All posts by chuckc3

Is Project Management Obsolete – What Do You Think?

Is project management obsolete?  I don’t think that “project management” is obsolete but I do think that some traditional roles of a “Project Manager” are becoming obsolete in projects that require a more adaptive approach.  I also think that there’s a need to redefine what “project management” is if it is to continue to thrive in the future.  There is a need to:

  • Separate the functions of “project management” from some of the traditional roles that have been played by a “Project Manager”, and
  • For the project management profession to “reinvent” itself and develop a broader view of what “project management” is if it is going to continue to thrive and remain relevant in today’s world.

Is Project Management Obsolete

Examples of Companies and Professions Reinventing Themselves

Any company or profession that doesn’t change and adapt to changes in the world around them runs the risk of becoming stagnant and no longer relevant. Here are a couple of examples:

  • American Express – American Express is a company that has been around for more than 150 years and has had to reinvent itself a number of times over that time. American Express started out in 1850 shipping boxes on railway cars. That business went very well for a while:

    “For years it enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the movement of express shipments (goods, securities, currency, etc.) throughout New York State.” (Wikipedia)

    Can you imagine where American Express would be today if it still defined its business primarily around shipping boxes on railway cars?

    American Express has continued to reinvent itself over-and-over again to remain a vibrant and competitive company.  Here’s another example – At one time not too long ago, American Express had a fairly large area of business associated with providing travel services to companies.  They provided on-site travel agents to help companies plan travel, book travel reservations, and other related services. In recent years, that business has declined as newer internet-based services displaced the need for on-site travel agents.  That’s another significant adjustment that American Express has had to make to adapt to changes in technology and the marketplace.

  • Quality Management – In the early 1990’s I worked in the Quality Management profession with Motorola. Prior to that time, Quality Management was heavily based on a quality control approach that relied on inspectors to inspect products for defects.That process was very reactive and inefficient and companies like Motorola began implementing a much more proactive approach to quality management that was based on eliminating defects at the source rather than finding and fixing them later.  That’s how Six Sigma was created at Motorola at that time.That caused a major transformation in the Quality Management profession.  Instead of being in control of quality through quality control inspectors, Quality Managers had to learn to distribute some responsibility for quality to the people who designed and manufactured the product and play more of a consultative and influencing role.  When I worked for Motorola in the early 1990’s,  my manager used to tell me that:

    “Our job is to teach, coach, and audit – in that order”

    That turned out to be a much more effective approach but it was a gut-wrenching change for many people in the Quality Management profession who were used to being the ones who owned responsibility for quality and were in control of quality.

    I published my first book in 2003 which was called “From Quality to Business Excellence“.  That book was designed to help quality professionals understand this transition and I also gave numerous presentations at that time to ASQ (American Society for Quality) chapters to help them better understand and adapt to the transformation that was taking place.   At that time, there were a lot of people in the local ASQ chapters had difficulty adapting to that change and who were out of work.

How Does This Relate to Project Management?

For many years, the project management profession has been dominated by an approach that emphasized planning and control. A project was deemed to be successful if it delivered well-defined project requirements within an approved budget and schedule. That approach hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s but we live in a different world today. There are two major factors that are creating a need for a different approach in today’s world:

  • Levels of Uncertainty – There is a much higher level of uncertainty because problems and solutions tend to be much more complex.  This is particularly true of large software systems. With a high level of uncertainty; it is difficult, if not impossible, to define a detailed solution to the problem prior to the start of the project.   The example I use in my training is “finding a cure for cancer”.  Can you imagine attempting to develop a detailed project plan for that kind of effort?  There is just too much uncertainty.  Instead of getting bogged down in trying to develop a detailed project plan upfront, it would be much better to get started and use an iterative approach to attempt to converge on a solution as the project is in progress.
  • Increased Emphasis on Innovation – In many areas, competitive pressures require a significant level of innovation in new product development.  In these areas, creativity and innovation are much more important than planning and control.  For example, think of what a company like Apple has to do to develop a new iPhone.  Do you think that they start with a detailed plan based on some well-defined requirements?  I don’t think so.

An Agile project management approach is very well-suited for a project that:

  • Has a high level of uncertainty, or
  • Requires an emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than an emphasis on planning and control.

An Agile approach uses a very different approach to project management.  In an Agile project, you probably won’t find someone at the team level called a “Project Manager” but that doesn’t mean that there is no “project management” going on:

  1. It’s a different kind of project management that is focused on an adaptive approach to project management to optimize the business value the project produces rather than a plan-driven approach to project management that is oriented around simply meeting cost and schedule goals for defined requirements.
  2. The project management functions that might normally be performed by someone called a “Project Manager” have been distributed among the members of the Agile team:
    • Each member of the team is responsible for planning, managing, and reporting on their own tasks and working with other members of the team as necessary to integrate their efforts
    • The Scrum Master plays a facilitation role and is responsible for removing obstacles if necessary
    • The Product Owner plays an overall management role to provide direction and decisions related to the direction of the project and is ultimately responsible to the business sponsor for the overall success or failure of the project from a business perspective

What Needs to be Done to Adapt to This New Environment?

In today’s world:

  • There are many project managers who have been heavily indoctrinated in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management who might attempt to force-fit all projects to that kind of approach
  • There are also many project managers who are used to a project management approach that relies heavily on well-defined document templates and checklists to define how the project is managed

In my book, I use the analogy of a project manager as a “cook” versus a project manager as a “chef”:

  • “A good ‘cook’ may have the ability to create some very good meals, but those dishes may be limited to a repertoire of standard dishes, and his/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals may be primarily based on following some predefined recipes out of a cookbook.”

