What is an Agile Project Manager?

I’ve participated in some discussions recently that indicate that there is still a lot of confusion and controversy about what is an Agile Project Manager is. It’s understandable why this confusion exists:

  • There have been some very strong stereotypes built up over many years of what “project management” is and what a “Project Manager” is.  Those stereotypes are centered around the belief that “project management” is limited entirely to traditional plan-driven project management and project managers are so heavily engrained into that way of thinking that they can’t possibly adapt to an Agile environment.
  • PMI has made a step in the right direction by introducing the PMI-ACP certification.  That certification at least recognizes Agile as a legitimate form of project management but PMI has never really defined exactly what an “Agile Project Manager” is and what role he/she might play in the real world.
  • Many people think of Agile in a very narrow sense as limited to simple, single-team Scrum projects; and, because there is no “Project Manager” role defined at that level, they assume that there is no role for Agile project management at all in an Agile environment; however, there is more to Agile than simple, single-team projects.

In order to better understand what “Agile Project Management” is, we need to get past these stereotypes and develop a broader vision of what “project management” is, what “Agile” is, and what an “Agile Project Manager” is.

First, we need to recognize that the discipline of ”project management” isn’t limited to traditional, plan-driven project management with an emphasis on planning and control just because that’s the way project management has been typically practiced for many years.  There is actually a lot of “project management” going on in an Agile project although it may not look like the traditional, narrow view of what project management is at all:

  • It’s a different style of project management with an emphasis on taking an adaptive approach to maximize the value of the project in an uncertain environment rather than the traditional emphasis on planning and control; however, if you take a broader view of what “project management” is, it is still project management.
  • And, although you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” at a team level in an Agile project, there’s a lot of project management going on – the project management functions that would normally be performed by an individual with the title of “Project Manager” have just been distributed among the other members of the team:
    • The Product Owner has a lot of responsibilities that might be performed by a project manager in a traditional plan-driven project.  He/she is responsible for the overall successful business outcome of the project which means delivering a valuable product in a timely and cost-effective manner and making all decisions that would normally be done by a Project Manager for risk management as well as planning and managing the overall effort.
    • The Scrum Master also has some responsibilities that might be done by a project manager including removing obstacles and facilitating the project team.  It may be a different style of leadership, but it is still leadership.
    • And, finally every member of the development team has some project management functions on a very small scale for planning, scheduling, tracking, and reporting on their own work as well as the work of the team as a whole.

A related stereotype is that many people think that there is a binary and mutually exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” and try to force-fit their projects to one of those extremes when a better approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the project.  And, “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.  There are many projects that call for blending those two approaches in the right proportions to fit a given situation particularly as you get into larger, more complex, enterprise-level projects.

So what is an “Agile Project Manager”?

In my opinion, an Agile Project Manager is equally trained and skilled in applying both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices and knows how to blend them together in the right proportions to fit a given situation.  That is exactly what the training I’ve developed is all about – it is designed to:

  • Help people see “Agile” and traditional plan-driven project management in a fresh new perspective as complementary rather than competitive, and
  • Help project managers better understand what “Agile Project Management” is and what they need to do to prepare for it

So What role might an “Agile Project Manager” play in a real-world project?

I think it’s sad that some project managers see there only alternative in an Agile environment is to become a Scrum Master because the role of an Agile Project Manager is so ill-defined and poorly-understood.  I hope that the Agile Project Management training curriculum I’ve developed can help project managers see this new perspective and lead the rest of the profession into demonstrating successful Agile Project Management leadership. In my training, I’ve identified several potential roles that an Agile Project Manager might play:

  1. Team-level Role – There is officially no role for an “Agile Project Manager” at the team level in an Agile project; however, a project manager who is skilled in blending Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices can play a real value-added role as either a Product Owner, a Scrum Master, or an Agile Coach
  2. Hybrid Agile Role – For lots of reasons, companies choose to implement a hybrid Agile approach and this is an ideal environment for an Agile Project Manager to work in. An example would be an Agile contracting situation.
  3. Enterprise-level Role – As projects grow in scope and complexity to an enterprise level, there is a much more significant need for a dedicated Agile Project Manager role. As an example, I did a case study in my latest book on a project at Harvard Pilgrim that involved over 100 Agile teams – you just can’t do an effort like that without some form of project/program management

My training includes much more detail on this and several real-world case studies illustrating each of these roles.

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