Project Practitioners > The Project Manager and Agile

The Project Manager and Agile

By Brian Irwin

As more organizations transition from traditional waterfall to agile methodologies, confusion often abounds around the role of project manager.  What happens to the project manager and the project management role during an agile transformation?  Like most questions in life, the correct answer is—it depends, and is very contextual.  Initially, there may be very little, if any, change in the project manager role.  Project managers will largely find themselves doing a lot of the same work they always have.  However, this is a very low maturity level indicator.  If the expectations of traditional project management aren’t updated and managed to align with agile principles, adoption and transformation can significantly slow or come to a screeching halt. 

Agile does not identify a project manager role; and the title agile project manager is an oxymoron.  That does not mean the project is not managed.  Rather, the duties of the traditional project manager are dispersed among the methodology roles outlined.  For example, scrum outlines three roles—product owner, scrum master, and team member.  Each of these roles will assume some level of project management responsibility.  In this post I’ll outline six distinct scenarios for the project manager and project management role in agile, scrum specifically.

SCENARIO 1:  Make No Change to the Project Management Role
HALT!  The first option is not a real option if your organization is serious about transforming.  Failing to change the role will not offer teams the self-organization empowerment they need to be successful and deliver value consistently.  Your transformation is in danger if this is the case.

SCENARIO 2:  Transition to the Product Owner Role
The role of traditional project manager is challenging and comes with a number of high expectations and assumed influence, albeit often without any formal positional authority.  Project managers, in the traditional sense, are viewed as being the individual responsible for “driving” the project.  Because of this expectation it’s often the case that project managers possess an authoritative Type-A personality

If you enjoy being in front and driving the value delivery, the product owner role may be the best fit for you.  The product owner role carries a lot of responsibility.  The product owner is responsible for the business trade-offs of the project, owns the relative ranking of feature value delivery, and represents project stakeholders to the team.  This means the product owner is a great communicator with a lot of relationship management and business ownership.  Do not transition to a product owner role if you do not enjoy these activities. 

SCENARIO 3:  Transition to the Scrum Master Role
What really sets great project managers apart from good project managers is the ability to relate to teams and individuals.  If you enjoy people, relationships, and coaching others then scrum master is the role for you.  The scrum master is the individual responsible for ensuring agile principles are understood and practiced.  This includes coaching the team, the product owner, and the entire organization on the proper use and implementation of agile principles and practices.  The scrum master serves in a servant leader capacity for the team. 

An additional responsibility is ownership of removing and escalating progress impediments the team is unable to manage themselves.  In this sense, the “bulldog” aspect of project management becomes an asset to the scrum master.  Be bull-ish on the impediments, not on the team.  If you have a hard time “letting go” of project responsibility it may be difficult for you to be an effective scrum master.  After all, the team has little space to take responsibility and ownership if you’re taking it. 

SCENARIO 4:  Transition to Team Member
Some individuals are now project managers because that was the most apparent next step available to them in their career advancement.  Many ascended because they wanted a management role but didn’t necessarily want direct people management responsibility.  In these instances, they may have taken the role of project manager.  I know several people who have excelled in this role through this route, particularly if they were a subject matter expert of the project.  Can anyone say “halo effect”? 

Unfortunately, I’ve known many more who did not excel through entering the profession this way and still value their past role much more than that of the project manager—and their projects highlighted that fact.  In some cases the transition to agile provides the path they need to assume their old role and begin contributing at their previous level once again. 

SCENARIO 5:  Maintain the Project Management Role
I hear it all the time and have read it on countless blog posts and articles—there is no project manager in scrum and to have one is to do agile incorrectly.  In my view, this is dogma.  However, I will agree that the project management role as we may have once thought of it must fundamentally change.  To keep the project management role while simultaneously enabling agile behavior requires teams and product owners to take on the execution and business responsibility, respectively, for each project.  In a very large-scale adoption project management is transitioned to a coordination and communication function.  In this sense the new role will be primarily logistical and administrative in nature; simultaneously coordinating dependencies and deliverables among many teams and across several initiatives. 

There are, however, other possibilities for the role in this scenario.  In many cases, the individuals transitioning into the product owner and scrum master roles may not yet have the skill set well developed to perform their duties well.  Over the years, project managers have taken on both the business and execution responsibilities leaving those who are now responsible for these functions with a skill deficiency.  The project manager can help others grow into the new roles in these cases. 

SCENARIO 6:  Eliminate the Project Management Role
Eliminating the project management role does not mean eliminating the project manager.  Transition the existing project managers into one of the formal scrum roles (product owner, scrum master, or team member).  For most organizations this will not even be a consideration.  The project management role is so engrained in our organizations that it will not be assimilated, especially in the first months or even years of transformation.  As such, few organizations pursue this option unless they’re either very small organizations or very mature in their agile adoption. 

Regardless of the scenario, rest assured there is still a place for you in the new model, one that may make better use of your talents.  Personally, I never want to go back to the traditional world of plan and phase-driven project management of my past.  I’m simply having too much fun implementing agile and coaching teams to even consider going back.

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