Are There Project Managers in Agile?

I recently responded to a question “Are there project managers in Agile?” It’s a good question and it comes up often so I thought I would share the answer here in my blog. There’s actually a lot of “project management” going on in an Agile project, but it’s a different kind of “project management” and you may not find anyone at the team level in an Agile project with the title of “Project Manager”.

Are there project managers in Agile?

What is “Project Management”?

Here’s a definition of “project management” that I copied from a Quora discussion forum I participate in:

“Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives within the time, cost, scope and other relevant constraints”

That’s a fairly well-established definition of what “project management” is that hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s at least.  In fact, it is so well-established that many people see that as the only way to do project management and don’t even recognize Agile as a form of project management at all.

What’s wrong with that definition?

There have been many projects that have met their cost and schedule goals for delivering well-defined requirements yet failed to deliver a sufficient level of business value to offset the costs of the project.  That happens frequently in situations where there is a high level of uncertainty and risk associated with attempting to totally define the project requirements in detail prior to the start of the project. When you attempt to force-fit all projects to a traditional, plan-driven project management approach, you’re openly inviting failure if there is a high level of uncertainty in the project.

What Does a Broader Vision of “Project Management” Look Like?

What’s needed is to adopt a broader view of “project management” that is focused on producing value  and not simply meeting cost and schedule goals for well-defined requirements.  (Meeting cost and schedule constraints may be one component of value that the project produces but not the only component) That’s the challenge for project managers of the future. Project Managers of the future need to be able to take on a project with fairly broadly-defined objectives in a dynamic and uncertain environment and develop a solution to meet those objectives using whatever blend of traditional plan-driven project management and Agile principles and practices makes sense for that situation.

I recognize that is an ambitious vision and it will be difficult to achieve for many project managers to achieve but I think the survival of the project management profession depends on it. In the not-too-distant future, project managers who only know how to manage projects using a traditional, plan-driven approach to project management will become dinosaurs in many industry and application areas, in my opinion.

What is Needed to Get There?

PMI is moving slowly in that direction. The creation of the PMI-ACP certification at least recognizes Agile is important for project managers to understand but it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion – 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 completely up to the individual project manager to figure out how to put the two approaches together.

That is exactly the goal I have established for the online Agile Project Management training curriculum I’ve developed – to help project managers see these two approaches in a fresh new perspective as complementary to each other rather than competitive and to learn how to blend Agile and traditional, plan-driven project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit any situation.

What Else is Different in an Agile Environment?

Another thing that is significantly different in an Agile environment is that the functions that might normally be performed by a single individual with the title of “Project Manager” are typically distributed among the members of the team at the team level rather than being done by one designated individual. For that reason, you typically will not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” at the team level in an Agile environment.

Distributing the project management functions among everyone on the team has a lot of advantages in a dynamic and fast paced environment. Having a single “Project Manager” as a single point of focus for project management is appropriate in a traditional, plan-driven project where the emphasis is on control, but it is less than optimal in an Agile environment where there is less emphasis on control and more emphasis on flexibility and adaptivity and a single point of control can easily become a bottleneck.

What’s Left for a Project Manager to Do in Agile?

If there is no formal role for a “Project manager” at the team level in an Agile environment, the logical question is “what’s left for a project manager to do?”. There are a number of possibilities but you might not recognize any of them as a traditional project management role and all of them go beyond the skills of a traditional, plan-driven project manager.

  • At the team level, although you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager”, there is a need for “project management” and many of the team members may not be well-prepared to take on those functions.  In that environment, an experienced Agile Project Manager can help coach the other members of the team in how to integrate the necessary focus on project management with their work in an Agile environment. That can be done either by an Agile Coach who also has project management skills to coach and mentor the team members or by integrating someone who has project management skills with one of the other team roles such as the Scrum Master or Product Owner.
  • For various reasons, many companies will choose to implement a hybrid approach that blends an Agile and traditional project management approach.  An example would be Agile contracts.  There is a big opportunity for Agile Project Managers in this environment
  • Finally, at a higher level, there are a number of opportunities for project managers to take on larger and more complex projects and programs with multiple teams and to help companies develop a strategy for integrating Agile and traditional project management principles and practices in the right proportions with their business environment

For more on this, I suggest taking my free online training course called “How to Prepare for PMI-ACP Certification”. There is some material in that course on the potential roles that a project manager might play in an Agile environment.