  • “A ‘chef’, on the other hand, typically has a far greater ability to prepare a much broader range of more sophisticated dishes using much more exotic ingredients in some cases. His/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals is not limited to predefined recipes, and in many cases, a chef will create entirely new and innovative recipes for a given situation. The best chefs are not limited to a single cuisine and are capable of combining dishes from entirely different kinds of cuisine.” (Cobb – The Project Manager’s Guide to Mastering Agile)

I think that analogy captures the challenge for the project management profession very well – In today’s world we need fewer “cooks” and more “chefs”:

  • Project managers need to learn how to blend an Agile (adaptive) approach with a traditional plan-driven approach in the right proportions to fit the nature of the problem.  Force-fitting all projects to a traditional plan-driven project management approach is not likely to be very successful
  • This new environment “raises the bar” considerably for project managers and requires a lot more skill.  It is not a simple matter of filling in the blanks in well-defined project templates and following project checklists based on PMBOK®.

What Has Been Done to Transform the Project Management Profession?

PMI® has begun to recognize the need to deal with this challenge and has made steps in that direction but much more needs to be done:

  1. The PMI-ACP® certification is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion.  It recognizes the need for project managers to have an understanding of Agile and Lean but it is only a test of general Agile and Lean knowledge and doesn’t really address the big challenge that project managers have of figuring out how to blend those approaches with a traditional plan-driven approach to project management.
  2. PMI® still treats Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. PMBOK® version 6 will have some added material on how the various sections of PMBOK® might be applied in an Agile environment but that also doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. The whole idea of PMBOK® is not very compatible with an Agile approach.
    • Agile requires a different way of thinking that is much more adaptive and you shouldn’t need a 500+ page document to give you detailed instructions on how to do Agile.
    • The whole idea of developing a knowledge base associated with Agile and only changing it every five years is difficult to imagine
  3. Much of the training that is available to project managers today on Agile only addresses the basics of Agile and Scrum.  You have to understand the principles behind Agile and Scrum at a much deeper level to understand how to successfully adapt those approaches to different kinds of projects.  You can’t just do Agile and Scrum mechanically.

We need to go beyond these steps and “reinvent” what “project management” is (just as American Express and other companies have had to reinvent the business that they are in).  Here’s how PMBOK® currently defines “project management:

“Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.  Project management is accomplished through the appropriate application and integration of the 47 logically grouped project management processes, which are categorized into five Process Groups.”  (PMBOK® version 5)

There are at least two major problems with that definition:

  1. The phrase  “to meet the project requirements” implies that a project is limited to meeting defined requirements.  In today’s world, a project manager should be capable of taking on a project with broadly-defined objectives, figure out what needs to be done to accomplish those objectives, and also figure out what methodology is best suited for managing that effort
  2. The phrase “application and integration of the 47 logically grouped project management processes” implies that there is a defined process approach for project management rather than an empirical approach that is used in an Agile environment

Summary – Is Project Management Obsolete

Project Management certainly isn’t obsolete but the “handwriting is on the wall” that change is definitely needed for the profession to continue to grow and thrive.  The need for change doesn’t always hit you in the face immediately. Many times it comes about subtly and it may not be that obvious at first but I can certainly see the early signs that a change is needed:

  • I gave a presentation at a PMI chapter in New York city this week and it was an excellent group of people but attendance was much lower than in the past. This presentation drew about 75 people and previous PMI chapter presentations I’ve given in New York City have drawn about 200-300 people.
  • I also met a number of people in that presentation who are out of work and looking for new opportunities

Those are obvious early warning signs to me that a transformation is needed to redefine and rejuvenate the project management profession.  It reminds me a lot of what I saw in the ASQ chapters I presented to about 15 years ago.

I am very passionate about helping the project management profession recognize the need for this transformation and helping project managers to develop the skills to successfully make this adaptation.  That’s the essence of the three books I’ve published on Agile Project Management and of the online Agile Project Management training I’ve developed.

How Do You Improve Team Performance in a Project Environment?

I recently responded to a question about “How do you improve team performance in a project?  It is very common for project managers to over-manage teams and I think that is a mistake.  A team is like a dynamic organism and rather than simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance, a better approach is to understand the dynamics of how a team performs and work on the factors that impact improving performance.  An even better approach is to help the team become self-organizing and take responsibility for improving their own performance.

What is a Self-organizing Team?

Here’s a good definition of a self-organizing team from the Scrum Alliance web site:

“A group of motivated individuals, who work together toward a goal, have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands”

The diagram below shows a comparison of a traditional project team and a self-organizing team:
What is a Self-organizing Team

Does This Mean Abdicating all Responsibilities to the Team?

The principles behind empowered teams can be used in any project. It is just different levels of empowerment.  The diagram below shows a comparison of different levels of empowerment:

How Do You Improve Team Performance

Here’s a description of each of these levels:

  •  The lowest level of empowerment is a “manager-led team”.  In that environment, the only responsibility delegated to the team is for managing the execution of tasks that they are responsible for.
  • At the other extreme is a “self-governing team” where the team takes complete responsibility for their operations including setting their own direction.  It would be unlikely to find that level in a project team but you might find a senior management leadership team that operated that way.
  • The two levels in the center would be more commonly found in a project environment.  A “self-managing team” takes responsibility for monitoring and managing work process and progress.
  • A “self-organizing team” goes beyond that and takes responsibility for designing the team including defining roles within the team and defining the organizational context of how the team operates.

