest sell.  Why are Middle Mangers this way, and how can we get them to work with us, not against us?

I had lunch with a colleague who observed “Middle Managers are a giant mass in an organization”. I started thinking of middle management as “mass”, and then asked myself “How do I make this mass move?  And not only move, but move in the direction that I want?”  Mass, movement, and inertia are core concepts in nature around the Laws of Motion.  We can use Newton’s Laws to help us plan a better way to help middle management along their agile journey!

Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion

First law: In an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a net force.


Image courtesy Pinterest.


How does this relate to Middle Managers?:  The law states that if an object is at rest it will remain at rest. If an object is in motion, it stays in motion (i.e.-constant velocity is as natural as being at rest).  Both motion and rest will persist until something acts upon them to change that state. For us the implication is that if Middle Managers are already on a path moving in a direction, they will continue moving that way until acted upon. If Middle Managers are not moving in a particular direction they are maintaining the status quo and again they will not move unless force is exerted upon them.

What hints does this give us in regards to their Agile journey?  This boils Middle Managers down into two groups, each one requiring a different approach in order to assist the transformation:

  • Managers at rest – These managers need to be pushed into motion. The primary option would be to help Middle Managers understand the benefits of utilizing agile.  This will help to assess their knowledge which leads to insight into potential coaching avenues.
  • Managers in motion – These managers may be easier to change.  Middle managers can be “steered” towards agile, using their own motion to a pracitioners benefit.  An agilist may  influence their direction to get them move towards “agile”.   The thought is that incremental course corrections towards the goal will bear fruit over time.

In my last job I was a Middle Manager; I had two teams reporting to me totaling around 28 people and was dug into my role.  In year two at this company a new CIO joined the organization in who said “We’re going Agile!” and then demanded results. At that point I was completely at rest. I then journeyed through the change acceptance curve.  I had an epiphany; I realized this was the best thing not only for the organization but also for my employees.  At that point I went in motion!

There is another type of inertia at play here, which is called Organizational Inertia (hat tip Ryan Lockard); that is another large hurdle to agile adoption and could be a topic in it’s own right!

Second law: In an inertial reference frame, the vector sum of the forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration a of the object: F = ma.

How does this relate to Middle Managers?:  In the equation F means force, but for our purposes F will represent “Agility.”  Middle Managers are the m, so that leaves the a, which we will leave as acceleration.  We can now re-evaluate the equation for our purposes as “Agility=Middle Management x Acceleration.”  

What hints does this give us in regards to their Agile journey?  In order for an enterprise to truly be successful with an agile transformation they would need their Middle Managers to speed up along the path towards agility (the direction of which is set by utilizing the First Law.)  Agile practitioners should help the Middle Managers adjust their course towards agility via coaching, 1-on-1s, et cetera.  Practitioners can assist Middle Managers with accelerating by constantly re-evaluating their trajectory and coaching accordingly.

Middle Managers yield a large amount of influence and their attitude, tone, and outlook can make or break a transformation.   In my last organization there were managers like myself who bought into the change. As leaders we began working to ensure our team’s success; as a result of this our organizational unit had some of the fastest adoption of the new paradigm (to be honest we were successful almost right out of the gate.)  Practitioners should keep a Middle Manager’s influence in mind at all times.  Some Middle Managers may be motivated by their subordinate’s potential for success…that is a lever that can be used to ensure success!

Third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.



Image courtesy Phillip Physics

How does this relate to Middle Managers?:  The “Change Monster”…every agile practitioner’s adversary.  Humans are by and large reluctant to embrace change, some more so than others.  To a Middle Manager the idea of change usually elicits a knee-jerk reluctance and/or skepticism.  As the old adage says “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

What hints does this give us in regards to their Agile journey?  If a practitioner attempts to  inflict “agile” in an organization there are limited chances for success.  Practitioners need to work  to ensure Middle Management “buy-in” of the goal, and should revisit a Middle Manager’s engagement often to suggest changes.  These changes will help ensure a successful transformation.

I was not in favor of moving to agile, like almost everyone I’ve met.  The paradigm shift required coupled with the lack of clear strategy made me  reticent to make a change of this magnitude; in hindsight most of my push-back was subconscious. I spoke with some coaches and realized this change was what we (myself, my team, my organization) needed.  At that point I did everything in my power to make it successful.


Is there a silver bullet solution to Middle Management in agile?  Not at all.  Humans are complex; H.L. Mencken said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  However there are some bright spots on the horizon: Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 courses and the Scrum Alliance’s Certified Agile Leadership training are two up-and-coming initiatives that concentrate on the “management in agile” space.  Middle Management in an organization is often both maligned and ignored, and if we as agile practitioners embrace their role and strive to help them succeed I think over time we will notice a positive trend in successful agile transformations.

*NOTE*-all images & quotes regarding Newton courtesy of Wikipedia