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What Is the Future of Project Management? What is the Impact of Agile?

Background

PMBOK version 6 and the new PMI Agile Practice Guide signal a new direction for the future of project management. For the first time, PMI has started to integrate Agile and traditional plan-driven project management. What does that mean for the future of project management?

What’s the Impact?

I’ve written a number of articles on the future of project management and I get a lot of questions from project managers. Many are confused about the impact of Agile on project management and ask questions like “What Agile certification should I get?”.

  • Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just going out and getting another certification like PMI-ACP
  • The PMI-ACP certification is a step in the right direction and it’s not an easy certification to get. However, it’s just a test of general Lean and Agile knowledge and is not aligned with a particular role.
  • In fact, the role of an Agile Project Manager Is not well-defined. There is even some controversy about whether there is a role for an Project Manager In an Agile environment.

Confusion Over Project Management Direction

It’s totally understandable why there would be a lot of confusion among project managers about how Agile might impact their career direction.

  • There are some project managers who are in “denial”.
    • They want to assume that traditional, plan-driven project management is the only way to do project management.
    • They assume that it will go on unchanged forever unchanged and Agile isn’t really a valid form of project management at all
  • On the other hand, there are people in the Agile community who believe that there is no need at all for traditional plan-driven project management. They believe that Agile is a solution to almost any problem you might have

An Objective, Pragmatic Viewpoint

I’m not an Agile zealot – I try to take a very objective and pragmatic approach.

  • In one of my courses, I have a slide that says “Saying Agile is better than Waterfall” is like saying “A car is better than a boat”. They both have advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment
  • You have to be able to fit the approach to the problem rather than force-fitting all problems to one of those extremes
  • Project managers who only know how to do traditional, plan-driven project management and try to force-fit all projects to that approach will be at a severe disadvantage relative to other project managers who know how to blend Agile and traditional project management in the right proportions to fit the situation

What’s Wrong with Traditional, Plan-driven Project Management?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the traditional, plan-driven approach to project management; the problem is in how its applied.

  • The primary problem with the traditional, plan-driven approach is that it works for situations where the requirements are well-defined. In that environment, the primary concern is planning and managing a project to meet those well-defined requirements within a given budgeted cost and schedule
  • That approach just doesn’t work well in situations where the requirements are much more uncertain. In an uncertain environment, the primary concern is not just managing costs and schedules but taking an adaptive approach to maximize the business results and value that the project produces. 
  • In today’s rapidly-changing business environment the need for taking that kind of approach is becoming increasingly common.

The Future of Project Management

There’s essentially two sides of this equation: value and cost. In the past,

  • The value side has been assumed to be well-defined by a fixed set of requirements
  • Project managers only needed to worry about the cost side

In this new environment, that is no longer true. Project managers now need to worry about both maximizing value as well as managing costs and schedules.  That’s a fundamental shift in thinking for many project managers – it means:

  • Taking a broader focus on maximizing the business value that a project produces
  • Using whatever methodology (or combination of methodologies) that makes sense to achieve those goals
  • Fitting the project management approach to the nature of the business problem rather than force-fitting all projects to a standard, plan-driven approach.

That raises the bar significantly for many project managers. The truth is that Agile is changing the very nature of “project management” and, as a result, “project management is taking on a much broader meaning.

A Modern View of What “Project Management” Is

The table below shows how the very nature of project management is changing as a result of Agile:

Traditional, Narrow View Modern, Broader View
Traditional “Project Management” is heavily associated with planning and control The competitive environment today requires an emphasis on creativity and innovation in addition
to planning and control.  
Simply planning and controlling a project is no longer sufficient. Can you imagine a leading-edge, high-technology product like a new iPhone being developed with a traditional, plan-driven project management approach?
Success in project management has been defined by delivering well-defined project requirements within an approved budgeted cost and schedule Today’s world has a much higher level of uncertainty which makes it difficult to always start a project with well-defined requirements.  
Business value is what is important and costs and schedules are only one component of business value. There have been many projects that met their cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver an appropriate level of business value.
Project management is only done by someone who has the title of “Project Manager” In an Agile environment, there is actually a lot of “project management” going on although you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager”.  
The project management functions that might normally be performed by someone with the title of “Project Manager” have been distributed among all the members of the team and its a different kind of “project management” with an emphasis on producing business value in an uncertain environment.

What Certification Should I Get?