An important point is that “self-organizing” does not mean that a team does not need any direction at all. Self-organizing teams should not be used as an excuse for anarchy.

What Are the Advantages of Empowered Teams?

There are a number of advantages of empowered teams:

  • It more fully utilizes the capabilities of the people on the team
  • It reduces the need for someone to directly manage all aspects of how the team operates
  • It improves team performance because the team takes more responsibility for managing its own performance
  • Team performance is more sustainable because the performance of the team is more self-correcting
  • It encourages creativity and innovation and enables the team to quickly adapt to new problems and challenges

How Do You Improve Team Performance?

Project Managers have a tendency to over-manage the performance of teams because the perception is that is what a Project Manager or Team Leader is supposed to do; however, in many cases, simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance may not be the best thing to do. A more proactive and more sustainable approach is to better understand how the team functions as a dynamic organism and work on the factors that drive performance.

In an Agile environment, if there is a project manager involved at all at the team level, that project manager needs to be more of a coach to help the team improve its own performance. However, there is no reason why the idea of empowered teams is limited to an Agile environment.  The same ideas can be applied in a traditional plan-driven environment; however, it may involve somewhat less empowerment.

  • In a traditional project team, a Project Manager or Team Leader typically provides direction to the team and he/she is the one who is held responsible for the performance of the team and the results that they produce.    In a traditional plan-driven project, some level of control may be needed to manage conformance to the project plan; however, even in that kind of environment, it is essential to delegate some level of responsibility to the members of the team.
  • In an Agile project, there is a much higher level of emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than conformance to a plan.  In that kind of environment, it is very important to fully empower all the members of the team to actively contribute to the solution as much as possible.

This obviously takes some skill to do effectively but it definitely can be done.  I think this is an extremely important area for Agile Project Managers and I have been adding a lot more focus in my Advanced Agile Project Management curriculum to help project managers learn how to deal with these challenges.  Udemy students can find the equivalent information on my Udemy courses here.

What Is Servant Leadership and How Does It Relate to Agile?

“Servant Leadership” is a commonly-used term in an Agile environment but if you asked people what it means, I’m sure you would get a number of different responses. For that reason, I think it is worthwhile to discuss “What Is Servant Leadership and How Does It Work in Agile?”

What Is Servant Leadership?

“Servant leadership” sounds like a manager who does nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the Agile team. Is that what it really is? (I don’t think so)

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970 long before Agile came into being.   Here’s a definition of “servant leadership”:

“Servant leadership is characterized by leaders who put the needs of a group over their own. These leaders foster trust among employees by holding themselves accountable, helping others develop, showing appreciation, sharing power and listening without judging. While serving and leading seem like conflicting activities, these leaders are effective initiators of action.”

A “servant leader” doesn’t necessarily completely abdicate the leadership role and do nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the team.  He/she recognizes the importance of working through others and engaging and empowering others to use as much of their own capabilities as possible.  Here’s an excellent quote on that:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong”

What is Servant Leadership?

What Does it Really Mean to be a Servant Leader?

A major leadership principle that is applicable to any leadership role is that there is no single leadership style that works in all situations. A good leader should be capable of taking an adaptive and situational leadership approach that is appropriate to the people and the environment he/she is trying to lead.

With regard to servant leadership, the way the servant leader role is implemented will be very dependent on the capabilities of the Agile team you are leading and the environment you are part of. The goal should be to maximize the utilization of the capabilities of the entire team but that doesn’t mean a servant leader completely abdicates a leadership role and turns over all responsibility to the team. Determining the most effective servant leadership role requires some judgement:

  • If the team is very strong and very capable, the role of the servant leader may be limited to a facilitation role
  • If that is not the case, a more active leadership role may be needed by the servant leader

Basically, the servant leader needs to “fill the cracks” as much as possible to help the team become fully effective on their own.

Why Is This Important in Agile?

The idea of “servant leadership” is particularly important in an Agile environment because an Agile approach is best suited for projects with a high level of uncertainty.  In that kind of environment, a lot of individual creativity may be needed to find an optimum solution and maximizing the creativity of the team requires that the team be empowered as much as possible.

It is basically a softer leadership style that puts an emphasis on empowering others over a more controlled approach.  It is ideal for a highly uncertain environment that requires an adaptive Agile approach.  Naturally, it probably would not be so ideal for a more plan-driven environment where conformance to a plan is important.

To learn more about “Servant Leadership” and “Agile Leadership” in general, check out my Advanced Agile Project Management course. I’ve just added twelve new lessons on Agile Leadership to the course.

What is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important?

I just finished creating a significant training module on Agile Leadership and one of the key topics in that module is “Emotional Intelligence”.  I’m sure some people are wondering “What is emotional intelligence and why is it important?”  I’d like to summarize some of that here.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

First, here’s a definition of “emotional intelligence”:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills:

  • Emotional awareness;
  • The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and
  • The ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.”

What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important?

Why Is It Important?

Emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills of an effective leader. The reason that emotional intelligence is so important to leadership is that if you can’t control your own emotions; it will be difficult, if not impossible to be an effective leader.

Here’s a quote that sums up the value of emotional intelligence very well:

“We probably also know people who are masters at managing their emotions. They don’t get angry in stressful situations. Instead, they have the ability to look at a problem and calmly find a solution. They’re excellent decision makers, and they know when to trust their intuition.”


“Regardless of their strengths, however, they’re usually willing to look at themselves honestly. They take criticism well, and they know when to use it to improve their performance.”

