Is Agile Just a Development Process? Are Project Managers in Denial?

Is Agile just a development process?  There seem to be a lot of project managers who are in “denial” about the influence of Agile on the project management profession.  They continue to think that there is only one way to do project management and that is the traditional plan-driven approach that hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Is Agile Just a Development Process?

Is Agile Just a Development Process?

One rationalization I hear often is that some project managers will claim that Agile is not really a project management process it’s just a development process.  That’s fairly narrow thinking about what “project management” is that goes back to the days when the project management process could be separated from the development process.  In those days:

  • A project manager might have been somewhat of a high-level administrator who planned and managed projects and may or may not have had any direct role in managing the development effort needed to fulfill the project requirements.
  • He/she might have been a “middle-man” between the business customer and the development team.  He/she might have worked with the business customer to define and document the requirements and then worked with the development organization to negotiate resource commitments as well as the cost and schedule for completing the effort.

In many cases, the project manager might have had little or no direct role in managing the development team – that level of management might have been done through a functional development manager.  And, in some cases, the project manager simply held the development organization responsible for fulfilling the commitments that they had made and monitored their overall progress in fulfilling those commitments.

What’s Wrong With That Picture?

There are several limitations inherent in that style of project management.  The traditional plan-driven approach to project management  is optimized around achieving predictability by emphasizing planning and control.  For many years, a project was deemed to be successful if it met its cost and schedule goals for a given set of defined requirements.   That is how “success” has been defined for a long time.   In today’s world:

  • Levels of Uncertainty – There’s a much higher level of uncertainty in the world which makes a traditional plan-driven approach to project management very difficult to implement.  It’s just not very adaptive to uncertain and rapidly-changing requirements.  It typically forces you to make a lot of assumptions to try to resolve the uncertainty; and, many times, those assumptions will be wrong.
  • Creativity and Innovation – Competitive pressures create a significant need for creativity and innovation.  An overemphasis on planning and control is not very consistent with an environment that is needed for optimizing creativity and innovation.  Breaking down a lot of overhead and creating empowered, self-organizing teams that are in direct contact with the business users  creates an environment that is much better suited for creativity and innovation.
  • Need for Efficiency – Efficiency is also very important.  There is a lot of overhead in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management and there is not much emphasis on efficiency.  As long as the project was completed on time and under budget, no one typically looked very hard to see if there might have been a more efficient way of accomplishing that result.

Where Does that Leave the Project Manager?

All of that can be very threatening to many project managers because it might easily put them out of a job.  In fact, there is typically no role for a project manager at the team level in an Agile project.

I personally believe that there continues to be a role for project managers but it may be a very different kind of role and it requires rethinking what “project management” is and developing some new skills.  Project Managers who continue to insist that traditional plan-driven project management is the only way to do project management and who attempt to force-fit all projects to that approach will have a difficult time in the not-too-distant future.

I am sincerely interested in helping people in the project management profession better understand this challenge and to develop a strategy for reinvigorating their careers.  To that end, I have developed a very short training course that is called “What Is the Future of Agile Project Management?”  This course is eligible for one PDU and I am offering it to any project manager who wants to take it for a token amount of only $5:

What Is the Future of Agile Project Management?

This course should help you develop a new, broader, and more modern vision of what a project manager int he future might look like and help you answer the question: “Is Agile Just a Development Process?”.