5 Effective Ways To Increase Management Support For Agile

Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators
Published in
11 min readFeb 20


In our workshops and classes, participants often lament how difficult it is to get “management to do their part”. And my experience in this area has also been one of many struggles. Some managers totally get Agile and Scrum. But others seem to have made a hobby out of making things as hard as possible.

The frustration among Agilists is so easy to understand. We believe that Agile can make so many problems go away, which makes it all the more frustrating when others — like managers — just don’t seem to get it, or even seem to actively work against it. This easily leads to entrenched us-versus-them battles.

We also recognize this frustration in scientific research. Many qualitative and quantitative studies have emphasized “management support” as one of the most critical, or even the most critical, factors to successful Agility (Van Waardenburg & Van Vliet, 2013; de Souza Bemerjo et. al., 2014; Young & Jordan, 2008; Russo, 2021). Management support would not be getting this designation if it is rarely an issue. We also see this in data from the Scrum Team Survey. There is some irony there, as Agile adoptions are usually initiated by management, but apparently not sufficiently supported. So there is clearly a lot of work to do there, still.

We wrote this post to help Scrum and Agile teams who are struggling to get this support. Our focus is on the simple things you can do, in almost any environment.

“We believe that Agile can make so many problems go away, which makes it all the more frustrating when others — like managers — just don’t seem to get it, or even seem to actively work against it.”

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Tip 1: Don’t Follow Stereotypes, But Try To Genuinely Understand

There are a thousand memes, Dilbert comics and office jokes about managers and management. I’m sure you’ve seen some and laughed about them. While they are fun in one regard, they also perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. If we are to believe them, managers are generally dumb, lazy, and sociopathic control-freaks who have made it their mission to throw as much sand into the organizational machine as possible.

While I’ve definitely met managers who I struggled with, none met this mold. And I’m sure that most of the readers won’t recognize it in the managers they’ve worked with either. In truth, most managers are trying to fulfill their responsibilities in the best way they can. And while you may not agree with how they do this, their intentions aren’t bad. And that is a key point. The problem with many of the stereotypes of managers is that they attribute their behavior to malice, wilful ignorance, or just plain dumbness. Even if you only partially believe that some of that is true, it effectively blocks empathy and genuine understanding of their position. And why should they if you don’t either?

“Most managers are trying to fulfill their responsibilities in the best way they can. And while you may not agree with how they do this, their intentions aren’t bad.”

How To Do This

So the first step is to recognize any such stereotypes you hold for managers you work with and to replace them with curiosity. This is an exercise you can do for yourself. Simply list all the managers who are critical to the success of your teams. For each of them, try to reverse-engineer from their behaviors and decisions what their needs and intentions are. Then, go through these intentions and particularly challenge yourself for each need or intention that holds some negative view (e.g. “power”, “ego satisfaction”, “be seen”). What is a more positive need or intention that could replace such a negative one? For example, a “need to be recognized for their success” can be replaced with “seeing that their contribution to this organization matters”. A negative intention like “gain power” could be replaced with “growing in their responsibilities and accountabilities”.

You can even do this together. The Liberating Structure Myth Turning is very useful to do with other Agile practitioners in your organization.

Myth Turning is an interesting Liberating Structure (in development) that attempts to change persistent beliefs; for example that managers in your organization are blocking your effectiveness with Scrum.

This tip may feel very idealistic, and perhaps too optimistic or naive. But the point here is that you won’t be able to get management to properly support you if you do not attempt to understand their intentions first. You may even discover a truth that many politicians and successful leaders have also learned: the best way to get people to support you is to show that you care about their needs (even if, sadly, some politicians only act the part).

“The best way to get people to support you is to show that you care about their needs”

Tip 2: Make Specific And Clear Requests For Help

Often when Agile practitioners complain about lack of support, it turns out that have only a vague notion about what this should look like in practice. And that’s a problem. While “management support” is very important, it needs to be translated into to behavior and decisions that are made by managers. But if nobody defines what this means in day-to-day practice, it is also quite unfair to blame managers for not giving it.