What Are the Benefits of Emotional Intelligence?

Here are some of the key benefits of developing emotional intelligence:

  • Increased leadership ability because your leadership approach will be based on sound, rational principles rather than being dominated by emotional responses
  • Increased team performance because team members will feel much more comfortable and secure in a non-threatening team environment with no hidden agendas
  • Improved decision-making because decisions are made more objectively and rationally
  • Decreased occupational stress because there will be less emotional tension involved in the work environment
  • Reduced staff turnover because there will be fewer emotional flare-ups
  • Increased personal well-being because learning to accept yourself and gain control of your emotions can lead to a much happier life

How Do You Improve Emotional Intelligence?

The following tips have been reproduced from the Mind Tools web site (

  • Observe how you react to people – “do you rush to judgement before you know all the facts? Do you stereotype? Look honestly at how you think and interact with other people. Try to put yourself in their place, and be more open and accepting of their perspectives and needs.”
  • Look at your work environment – “Do you seek attention for your accomplishments? Humility can be a wonderful quality, and it doesn’t mean that you’re shy or lack self-confidence. When you practice humility, you say that you know what you did, and you can be quietly confident about it. Give others a chance to shine – put the focus on them, and don’t worry too much about getting praise for yourself.”
  • Do a self-evaluation – “What are your weaknesses? Are you willing to accept that you’re not perfect and that you could work on some areas to make yourself a better person? Have the courage to look at yourself honestly – it can change your life.”
  • Examine how you react to stressful situations – “Do you become upset every time there’s a delay or something doesn’t happen the way you want? Do you blame others or become angry at them, even when it’s not their fault? The ability to stay calm and in control in difficult situations is highly valued – in the business world and outside it. Keep your emotions under control when things go wrong.”
  • Take responsibility for your actions – “If you hurt someone’s feelings, apologize directly – don’t ignore what you did or avoid the person. People are usually more willing to forgive and forget if you make an honest attempt to make things right.”
  • Examine how your actions will affect others – “before you take those actions. If your decision will impact others, put yourself in their place. How will they feel if you do this? Would you want that experience? If you must take the action, how can you help others deal with the effects?”

Why Is This Particularly Important to Agile Project Management?

Check out my previous article on Agile Leadership and I think you will understand why effective leadership is extremely difficult and so important in an Agile environment with high performance teams.  Agile is based heavily on transparency and openness and if you can’t be open and transparent about who you are as a person, you will have a difficult time being effective in an Agile environment.

How Can I Learn More to Improve My Skills?

Self-awareness is one of the biggest components of emotional intelligence.  Many people aren’t even aware of who they are as a person and don’t reveal that to others.  They live their lives behind a facade that is based on projecting an image of who they are to others that may not be very genuine and others can employees can see through that easily.

When I was a young manager many years ago, self-awareness training was a standard part of many company’s management training curriculum.  The idea was that, to be an effective leader, its important to be genuine and open with others and you can’t do that without self-awareness.  Unfortunately, over the years, companies have cut back on that kind of training.  It was seen as frivolous and not essential and as pressure has mounted to reduce cost of operations, a lot of that kind of training has been cut.

I can’t really directly help you develop emotional awareness in my online training; however, I’ve added two new sections and twelve additional lessons on Agile Leadership and Emotional Intelligence in my online training that I think will be helpful to you to better understand how to develop an effective leadership strategy.  Check out the enhancements I’ve just completed in my Advanced Agile Project Management course.

What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?

I just finished developing some online training on Agile Leadership and What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership? This article is a brief excerpt of that training.

What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?

They’re are lots of stereotypes and myths in this area – here are a few of them:

  • Project Managers only know how to do a “command-and-control” style of management
  • Agile requires a “servant leadership” approach which means that you completely abdicate the leadership role

Those stereotypes generally follow many of the stereotypes that people have about seeing “Agile” and “Waterfall” as binary and mutually-exclusive choices with nothing in the middle of those extremes.  Instead of force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, the right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem and sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

Fitting the Leadership Style to the Nature of the Problem

You can make some similar observations about leadership style:

  • A good leader doesn’t have one well-defined style of leadership that he/she force-fits all situations to.
  • A good leader recognizes that different styles of leadership are needed in different situations – that’s what “situational leadership” is all about

Another important observation is that the leadership style that is most appropriate in a given situation is directly related to the nature of the project and the problem solving approach.  Here’s how I see the relationship:

What's Really Different About Agile Leadership?The nature of the problem shapes the management objective and

  • The management objective shapes the problem solving approach
  • The problem-solving approach  determines the leadership style that may be most appropriate

Real-world Examples

Here’s how that might work out in different environments:

  1. Traditional Plan-driven Project Environment – Projects that have a relatively low level of uncertainty and require some level of predictability might lend themselves to more of a plan-driven approach to project management.  An important characteristic that differentiates this kind of project is that it is assumed to be possible to define the general solution to the problem with some level of certainty prior to the start of the project.
    • Problem-solving Approach – In that approach, a defined problem-solving approach is what is typically used.  The solution to the problem is generally well-defined in advance and the general approach for implementing the solution is also fairly well-defined.
    • Management Objective – If predictability is important, having a well-defined plan and conformance to that plan are also important.  Naturally, that requires some level of emphasis on control.
    • Leadership Approach – That calls for a style of leadership that naturally might be a bit more directive in order to remain on track with the project plan.  You certainly don’t want members of the project team running loose in all different directions without some kind of plan that integrates all of their efforts together that is consistent with the overall plan.
  2. Agile Project Environment – Projects that have a high level of uncertainty generally lend themselves to a more Agile project management approach where the final definition of the solution is expected to evolve as the project is in progress rather than being well-defined upfront prior to the start of the project.
    • Problem-Solving Approach – This type of project uses a empirical process control approach.  The word “empirical” means “based on observation” which means that both the definition of the solution as well as the process to discover the solution will evolve based on observation throughout the project.
    • Management Objective – Arriving at an effective solution is far more important in this kind of project than predictability.  Therefore, innovation and creativity would generally be emphasized more than control.
    • Leadership Style – This type of project obviously calls for a different leadership style.  If you want to encourage creativity and innovation, you don’t want to emphasize control, you want to empower people and give them some flexibility to use their own intelligence and judgement to explore alternatives as necessary to find the best solution.

