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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 address it 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”?

In order to see this in a very different perspective, we need to develop a new vision of what “project management” is. Here’s the official definition of “project management” from PMI:

“The application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to the project activities to meet project requirements”

A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) 5th Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc. 2013

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 legitimate form of project management at all.

We need to adopt a broader vision that embraces Agile as well as traditional, plan-driven project management.

What’s Wrong With That Definition?

That standard definition:

  • Implies that project management is mainly concerned with planning, organizing, and managing project activities to meet defined requirements
  • Where the typical primary objective is to deliver the defined requirements within approved cost and schedule goals

However, 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 especially frequently in situations where there is a high level of uncertainty and risk associated with the project
  • In that environment; it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to attempt to totally define the project requirements in detail prior to the start of the project

So, it has been heavily-ingrained in our thinking that:

  • The only way to do project management is a traditional, plan-driven approach, and
  • It is always done by a dedicated person called a “Project Manager”.

The results of that thinking don’t work well in a highly-uncertain environment where lots of creativity and innovation might be needed:

  • 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
  • When you force all decisions and communications to go through a single point of interface called a “Project Manager”, it is very easy to see how that person can become a bottleneck

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 is appropriate for that situation

It is also important to note that this vision of what “project management” is a function and not a role and it is not limited to being performed by people who are “card-carrying” project managers. In an Agile environment:

  • It is important to recognize that there is a lot of “project management” going on even though you may not find anyone at the team level with the title of “Project Manager”
  • It’s a different kind of “project management” and the functions that might normally be performed by someone called a “Project Manager” have been redistributed among other roles on the team

I refer to this as “Distributed Project Management”. Here’s an article with more detail on that:

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

In an Agile environment, a single point of control and communications can easily become a bottleneck.

I recognize that is an ambitious vision and it will be difficult 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 have a difficult time in many industry and application areas, in my opinion.

What is Needed to Get There?

PMI is moving slowly in the direction of creating a more modern and more integrated view of “project management”. 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

PMBOK version 6 and the PMI Agile Practice Guide went a little further to close this gap but there is still a lot of work to be done. I understand that very major changes are being planned for PMBOK version 7 to more fully implement this new direction.

Creating this new integrated approach to project management is exactly the goal I have established for the online Agile Project Management training curriculum I’ve developed. The goal is to help project managers:

  • See these two approaches in a fresh new perspective as complementary to each other rather than competitive, and
  • Learn how to blend Agile and traditional, plan-driven project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit any situation.

So, Are There Project Managers in Agile?

This still leaves open the question of where and how does a project manager fit in an Agile environment? 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:

  • Team-level Project Management – 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
  • Hybrid Agile Models – 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. 
  • Larger and More Complex Projects – 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

Overall Summary

The impact of this on the careers of project managers looks something like this:

Project Management Migration

At the team level, we can expect a fairly large migration of project management roles from a traditional, plan-driven approach to a more adaptive Agile approach. This will probably force many project managers to move up to a higher level of value-added to assume a role in larger and more complex projects and programs as well as major, enterprise-level initiatives which may use more of a plan-driven or hybrid approach.

Related Articles

The following articles are all related to the topic of “Agile Project Management”:

Additional Resources

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