Long reads

Agile Series: Getting out of the way

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith

Founding CTO, RTGS & ClearBank

As a leader in more than just technology, we must know when to get out of the way of our teams and colleagues. All too often, I see leaders who want to build high functioning teams and yet they micro-manage; impose far too many decision-making restrictions and place too much value in their own beliefs and experiences. The following tips will direct leaders on how to efficiently manage teams to ensure an agile and progressive workplace culture.

Getting the right talent

The first part of building out an efficient, high-functioning, and motivated team is getting the right talent. This applies to any aspect of work-life, not just working within an agile engineering culture. The right talent may have all the skills you require and experience in the area you need, but equally, when you look at the wider construct of your team, they may be drawing their experiences from outside of the sector you work within (diversity of thought is key).

The right talent has good communication skills, but more importantly, can listen and hear other perspectives. I say hear, as often (and I have found it to be worse within financial services than any other sector I have worked in) people listen, acknowledge, and claim they understand without actually hearing. So, the right talent is not only able to hear, but if they don’t understand they ask for greater clarity. The right talent also has little ego, but equally shows ambition for what can be achieved as a team, they are equally driven to get things done. The right talent knows their strengths, their weaknesses, the areas they wish to get better at and most importantly, their role to play on the team.

Now, once you get that right talent, you need to coordinate and make sure everyone is aligned.


Having everyone aligned is very different from telling everyone what they should be doing and/or how they should be doing something. Alignment is only every achieved by:

  1. Having clear communication paths
  2. Contextualising the assignment
  3. Ensuring a strategic approach is understood
  4. Understanding the value of the task or project

Once you have alignment of a talented team, what is your role as a leader?

Get out of the way!

As a leader, with the perfectly aligned team and the right talent, your role as a leader is to get out of their way and not interfere! Simple.

Yes, check in. Yes, make sure things are aligned. Yes,, make sure the ship is going in the direction you believe. Yes, cast your eye over the detail to make sure something hasn’t been missed that you could add value to. Yes, monitor progress. Yes, be that sounding board for them. Yes, provide executive or leadership support if and when required. but, for the most part,  get out of the way.

Sadly, many leaders at all levels seem to think they can do the job better than the people who have been brought-in to do those jobs. There is too much micro-management, too many times when someone must check in or ask for permission to make a decision. Too many decisions not being made because they are pushed up the chain to those who don’t have the context behind the “ask” because they are too far removed.

Overall, there is too much management and emphasis put on the manager’s experience of “how things were done”. This is especially true in financial services. I ask anyone reading this blog who works within the sector to consider the following:

how many times have you heard leaders say something has to be done in a specific way because of:

a) The regulator will expect this

b) This is how we did it at x/y/z

The reality is, a) the regulators move faster than financial services leaders in terms of understanding in many cases, and b) the fact it was done at a previous place of employment doesn’t mean it was done correctly, or that it is appropriate in this context.

However, the worst type of leaders are those who introduce others into the process that are there simply provide feedback or to drive a specific agenda. More often than not, leaders put far too much value on program managers and traditional program management techniques which are in total contrast to that of an agile, high functioning team and culture.

How many technology departments still have to report to someone that requests a Gannt chart? (That one request alone shows a lack of understanding of an agile workplace, a lack of desire to acknowledge transparency within the team, and a lack of trust in the team).

Standing back

I often ask people I work with, ’do you have everything you need?”’ I ask this because I have confidence in their ability, I have confidence in their knowledge, their diligence, their experience and them as individuals to do the job as well as they can.

I believe they can do the work better than myself, that they know more about the role than I and therefore they are the ones best place to drive their work to completion. My role is therefore to get them everything they need to build for success.  If they say no, then it’s on me to make sure they have everything they need (if possible), if they say yes, I simply say “fab, keep me in the loop, let me know how things are going and crack on.”

I know how to view devops boards, I know how to check team alignment, I know our product and engineering efforts are aligned, and I know this because I witness true progress.

It can sometimes be hard to stand-back and try not to get overly involved. But if you find you are a person that can’t stand back, then ask yourself: why.

Is it because you don’t believe the person is right for the job? Is it because they don’t have all the right information? Is it because they don’t have the necessary tools and resources at their disposal? Is it because they aren’t aligned? If it’s yes to any of these things, then change them, it’s in your power to do so, and it’s relatively easy. The concern is, if it’s no, then it is more than likely because you want control.

If you are a person that wants control, why do you want it? Are you struggling to understand what is being delivered? Are you struggling with specific tools or communication methods? Are you simply  attached to previous experiences? Are you scared of office politics? Are you trying to portray or raise the appearance of your own value to the team or company? Are you concerned that they can do the job better than you? Are you a person who is simply too much in the weeds? Are you surrounding yourself with people who  simply agree with you? Are you bringing in people you can ‘trust’ over who has the right talent for the role?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these, then you have to self-reflect. You perhaps subconsciously, or worse, consciously are making decisions that stop you from building effective teams. The decisions you are making are actively halting progress and most definitely stopping you from empowering your teams to be highly autonomous. If you remove empowerment and decision making from intelligent, ambitious people you de-motivate them.


The mark of success as a leader is simple. Have you built highly autonomous, high functioning, efficient teams? If the answer is yes, then you are successfully building out a great agile culture; you are the leader teams ultimately want and because your teams are high functioning, your department will benefit and as a result, the entire organisations is in a better place.

These concepts are not just for agile engineering, if you look at any aspect of an organisation, these concepts are no different, even at the executive and board level.

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