Overall Summary

There are a lot of very polarized viewpoints in this area that go something like this:

  • Agile is good and
  • Waterfall is bad

Or alternatively:

  • Command-and-control management is bad and
  • Agile Servant Leadership is good

Those polarized points of view tend to over-simplify what is not quite so simple as drawing a black-and-white comparison between two extremes.  There are lots of “shades of gray” in both the problem-solving approach and the leadership style that is most appropriate for a particular situation.  An effective leader should be able to adjust his/her leadership style and problem-solving approach as necessary to fit any given situation.

  • There is not just one leadership style that fits all situations
  • Leadership styles are not necessarily good or bad – saying a particular leadership style is good or bad is like saying “a car is better than a boat”.  Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment you’re in.
  • Agile leadership is not really a radically different style of leadership that is totally separate and mutually-exclusive with other leadership styles; however, it significantly expands our definition of what “leadership” is.

I’ve developed a significant amount of new content for my Advanced Agile Project Management online training course that goes into this in a lot more depth.

Free Agile Project Management Webinar

Free Agile Project Management Webinar – Traditional, plan-driven project management has not changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s; however, the rapid proliferation of Agile Project Management practices will bring about a transformation that will cause us to re-think what “project management” is in much broader terms.  There are many difficult challenges that must be overcome to make that transformation:

  • Agile and traditional plan-driven project management (what many people loosely call “Waterfall”) are seen as binary and mutually-exclusive choices; and, as a result, many people tend to think they need to force-fit a project to one of those extremes when the right solution is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the project. It can require a lot more skill to do that but it definitely can be done.
  • In the world we live in today, technologies tend to be much more dynamic and rapidly-changing and projects may have very high levels of uncertainty that make it very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully apply a traditional, plan-driven project management approach in many situations that call for a much more adaptive approach.
  • The convergence of these approaches raises the bar for the project management profession and will likely have a significant impact on the careers of many project managers.
  • PMI® has recognized the importance of Agile and has created the PMI-ACP® certification which is a step in the right direction; however, it doesn’t go far enough to address this challenge – it is only a general test of Agile and Lean knowledge; Agile and traditional, plan-driven project management are still treated as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two; and it is left up to the individual project manager to figure out how to blend those two approaches in the right proportions to fit a given situation

This presentation will help you better understand these challenges, the impact it may have on your career as a project manager, and help to begin to develop a broader, high-impact view of what “project management” is that is focused on maximizing business value using whatever blend of methodologies is most appropriate for a given situation.

What is Project Management? Is it Mutually-exclusive with Being Agile?

I recently participated in an online discussion where someone made the statement that “Project Management and Scrum have nothing to do with each other. In fact, they mutually exclude each other.” I want to share my response with you because I think there is an important issue about rethinking “What is Project Management?”

What is Project Management? – A Narrow View

That view of project management is based on a very popular and widely-held stereotype about what “project management” is:

  • “Project management” is something that is only done by a single person called a “Project Manager”
  • There is only one way to do “project management” and that is using a traditional plan-driven methodology (what many people loosely call “Waterfall”)
  • “Project management” is completely incompatible with an Agile approach because an Agile approach must be dynamic and adaptive and project management emphasizes control and is inflexible

That’s a very narrow view of what “project management” is; however, that view is widely-held by a lot of people and the project management community has not done enough to change that perception:

  • PMI still treats Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two
  • Many project managers are heavily indoctrinated in a traditional plan-driven project management approach and see that as the only way to do project management

If you look at the official PMBOK definition of “project management”, it is very consistent with that narrow view of what project management is:

“The application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to the project activities to meet project requirements” – (PMBOK version 5)

That definition implies that “project management” is mainly concerned with planning, organizing, and managing project activities to meet defined requirements. Which is exactly how a traditional plan-driven project works but it is not consistent with how an Agile/Scrum project works.

What is Project Management? – A Broader View

If you look at how an Agile/Scrum project works, there is actually a lot of “project management” going on but many people will not recognize it as “project management” because it doesn’t fit with the traditional stereotype of what “project management” is:

  • In an Agile/Scrum project you may not find anyone at the team level with the title of “Project Manager”
  • The project management functions that would normally be done by a single person called a “Project Manager” are distributed among all the members of the Agile team. For example:
    • Developers – All members of the project team are expected to take responsibility for planning and completing the tasks that they are responsible for to meet commitments that they have made. They are also expected to report progress and coordinate their work with other members of the team as necessary.
    • Scrum Master – The Scrum Master is expected to facilitate team meetings and take action to remove any obstacles if necessary
    • Product Owner – The Product Owner is expected to make any decisions or tradeoffs that might be needed to meet the project goals

    Those are all functions that would normally be performed by a project manager if there was one; they are simply distributed across a number of roles rather than being performed by a single person called a “Project Manager”.

