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I am the scrum master for a team of 6 developers, incl PO. Our manager is a former engineer/developer. We have a very good relationship with him and I am not aware of any real conflicts with him (or really any in the group).

However, he sometimes misses the development part of his role and feels a bit excluded from the team. For a long time, he was unhappy with the fact that I would not invite him to our retros. After several discussions, he has accepted it and understands the reason.

During the last few weeks, he had some time available and was reading up on the technical documentation of the frameworks we use. He has gained some good knowledge about it, but it is very selective. During that time, he started making suggestions on how we could improve the way we use that framework. Initially, they were good ideas, but they turned into the "I have a hammer, everything is a nail" view very quickly. Especially newer team members spent a lot of time looking into his suggestions which mostly didn't lead anywhere.

It's great that our manager has an interest in what we do. However, it makes me feel uneasy to have a developer, who is also your boss, with a limited knowledge base making suggestions on how to do our work. I find it hard to put into words, what exactly my problem with this is.

Does anyone have any experience with such a situation?

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  • What, exactly, is this manager's role in the company? Is his role primarily a people manager, focusing on things like staffing (hiring/firing) and career development? Or is he also a technical lead or advisor to the team? Aug 12, 2023 at 12:04
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    It is an organisational role: staffing, career, approval of expenses, vacation etc. Aug 12, 2023 at 12:06
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    "6 developers, incl PO" PO is a dev?
    – njzk2
    Aug 12, 2023 at 21:45
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    Is it maybe that his bad suggestions come with the added weight of feeling as if following up is implicitly mandatory? Aug 13, 2023 at 5:13
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    I was a manager in a similar situation: I didn't understand how a self-organized team worked. I had to learn that, and accept that my engineers were better at their jobs than I was at their jobs; were that not the case, one of us was in the wrong role! Tell your manager exactly what you said here; it is well said, and your manager sounds reasonable. Radical candor is a good thing, when done well, and this is a great example of when it is needed.
    – kmunky
    Aug 14, 2023 at 21:43

5 Answers 5

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It sounds like the manager is unhappy in his people management role. That isn't unusual.

Managing people - being involved in staffing, hiring, and firing decisions, career coaching, managing team expenses - is a different role and requires a different skill set than engineering. Unfortunately, in some organizations, there is a ceiling for technical roles and moving out of technical roles is seen as the only option for career advancement, which leads to highly skilled technical people ending up in roles that they don't like or don't have the necessary skills or aptitudes for.

If your manager is unhappy in this role, he should work with the right people in this organization (such as his manager) to understand if it's possible to step out of this managerial role and return to a technical role. It may or may not be possible. If it is possible, though, then there may be a place for him on the team.

Of course, the team could decide to accept him as a developer, even with his management position and responsibilities. As long as he has managerial responsibilities - a form of legitimate power - over the team, there are risks associated with him being a member of the team and participating in the events, especially retrospectives. As long as his time is split and he cannot give focus to the technical work being done by the team, his time and commitment to the team's goals and work is questionable. Although it's possible to accept these risks, that would be up to the team to talk about and decide if it's something they want to do.

The risk of having limited knowledge into the team's tools and technologies and limited time to dedicate to learning those tools and technologies is a valid risk that is worth bringing up in any discussion. The risk of using power to sway the team in the work they do or how they do it is also a risk. But at the end of the day, the team is self-organizing and self-managing, so it's up to the whole team to decide. The team could use a retrospective - without the manager present - to discuss this, reach a conclusion, and then the whole team can have a conversation with the manager on options.

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    if it's possible to step down from this managerial role and return to a technical role Many large organisations may also have to opportunity to step "sideways" from a people management role to an architectural (or technical management) role
    – Player One
    Aug 13, 2023 at 3:12
  • @PlayerOne Yes. I'm editing "step down" to "step out of". It depends on your organization's career pathing. At a point, there may be parallel technical and managerial paths, so there may or may not be downward changes in position to move into a different role. Aug 13, 2023 at 17:55
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    Love this answer! Just one thing it's missing: OP, your responsibility as Scrum Master is to coach the team about these risks, help them see the whole picture, and let them decide. If the team decides not to have the manager be a dev, since you're good at helping people, you could offer the manager your help with identifying why he's feeling like this, and how to talk to someone about it (e.g. how to talk to his manager about a new role). Aug 14, 2023 at 1:02
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Ensure that the manager has read both the Agile Manifesto and the Scrum Guide.