Clearly expressing what you need from management in order to be effective is often lacking. Here, we are running a workshop with several teams and management to express such needs.

So if you’re faced with low support, you should work with your teams to specify clearly where you need support and what that support should look like. For example, suppose that management still requires estimates from your teams even though they feel understandably uncomfortable with estimating complex work. I’m sure this is one that many of us will recognize. Instead of complaining that “management just doesn’t get it”, it is more helpful to instead answer what it is that the teams need. “We would like your approval to stop estimating for two months and do a Retrospective with you afterward” is one example of a better request. Or you could ask “We think there are better ways to achieve your goals without requiring estimates, and we’d like to show them and pick one together”.

However, expressing the need is only the first step. You also need a straight answer. Vague commitments are effectively no commitments. So we always encourage managers to channel the Dutch cultural trait of brutal honesty, and either say “Yes!” to a request (and do it) or “No!” (and not do it) or to ask teams to clarify their request because it is too vague and they can’t commit to it because of that.

“However, expressing the need is only the first step. You also need a straight answer. Vague commitments are effectively no commitments.”

How To Do This

The Liberating Structures “What I Need From You” is incredibly helpful to collect and express such needs, with management in the room. We also created a Do-It-Yourself Workshop that uses WINFY, among other steps, to achieve this purpose. And we offer physical aids for WINFY on our webshop, which we’ve found super useful when facilitating it.

An impression of What I Need From You materials that we like to use in our practice

Tip 3: Explain How Agile Methodologies Help Management

I once received great advice from a senior manager who overheard me explain Agile to his organization. He pointed out that I was so busy explaining how pretty and clever the tool was that I forgot to show clearly what it was for. “Don’t tell me about how wonderful the hammer is, just put the nail in the wall so that I can hang my painting on it”. Since this manager clearly saw the potential of Agile, I asked him how he’d explain it to his peers. “It’s simple”, he said, “It’s all about risk, and how Agile reduces the risk of wasting all this money on a stupid idea”.

Scrum allows you to deliver more value to stakeholders. This is great if you run a commercial business, for example, and you need to be careful with investments and want to have happy customers.

This is a good example of the third tip. As Agilists, we often get so wrapped up in our methodologies, frameworks, and practices that we ignore the “Why”. Sometimes this is because it’s so obvious to us that we assume everyone is already on that page. At other times, we don’t fully appreciate this ourselves. The latter was certainly the case for me. Unfortunately, this is particularly relevant when it comes to people in a management position.

“As Agilists, we often get so wrapped up in our methodologies, frameworks, and practices that we ignore the ‘Why’.”

Unless managers have been part of (software) teams themselves, it is unlikely they will be able to appreciate the benefits of Agility on its own merits. So if you want their support, you need to translate Agility to how it benefits them and the organization. How you explain this depends on the type and level of manager you’re dealing with. The senior manager I mentioned earlier was one of the owners of the company. It was very important to him that Agile reduced the risk of wrong investments.

On a more personal level, this is what Barry Overeem and I like about using an Agile approach to how we approach product development in our company. For us too, Agile reduces the chances of losing a lot of money on something that seemed like a good idea but wasn’t upon its realization. Other types of management connect to other benefits. For example, a middle manager may appreciate that the self-managing nature of Agile teams allows them to focus more on setting high-level goals and much less on micro-managing work. Other managers may see the business value in satisfying more stakeholders. Or having happier teams, and thus spend less money on absenteeism, turnover, and the hiring of new employees to replace those who leave because they don’t like the job.

This also connects this tip back to the first tip. In order to get management to support your initiatives with Agile, you really need to understand what drives them. What concerns do they have? What keeps them up at night? What makes their work easier? If you can connect Agile or Scrum to those needs, it will be much easier to get their support.