  • It doesn’t use a traditional plan-driven approach to project management – the requirements may not be well-defined at the beginning of the project and it uses a more adaptive approach to further refine the requirements as the project is in progress

Does that mean that there is no “project management” going on?  I don’t think so – it’s just a different kind of “project management” that doesn’t fit the typical narrow stereotype that many people have of what “project management” is.

Here’s what I think a broader definition of “project management might look like:

“Project Management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to accomplish a meaningful objective and maximize the value that the project produces.”

What’s Different?

Here are a couple of key areas of difference that I believe are important:

  • My definition of project management doesn’t say anything about defined requirements.  It is based on a broader idea that a project manager should be able to be given a broadly-defined business objective and figure out what is needed to achieve that objective
  • The goal of a project manager should also be to produce business value, not just meet cost and schedule goals for delivering defined requirements.  There have been many traditional plan-driven projects that have met their cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver business value and they were still considered successful from a project management perspective

Why is this Important?

Many of the traditional notions of what “project management” is have their roots in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the fundamental nature of what “project management” is has not changed significantly since that time. We live in a different world today from what existed in the 1950’s and 1960’s:

  • Technology is rapidly changing
  • Solutions are much more complex
  • There is a much higher level of uncertainty in many projects
  • Time-to-market is extremely critical to keep pace with competition

Attempting to force-fit all projects to a traditional plan-driven model that hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s is probably not going to result in an optimal solution.  You have to fit the project management approach to the nature of the problem and that calls for a broader range of project management approaches not limited to traditional plan-driven project management.

The key message is that you need to fit the project management approach to the nature of the problem rather than force-fitting all projects to a single project management approach.

An Integrated and Dynamic Approach to Project Management

I think of this as an “integrated and dynamic” approach to project management:

  • It’s integrated because project management is fully integrated into the way the team works rather than being done by a single person called a “Project Manager”
  • It’s dynamic because the nature of the project management approach isn’t limited to a traditional plan-driven approach to project management.  It is expected that the project management approach will be adapted to fit the nature of the situation

I think you can see that if your objective is control, a traditional plan-driven approach to project management of putting one person called a project manager in control of a project might be a good approach; however, an emphasis on control can be inflexible and doesn’t work well in an uncertain environment that requires a more adaptive approach. We need to adapt the approach to fit the nature of the project and the level of uncertainty in the project is a major factor in choosing the right approach.

Transforming the Project Management Profession

Dealing with this challenge really requires a major transformation of the project management profession, in my opinion.

What is Project Management?

Here are some fundamental things that need to be done:

  1. We need to think of “project management” in broader terms than thinking that traditional plan-driven project management is the only way to do project management
  2. Project managers need to be trained in how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit any given situation
  3. We need to recognize that “project management” is a function, not a title, and the function of “project management” is not always exclusively performed by someone called a “Project Manager”

I’ve Been Here Before

There is a feeling of deja vu about this to me.  I’ve been here before.  In the early 1990’s, I worked in the Quality Management profession at Motorola.  Motorola was a leader at that time in developing a new approach to quality management.  The old approach to “quality management” was something like this:

  • There was a heavy emphasis on control.  Someone called a “Quality Manager” had responsibility for controlling the quality of the products being built.
  • The quality management approach relied heavily on  inspectors who enforced standards of quality through inspection of products before they shipped

The flaws in that approach should be obvious:

  • Relying heavily on inspection to find defects can result in a significant amount of rejects and rework – a far better approach is to go upstream in the process, remove the source of defects, and make the process that produces the products inherently reliable
  • Putting responsibility for quality in the hands of a single person or organization makes the employees who are responsible for producing the product feel that “quality is someone else’s responsibility”.  A far better approach is to engage everyone in the quality management functions so that everyone involved in producing a product feels that they are directly responsible for the quality of the products they produce

A similar thing could be said about project management today – putting all project management responsibility in the hands of someone called a “Project Manager” makes the workers feel like “project management” is someone else’s responsibility.  A far better approach in a complex and uncertain environment is to engage everyone in “project management” so that it is a shared responsibility among everyone on the team to make the project successful.

What are the Most Practical Ways to Do Project Planning?

I recently participated in an online discussion in response to a question that was asked on “What are the most practical ways to do project planning?” It’s a critical issue and it comes up a lot so I thought I would share some thoughts on this subject.

Factors to Consider

In my opinion, there are two very significant factors in determining what planning approach would make the most sense for a particular project:

  1. Uncertainty – The level of uncertainty in the project is probably the most important factor.  If there is a high level of uncertainty that cannot easily be resolved, it would probably be foolish to try to develop a highly-detailed, plan-driven approach.  An example would be attempting to find a cure for cancer.  It would probably be foolish to try to develop a detailed plan for that effort, there’s just way too much uncertainty.That doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t do any planning at all.  You would take stock of what you know and don’t know and try to develop at least a cursory plan based on that information and then continually revise the plan based on what you learn as the project is in progress.
  2. Customer Relationship – The second major factor is the relationship with the customer.   If you have a contractual relationship with the customer where the customer is expecting a firm set of deliverables for a given schedule and cost, you might be forced into a planning model to try to effectively manage and satisfy those customer expectations.  If there is more of a collaborative relationship with the customer, you probably have a lot more ability to optimize the approach based on the level of uncertainty in the project.