With the key points being that in an agile team they are "self-organizing" or "self-managing". Meaning that there is no management hierarchy within the team. He needs to be aware that there are only three roles in a Scrum Team -- one Scrum Master, one Product Owner, and Developers. And that he will be performing work as a Developer, not as a Manager, as that role does not exist in Scrum.

If he accepts and understands, ask him if he is okay being assigned user stories to complete within the sprint, and if he can commit to doing that with all of his other duties. There is no place on the team for someone who simply provides guidance or suggestions to the other Developers.

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    Better yet, send him the Scrum Guide and ask him what role he sees himself in. Let him lead himself to the fact that as a non-Technical manager he can't just turn up and take control when he feels like it.
    – Richard
    Aug 13, 2023 at 7:11
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What does the team think? Are they OK with that? Has anyone expressed some concerns openly or in private? Have you at least talked about it?

Normally, you should avoid having a manager or "boss figure" in things like daily meetings or retrospectives because it changes the power dynamic. The team might look towards the manager as a figure of authority. And that can go anywhere. Maybe they have some hard time to get to an agreement on something. Just ask the manager to decide! Maybe there are some bad news to discuss and no one wants to be the bearer of bad news in front of the manger. Maybe the daily turns into a status update meeting instead of a synchronization point for the day. Even if the manager is just observing to keep themselves up to date with what's happening, people might start wondering what exactly are they observing? Etc.

Interactions between team members need to happen in a safe space. External people should join if the team asks for their help. If someone not from the team wants to join, then they should be mindful of the purpose of team ceremonies and working agreements and play by the team's rules and values.

A mature team might say yes and have no problem pushing back if things start to go into the weeds. A less experienced team might be uncomfortable with someone else joining, especially a manager/boss, even if they contribute to some extent.

Discuss things together and decide what to do. Maybe have things communicated in private if people are reluctant to share openly. Or even collect responses anonymously. Ultimately, it's the team that should decide. So find ways of bringing those details to light.

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    Outstanding answer! Agile is unironically not pedantic by definition; every team's workflow and process must uniquely adapt to its team, keep only the rules that make the team better. Also, it is impossible to overstate the importance of psychological safety on a team. My favorite team included me as manager in retro; it gave me great insight into team health, and my engineers informed me when they needed help, and when I was overstepping ("Thanks, but we got this." "Ah, ok!"). It made me a better manager, and the team was both massively efficient and a joy to work with.
    – kmunky
    Aug 14, 2023 at 22:01
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Some managers do also work as developers on their team. Certainly they're involved in making priority decisions. It is not at all uncommon, therefore, for your immediate manager to be involved in the scrum, either as scrum master or simply as a team member.

If they aren't direct involved in the work, it may still be appropriate for them to sit in so they know what's going on and can assist/guide where appropriate. In the terminology sometimes used, that would make them a chicken rather than a pig. ("A chicken is involved in a bacon-and-eggs breakfast; a pig is committed.")

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  • (I think I may have had one non-technical manager. One of the three I was least happy with, not surprisingly.)
    – keshlam
    Aug 13, 2023 at 13:24
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    I can't say for Scrum, but for XP the developer team does not get to make decisions about which stories get prioritised. That power is given to the customer team.
    – cjs
    Aug 13, 2023 at 15:59
  • @cjs: Assuming you have a real customer team, yes.
    – keshlam
    Aug 13, 2023 at 16:02
  • XP does not change if you don't have a "real" customer team. I have worked on many projects, from largish down to small solo projects where I'm the only one involved, and I find it very useful always to have a conceptual customer team even if it involves the same people "wearing two different hats" at different times. It very much helps sort out what issues are technical (and thus can be done in pretty much any way that works), and what issues are in the application domain, and thus must work in certain ways regardless of technical implementation.
    – cjs
    Aug 17, 2023 at 4:56
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No member of a scrum team can give orders to other team members. There is usually a scrum master who organises things so the scrum is done in an orderly way, but that doesn’t mean they can give orders.

So is the manager aware of this, that they aren’t allowed to give any orders as the member of a scrum team, and do they accept this? If not, they cannot join. If yes, they may join as an ordinary team member but must be thrown out if they stop following the rules.

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    Also, it should then be expected of them to organize their work - all of it or at least the work that has anything at all to do with the team - around the scrum process, and act as equals in sprint plannings, retrospectives etc.... Aug 13, 2023 at 16:55
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    Managers do not belong in scrum team.
    – paulj
    Aug 14, 2023 at 19:28

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