“In order to get management to support your initiatives with Agile, you really need to understand what drives them.”

How To Do This

Like the other tips in this post, it begins with genuine understanding. So you need to schedule time with management to learn what matters to them, and what they think would be good for the company. A simple way to do this is by scheduling a coffee to ask some interview questions. We’ve found these helpful:

  • “What is something that is keeping you up at night about how we currently do our work in this organization/unit/department?”
  • “If you would one day wake up with a magic wand that could resolve any issue, what is one big issue in this organization that you would immediately resolve?”
  • “If we want to make this organization more commercially viable or effective, what is one thing we need to improve internally?”
  • “What are commercial opportunities we are missing out on, in your view?”

There are several advantages to this approach. The first is that you’re learning about their needs, which is obviously useful. The second is that you’re building channels for communication that you can use and refer to later. Third, on a human level, we often notice that an expression of genuine interest in another person changes their relationship in positive ways, which in and of itself can increase the potential for their support.

Tip 4: Make An Evidence-Based Case For Agile

There are many bad reasons or arguments to use Agile approaches. “Everyone else is doing it too” isn’t a good reason, and neither is “We want to try something new”. As we emphasized in the previous tips, it is much better to connect your arguments with what also matters to managers. You can make your case stronger when you include evidence as to how Agile approaches make this possible. Particularly when you connect it to the needs of managers that you are depending on for their support.

How To Do This

Fortunately, there are many good arguments and reasons to offer for why Agile methodologies are a good idea. You’ll notice that most of these are relatable for managers:

  • Agile methodologies evidently increase job satisfaction and team morale, which reduce absenteeism, turnover, and general HR-related costs.
  • Agile methodologies, and especially the emphasis on autonomy and self-management, align better with what younger generations, particularly Millenials and generation Z, are looking for in their work.
  • Agile methodologies evidently increase stakeholder satisfaction quite substantially, which is good for revenue, financial longevity, and market share.
  • Agile methodologies provide a better (financial) risk-management strategy as compared to plan-first-based approaches, particularly for complex products and projects.

We recently provided a business case that focused on team morale and job satisfaction. Our series of “in-depth” articles also provide a lot of scientific support for various aspects related to Agile and Scrum.

Tip 5: Build A Coalition

Building support in your organization is hard if you’re alone, particularly in large organizations. If you’re the only person pushing for support, you risk sidelining yourself as management starts taking you less seriously (“Oh, it’s that person again”). It’s also easy to get burned out if you’re alone. So it is far more effective to surround yourself with people who bring different voices, reasons, and perspectives on why Agile is the way to go. Coalition-building is one of the most important tools in the toolbox of organizational change agents. While some may frown upon this as a form of “office politics”, the truth is that politics is often a necessary tool to drive change.

How To Do This

  • In its simplest form, you can simply send an email to people who you expect might be useful in a coalition. Schedule a virtual call or a meeting room and bring these people together. A good question to drive this meeting is: “How can we work together and leverage our individual resources to make Agile work here?”. A session like this can already generate a lot of energy in its own right, particularly when you aim for clear 15% Solutions at the end.
  • One of the best ways to build coalitions is to use a Liberating Structure called Social Network Webbing. It is aimed precisely at coalition-building, and it uses an engaging and highly interactive approach to do so.
  • We also created a Do-It-Yourself Workshop that is specifically designed to leverage the social networks in your organization to find more support. This workshop comes with a detailed facilitation guide that is fully based on Liberating Structures.

Closing Words

In this post, we shared five concrete and practical tips for how to gather more support from management. Despite the negative stereotypes of managers that are prevalent in the Agile community, there are many great managers out there who are willing to help. But it’s often unclear to them where their help is needed, or how it is needed. They may lack a good understanding of what they stand to gain from Agile methodologies. We can do much better. We hope the tips in the post allow you to do this. If you have further tips, please let us know in the comments!

Good luck!

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Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Passionate developer, organizational psychologist, and Scrum Master.

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