Planning Quadrants

Obviously, there may be a conflict between these two factors.  I’ve created a diagram below to show some of the possible combinations of these two factors:

What are the most practical ways to do project planning?

Lets look at each of these quadrants individually:

  1. Low Uncertainty, Contractual Relationship – This is the area that most project managers are most familiar with and it is the area that is most well-suited for a traditional plan-driven project management model.  In this area, the level of uncertainty may be low enough to permit developing a detailed plan that is consistent with managing customer expectations in a contractual relationship model.
  2. Low Uncertainty, Collaborative Relationship – If the level of uncertainty associated with a project is low, you might develop a more collaborative relationship with the customer but that might not be the most efficient way to do the project.  If the level of uncertainty is truly low and it is relatively easy to define the project requirements upfront, it may not make too much sense to engage the customer too heavily in a collaborative relationship to further define detailed direction for the project as it is in progress.
  3. High Uncertainty, Collaborative Relationship – This is the area where an Agile approach makes sense but the success of that effort will generally depend on a collaborative relationship with the customer to make it work.  In this area, instead of trying to develop a highly-detailed upfront plan prior to starting the project, you would probably:
    • Reach agreement with the customer on at least a vision for the project and at least some higher level objectives and requirements that the project must meet, and
    • Then further elaborate those requirements and the plan for meeting them as the project was in progress

    It’s easy to see how this kind of planning model may not work well unless there’s a collaborative spirit of trust and partnership with the customer since:

    • It may be almost impossible to accurately define the costs and schedule for completing the project prior to starting the effort; and
    • Further defining the plan as the project is in progress requires a close working relationship with the customer.
  4. High Uncertainty, Contractual Relationship – This area is the quadrant that is likely to be most problematic:
    • Attempting to do an Agile project with highly uncertain requirements without a collaborative relationship with the customer is not likely to work very well:
      • The customer may not be committed to actively engage in the project as it is in progress to help elaborate and resolve questions related to the requirements; and,
      • As a result, the project may either get stalled or go off in the wrong direction
    • Attempting to apply a contractual, plan-driven approach in this kind of environment is also likely to be problematic. There would likely be a very high risk associated with trying to develop a firm, plan-driven contractual relationship based on highly uncertain requirements. What is likely to happen is:
      • The project meets the defined requirements but the defined requirements were wrong, or
      • There are so many changes as the project is in progress that the scope of the project winds up being completely different from what the customer was expecting

    It’s easy to see how either of these scenarios might present a very high risk.

Of course, this is somewhat of an over-simplification and all projects don’t fall very neatly into one of these quadrants.  There is a very broad range of scenarios in the middle of this diagram that call for some kind of hybrid approach.

What are the Most Practical Ways to Do Project Planning?

There are a number of conclusions that I think we can draw from an from understanding of this model:

  1. There is not just one way to do project planning – Project Managers who have been heavily indoctrinated in a traditional, plan-driven model and attempt to force-fit all projects to that kind of planning model are likely to not have optimal results
  2. This is not a simple binary and mutually-exclusive choice between an Agile and traditional plan-driven planning model; it is much more complicated than that.  There’s a whole spectrum of different possible scenarios and it is a multi-dimensional problem
  3. The right approach is to fit the planning model to the nature of the problem based on the level of uncertainty and the relationship with the customer.  Attempting to use a single “one size fits all” planning model for all projects is not likely to work very well.

This creates a big challenge for project managers to learn how to blend an Agile and traditional plan-driven approach in the right proportions to fit a given situation.  And, that’s not an easy thing to do – PMI still treats these two areas as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two.  This is exactly the challenge that my Agile Project Management training is designed to address.

Is Agile and Scrum Anti-Engineering?

I recently participated in an online discussion on the topic of “Is Agile and Scrum Anti-Engineering?”.  This question seems to be based on a number of popular stereotypes that people have about “Agile” and engineering design practices.  For example, a popular stereotype is that an Agile project consists of just a bunch of “cowboy software developers” who get together and start writing code without any plan and discipline about how it is done.

Is Agile and Scrum Anti-engineering?

If you have that view, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Agile is not a very sound approach to engineering at all because it doesn’t necessarily follow a well-planned and systematic engineering design approach but it would be a mistake to draw that conclusion.  If it is well-executed, an Agile approach requires a considerable amount of discipline and skill and it’s not “anti-engineering” – it is just a different kind of engineering.

Importance of a Systematic Engineering Design Approach

Let’s step back and look at when and where a well-planned,  systematic engineering design approach really makes the most sense.  That kind of approach is most important for problems that have a high level of technical complexity and the aim is to find an optimum solution as quickly and efficiently as possible:

“A systematic engineering design process model aims at making it easier to find an optimal design for a product-to-be. To that end it is necessary to encompass the broadest range of solutions, that is, to search for solutions in a structured, systematic way. The breadth-first top-down strategy is adopted,  which means first finding the largest possible number of abstract solutions (breadth-first) and then more concrete ones (top-down)”

A good example of that might be a very data-intensive application that might start with a high-level, conceptual design phase, proceed to a logical design phase, and then finally wind up with a detailed physical design of the solution.  To do that efficiently, you will want to stabilize the requirements as early as possible because each phase cascades into the next.  You don’t want to get all the way into the detailed physical design and discover some of the critical assumptions made in the previous phases were wrong because it could require a significant amount of rework of the whole design.