Some people seem to think that it is only a matter of getting another certification. I’ve participated in several discussions lately where project managers were asking questions like:

  • “What certification should I get in order to get into Agile (CSM/PSM, CSPO, or ACP)?” 
  • The answer to the question of “what certification should I get” depends on what role you want to play. It requires some thought because there is no well-defined role for a project manager in Agile at the team level

There are several possible career directions for project managers with regard to Agile. You may not:

  • Have to completely throw away your project management skills. However, you may ave to rethink them considerably in a very different context
  • Use some traditional project management skills very fully at all depending on the role you choose

Potential Agile Project Management Roles

There are several potential migration paths for project managers who want to develop into an Agile Project Management role:

1. Become a Scrum Master

A Scrum Master:

  • Ensures that the team is fully functional and productive
  • Enables close cooperation across all roles and functions
  • Removes barriers
  • Shields the team from external interferences
  • Ensures that the process is followed, including issuing invitations to daily scrums, sprint reviews, and sprint planning
  • Facilitates the daily scrums

There’s a few project management skills that might be useful (at least indirectly) for that role. However, it doesn’t utilize much of the planning and management skills that a project manager typically has.  For that reason, becoming a ScrumMaster may or may not make sense as a career direction for many project managers.

2. Become a Product Owner

The Scrum Alliance defines the primary responsibilities of a Product Owner as follows:

  • The product owner decides what will be built and in which order
  • Defines the features of the product or desired outcomes of the project
  • Chooses release date and content
  • Ensures profitability (ROI)
  • Prioritizes features/outcomes according to market value
  • Adjusts features/outcomes and priority as needed
  • Accepts or rejects work results
  • Facilitates scrum planning ceremony

The Product Owner role actually includes a lot of project management functions. However, it is actually much more similar to a Product Manager than a Project Manager.  The major differences are that:

  1. The Product Owner is a business decision-maker and requires some business domain knowledge that a project manager may not have.
  2. The Product Owner role doesn’t typically include many team leadership skills. In an Agile environment, team leadership is more a function of the ScrumMaster and the team itself.

3. Hybrid Agile Project Management Role

For a lot of good reasons, many companies will choose to implement a hybrid Agile approach that blends the right level of traditional plan-driven project management with Agile.

  • This is a very challenging role for a project manager to play.
  • It requires a deep understanding of both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management to know how to blend these two seemingly disparate approaches together in the right proportions to fit a given situation.

4. Project/Program Management of Large, Complex Enterprise-level Agile Projects

There is a legitimate role for project managers in managing large, complex enterprise-level projects; however, there are several things to consider about planning your career in that direction:

  • This role is limited to large, complex projects that typically require multiple Agile teams
  • It also may require blending together some level of traditional plan-driven and Agile principles and practices in the right proportions to fit the situation
  • This role doesn’t exist at all on most small, single-team Agile projects

This role requires some very significant skills that can be very difficult to attain. Many people may assume that the PMI-ACP certification qualifies you to perform this role. It is a step in the right direction, but a lot more experience and knowledge is needed to perform this role including:

  • Knowing how to blend traditional, plan-driven principles and practices in the right proportions to fit a given project,
  • Adapting an agile approach to fit a business environment, and
  • Scaling Agile to an enterprise level.

You have to be a “rock star” Agile Project Manager to perform this role.

Overall Summary

Most people will agree that there is a need for closing the gap between Agile and traditional project management communities – Agile and traditional project management are essentially treated as two separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two and that has led to some polarization between those two communities.

Closing the Gap

On the Agile side, many Agile people think of “project management” as a bad word and see no need for it in an Agile project. The fact is that although you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” in an Agile project, there’s lots of “project management” going on – its just a different style of project management and the functions are distributed among a number of people:

  • The Product Owner in a Scrum project performs many project management functions by setting the direction and priorities for the project and making decisions as the project progresses
  • The Scrum Master performs some project management functions by facilitating the team and the process as well as resolving obstacles
  • Everyone on an Agile team performs some very basic project management functions in planning and managing their own work and the work of the team as a whole

The important lesson to learn from this is that:

“(project) management is a function, not a role”.
(Daniel Mezick originally coined that phrase, in this blog post).

The Impact of Agile

Agile will have a big impact on the future of the project management profession:

  • In many industries and application areas, the project management role associated with small, single-team projects may be completely eliminated by Agile
  • There may be some project managers who are not significantly impacted by this such as project managers in the construction industry, but even in those industries some knowledge of Agile principles and practices may be essential

This creates difficult choices for a Project Manager to make. Agile may force project managers to make some significant choices about their career direction. It isn’t as simple as just going out and getting another certification (like PMI-ACP).

Related Articles

You can find related articles on the topic of “The Future of Project Management” here:

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.