People management in an agile setting

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?

Photo credit: Tea! by @chrisinplymouth


  1. Max St John

    It's really interesting to hear about you using these practices and coming to them from agile - as someone with a design and development background, this path makes a lot of sense to me.

    At NixonMcInnes we've run the company on very similar principles for the past 10 years, but our inspiration came from the ideas around freedom and democracy at work from people like Ricardo Semler (a copy of his book 'Maverick' is given to every new starter).

    However you get to them, my experience is that giving people more control and influence over their working life is beneficial to everyone. As you say, it's a more motivating approach, it builds trust and allows people to apply themselves in the way that's going to get the best out of them - individual and collective outcomes both met very nicely.

    Some organisations have taken this a long way - games company Valve is well known for allowing its employees to completely self-organise around projects they find interesting and people they want to work with (lots of interesting insight here:

    The key to making this work is trust - trust that people will do the right thing and that they are talented professionals and responsible adults - so in answer to your question of what needs to be left behind, first and foremost I would say 'the need for control'. With the right level of trust between team members, they deliver on commitments and hold each other to account - traditional command and control structures are rendered near-obsolete and just look slow and cumbersome.

    We have a pretty non-hierarchical and self-organising culture (albeit not quite as extreme as Valve's) and in my experience this freedom at work makes the manager/managee(?) relationship even more important - but shifts the tone to that you describe, more about wellbeing and personal development, making sure they've looking after themselves and checking the long view every so often.

    I'm not usually much of a commenter but your post really struck a chord with me - I'm always happy to hear about people using these kind of practices, but as someone who works with the public sector a lot, it's particularly good to know it's happening in government.

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  2. David

    Love the approach to work described in this post (and thanks for the great follow up comment from Max). Would be great to see it more widely implemented across Government, but fear that will be an uphill battle. So long as Ministers worry about reputation to the extent they do, the freedom to make mistakes (as inevitably happens when freedoms are given) will be restricted, no matter of the counterbalancing benefits. But at least what you're doing is a start and a good exemplar for others.

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  4. Derek Neighbors

    Exercise caution with "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)"...

    All too often I see managers do too much "orchestrating" of placing people on teams, instead of allowing teams more natural methods of forming with less intervention. It is a delicate balance and takes a special touch. "Matching" is probably too strong of language. Is it more creating the proper marketplace of opportunities and facilitating/coaching people in exploring their path?

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  7. roger

    So long as Ministers worry about reputation to the extent they do, the freedom to make mistakes (as inevitably happens when freedoms are given) will be restricted, no matter of the counterbalancing benefits.

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