However, there are many people who believe that a well-planned and systematic approach to engineering is the only way to do engineering.  Here’s an example:

“The design of complex, complicated or a family of products is usually beyond the intuitive skills alone of a designer or design team. Gerhard Pahl and Wolfgang Beitz [1] have set out a strategy for the development of solutions which aims to increase the probability of technical and economic success of product design. This is done by creating a dependable approach which allows careful planning and systematic execution so that the whole design task reduces to a logical and comprehensible exercise and also allows recovery from inevitable errors. It also allocates a time schedule for the design stages which in turn leads to a predictable project timetable. Systematic design is general enough to be applied in any branch of engineering.”

When Does a Systematic Engineering Design Model Make Sense?

That well-planned, systematic approach to engineering design has been the predominant approach to engineering design for a long time. It has proven to be a reliable and efficient process for converging on a design solution where the requirements are relatively well-defined and the technology is also relatively stable as shown in the Stacey complexity model below:

The primary question that the design team must answer in this environment is:

“Is this solution the most optimum design solution to the requirements for this problem?”

It is primarily a pure engineering design decision.

Why Doesn’t That Approach Work in Many Areas Today?

The major problem with that approach is that we live in a much more complex world with much higher levels of uncertainty today.  In terms of the Stacey complexity model, both the requirements and the technology associated with the solution might be much more uncertain.  In that kind of environment,

  • It is no longer a simple question of “Is this solution the most optimum solution to the requirements for this problem?” and
  • Its no longer limited to relatively straightforward engineering design decisions because the requirements themselves might be wrong and the assumptions about the technology might also be wrong

In an uncertain environment, the approach needs to be much more adaptive and involve some amount of “discovery” to determine what the requirements for the solution should be.  The approach should not be limited to just implementation of a predefined  solution.  There is also typically a lot of tradeoffs between the requirements for the solution and the technical implementation that optimizes both.   Converging on a solution to those requirements without considering those tradeoffs might not yield an optimal solution.

When that kind of situation has arisen in the past, a typical approach has been to do some amount of upfront prototyping to try to converge on the requirements of a solution before actually starting on the full-scale design and development effort.  That approach works in some cases but it isn’t the most efficient or the most effective approach if there is a large amount of uncertainty in the requirements.  If there is a large amount of uncertainty in the requirements, it may take multiple iterations to converge on the requirements for the design; and, for larger and more complex projects, there may be a number of different areas of uncertainty that need to be resolved.

That’s why an Agile approach can make a lot of sense for projects with a high level of uncertainty.  It’s not really “anti-Engineering”:

  • It’s a different kind of engineering approach that is different from a typical, well-planned, systematic engineering design approach,
  • It is much more appropriate for areas that have high levels of uncertainty

It’s important to recognize that Agile is not “cowboy engineering” – if it is done correctly it requires a lot of discipline and skill.

What Does This Mean For Project Management?

Project Management is not just an administrative task – project management needs to be designed around the most sensible engineering design approach for a given problem. Traditionally, the project management approach has been heavily-based on well-accepted engineering design practices that emphasize a well-planned, systematic engineering approach. As we rethink the way that engineering is done, we also need to develop new project management models that are also better aligned with higher levels of uncertainty.

Summary of Key Points

Here’s a summary of some key points from this article:

  • There  is an intimate relationship between project management processes and engineering design processes.
  • Many people have forgotten about that relationship and think of  project management as primarily an administrative management function to manage the execution of what many people loosely call “Waterfall”.
  • Project management is more than just an administrative function – it should be geared to effectively manage an underlying engineering design process.  And, that underlying engineering design process should be geared to the nature of the problem.
  • The underlying engineering design approach that has been assumed to be well-established for so many years can no longer be taken for granted as the only way to do engineering design.  It does not provide a sufficient level of flexibility and adaptivity for a highly uncertain environment.
  • Project management must adapt as well – it is no longer viable to force-fit all projects to a project management that is based on an underlying engineering design approach that has serious weaknesses in an uncertain environment.

The challenge for project managers is learning how to blend an iterative and adaptive Agile approach with a more traditional plan-driven approach in the right proportions to fit the nature of the project and one of the biggest factors in choosing the right approach is the level of uncertainty in the project.


How Do You Use Agile for Business Processes?

I was recently asked: “How do you use Agile for business processes?” Here’s my response:

Many people confuse Agile with Scrum and when they say “Agile”, they really mean “Scrum”. Scrum is not a solution to every problem but you can apply general Agile principles and Agile thinking to almost anything. It’s mostly just a shift in thinking rather than attempting to follow a well-defined Agile methodology like Scrum.  For example, I have written several books on Agile Project Management and I used a somewhat Agile process to publish the books:

  • I started out with a vision of what I wanted to do with the book and further elaborated it as I went along rather than having a highly detailed outline of exactly what the book would look like to start with
  • I engaged a group of people over the Internet to provide feedback and inputs. These people represented potential customers of the book as well as subject matter experts
  • I took an adaptive approach to adapt the design of the book based on the feedback I received
  • I used an incremental development approach. As I wrote each chapter or section of the book, I put it out for feedback and inputs and made adjustments as necessary based on that feedback and inputs

You can use that kind of thinking process on almost anything without necessarily following all the rituals of Scrum.

A lot of people also want to try to use Agile for business process improvement and that’s not necessary. There are lots of ways to improve business processes that are totally independent of Agile. For example, Agile is based on the ideas of continuous improvement that have their roots in Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean, Six Sigma, and other approaches that go back long before Agile. It isn’t essential to fully adopt Agile if what you really want is business process improvement.

Many people seem to want to jump on the Agile bandwagon because it is the latest and hottest buzzword to adopt but it isn’t necessarily a solution to any problem you might have.