Agile Project Management, Yes! Agile Project Manager, No!

Project Practitioners > Agile Project Management, Yes! Agile Project Manager, No!
By Brian Irwin

There are two primary camps in the agile community concerning the role of project managers.  One camp, the agile purist, contends there is no project manager in agile; while the other, whom we’ll refer to for purposes of this discussion as the traditionalist, argues that there is absolutely a place in agile for the project manager.  My colleague and fellow blogger Kent McDonald explored the topic in two blog posts (1, 2)  and I also contributed an earlier post on the topic.  First, to ensure we’re all on the same page I will give an overview of the argument from each perspective—traditionalist and purist.  Then I’d like to close with an actual scenario that I recently experienced that generated much thought and reflection.  Because scrum is by far the most implemented agile methodology, I’ll be referring to scrum roles for the remainder of the discussion.


Traditionalist

There is absolutely a role for the project manager in agile.  While there is now a scrum master, product owner, and team, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure all inter-departmental dependencies are discovered, coordinated, and tracked.  If there is not one specific role to do this then the probability of project failure greatly increases; further, there will always be resource issues (the term “resources” troubles me—here’s why) that someone needs to be accountable for managing.  Who’s going to make sure the schedule is updated and communicated if the project manager role is eliminated?  Having a project manager is the rational and pragmatic thing to do.


Purist

There is no such thing as an agile project manager.  The collective team including product owner, scrum master, and development team are responsible for managing and delivering the project’s value.  The team is fully capable of performing every function the project manager did in waterfall, primarily because it is now cross-functional requiring much less coordination between project phases due to reduced handoffs.  Having the additional role of project manager adds confusion and increases the probability of external team management of the project work.


The Story

I believe the truth is somewhere in between the two viewpoints; however, I now firmly believe we should be pushing much more aggressively toward the purist perspective than I perceive we have been, particularly on non-deterministic projects requiring creativity and characterized by much uncertainty.  Last week while on a conference call with a group of project managers one of my colleagues made the statement, when discussing several projects and their delivery that, “We should pay attention to this because, after all, we own these projects.” 

I approached my colleague after the meeting and challenged him, asking whether he’d just reverted back to waterfall because we no longer formally own the projects and their delivery.  His response chilled me to the bone, “Ultimately I am judged by the projects I am associated with so I can chose to be a driver or a passenger, and I prefer to drive no matter the methods.” Thinking about his answer, I responded, “If we drive as project managers, we erode self-managing agile teams.”  He said, “We can back off when we truly have self-managed teams but that cultural shift takes time to affect.  The project manager has to view this as their project.”  


Cause and Effect

I do not fully blame my colleague for holding this perspective.  The reason he is choosing to drive is out of necessity—that’s the disturbing root issue.  In his words, he’s ultimately being judged by the projects with which he’s associated.  This implies that management is still reviewing his performance based on the project’s deliver.  Therefore, if you’re performance review and pay are determined by project success your natural inclination will be to grab on and make things happen through command-and-control instead of by using servant leadership.

The danger in maintaining the role of project manager is the perception that someone (an individual) is managing the project.  If we truly want teams to embrace the self-management and self-organization that agile requires then we, as project managers, middle managers, and executive managers must let go of managing and organizing for them.  We must allow them to grab the reins; but, doing so implies that we simultaneously let go of the reins.  Ultimately, my experience tells me that maintaining the project manager role greatly extends the amount of time it takes to adopt good agile practices.


Issuing a Challenge

We live in a very exciting time as we are literally witnessing the transition from the knowledge era to the creative era; not unlike the transition from the agricultural era to the industrial era of the early 20th century.  Modern management practice was born out of necessity during the transition to the industrial era.  But it has failed to keep pace with the nature of work and the technology that supports it.  Therefore, long-held beliefs are vigorously defended out of ignorance of new ways of practicing our craft.  “Plan the work and work the plan” and “success means delivering within scope, schedule, and cost” are two of the beliefs that come to mind.  These beliefs are dogmatic and destructive ideologies to the 21st century worker and workplace, and I’m ashamed to admit that I once held them as matter-of-fact certainty. 

 

The Gallup organization’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report states that 7 out of 10 American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work.  To be clear, this means they’re walking around trying to figure out how to avoid doing their jobs.  Have you ever felt that way, perpetually?  I contend that we are holding onto ideologies that are actively driving this disengagement.  Leaders should step up and be progressive.  This will not be solved without a management revolution.  And when I say leaders, I mean all of us!  We can all be leaders regardless of where we reside in the organization. 

In agile environments, it may be more appropriate to change the role title to project administrator or project coordinator to avoid the confusion of any one person being responsible for managing (often misunderstood and made a synonym to “controlling”) a project.  However, these terms also carry baggage and imply that project teams will not have to coordinate themselves.  My challenge is that we radically rethink our organizations and focus on project management, not on project managers.



Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thanks, Brian, for illustrating the two different viewpoints so clearly. The role of the project manager in an Agile environment is a topic that I hear about often.

Here's how I think about it, from a Scrum perspective: If we consider Scrum a framework for inspecting and adapting our work process (rather than as a replacement for our work process), and if our current work process includes a project manager, then that manager definitely has a place, at least in the beginning.

As the project proceeds, and we use Scrum to inspect and adapt, it could be that we discover the project manager role is no longer necessary, or that the responsibilities associated with the role need to change as we discover more information.

In other words, we can start from where we are, then inspect and adapt our way to a more effective way to work.

(And I personally like the idea of changing the name to "project coordinator.")

--Steve


Great article!


Hey Brian,

Nice write up and I want to second Steve's thoughts that through inspect and adapt we should see a change in how the Project Manager role functions or changes or goes away.

I found the point about the way organizations hold teams and in particular individuals accountable is what has to change. One person cannot control the the project and the assumption that one person and not "we" are measured on the success of projects and or deliveries is troubling. Not to mention the primary measure of success is often on-time/on-budget.

That all being said there are some large organizations where I've seen them move down the path of Project Coordinators and Program Managers. I've also seen some organizations do a great job of creating a multi-team (30+ teams) leverage pure agile ideas of collaboration, cross-cutting team coordination, alignment boards, shared issues, and collective delivery ownership. It can happen and I agree, we sometimes just need to quit using the "their not ready for it" as a crutch and move on.

Thanks for the post.

Later,
Matt
agilebacon.com


The shift from knowledge to creative is not an easy shift and yes management will need to seriously rethink the mantra that's been in place until now. Totally agree that we shift the focus away from the project manager and back to the management of the project but even then command and control will still linger, people being people.

The issue has been that for so long we have been hard wired to respond in this way because that's just how we've been thought. It will take a concerted effort on all our part to "unlearn" the failings of the industrial and modern age if we are to progress - to become creative and innovative far beyond what we know we can do today.

We have to bravely challenge entrenched "truths" and fundamentals that we hold close as our security blankets and we should feel it is our right to do so and that we don't need management permission (another command and control function) to do so.

I'll go a stage further and say organisational structure and development as we now understand will not be capable of supporting the endeavours of a truly openly collaborative, self-managing, creative and innovative environment. This is because people are by nature selfish and this selfishness will make command and control difficult to relinquish.


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