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The Evolution of Agile Project Management

There is a lot of confusion about the evolution of Agile Project Management. It’s very clear that we are on the verge of the “Next Generation of the Project Management” profession. Its not completely clear how it will evolve but there is a lot we can learn from similar evolution’s in other professions.

Evolution of Agile Project Management
Future of Agile Project Management

The Project Management profession is evolving and maturing:

A role that is practiced exclusively by someone with the title of “Project Manager” A broad-based discipline that is much more fully integrated into the way companies do business
A heavily plan-driven focus on managing costs and schedules for delivering well-defined requirementsA much broader focus on delivering business value in an environment that may have some level of uncertainty
Simply using a plan-driven project management approach for managing projects against well-defined requirements to meet cost and schedule goals A much broader focus on blending Agile and traditional plan-driven project management in whatever proportions are needed to drive business results in an uncertain environment

We’re still in the very early stages of that transformation, it will likely take a long time to fully evolve, and its causing some confusion and turmoil because its not totally clear how it will evolve.  However, I have seen a similar transformation happen in the quality management profession years ago and we can probably learn a lot from that.

Similarity to Quality Management Evolution

There is a very definite similarity to how the Quality Management profession has evolved over the last 20 years or so. At one time, “quality management” was something that was practiced exclusively by someone with the title of “Quality Manager” who owned responsibility for managing the quality of products and services in their company or their area of responsibility.  I was in such a role at one time. I was a Quality Manager at Motorola in the early 1990’s:

  • Motorola was a very large and successful company in those days,
  • There were multiple layers of management, and
  • The quality management chain-of-command was parallel to the normal business and operational management structure.

The Role of a Quality Manager as an “Enforcer”

We were frequently getting directives from higher in the quality management chain-of-command to

“Go over and make the business and operational managers improve their quality in some way”. 

That was a thankless role because the Quality Manager had to lead through influence and had no direct control over the people and processes he/she was trying to influence.  That is very similar to the role of many typical project managers who are part of a PMO organization where the PMO and the project manager may not necessarily have direct control of the resources assigned to projects.

Teach, Coach, and Audit (In That Order)

My manager at that time was very astute and enlightened and one thing I remember him saying often was that:

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

What that means is that to be an effective Quality Manager, you can’t be an “enforcer” and you can’t be the only one who is responsible for “quality” in the organization.  A more effective approach is to engage others in the effort to improve the quality of the company’s products and services.  By teaching and coaching others to integrate quality management into the way they do their work, you can develop a much more broad-based level of commitment to quality management which was much more effective than a typical quality management “enforcement” approach controlled by someone called a “Quality Manager”.

What Was the Outcome and Benefits?

At that time, the quality management profession was going through a significant shift in thinking from an emphasis on quality control to more modern approaches such as Six Sigma and TQM.

  • The old approach relied very heavily on inspection after a product had been built to find defects before the product shipped
  • The new approach involved going into the processes and improving the process as necessary to eliminate the source of the defects and preventing the defects from happening at all.

The benefits of the new approach were obvious:

  • It eliminates the costs of a lot of unnecessary inspectors to find defects if the products are inherently more reliable
  • It has a huge impact on reducing costs of reworking and scrapping defective products and obviously significantly improved customer satisfaction

That changed the very nature of the quality management profession and many people who had defined their whole careers around the old quality control approach couldn’t adapt to that change and found themselves out of work while others who learned the benefits of the new approach continued to thrive.

Similarity to Project Management

In my opinion, there is a similar change going on in the project management profession today that is equally significant and requires us to rethink some of the very basic tenets of project management that have been taken for granted for many years. A key measurement of Project Managers for a long time has been how well they managed the triple constraints (time, cost, and scope)  to control costs and schedules associated with a project. A project was deemed successful if it met the requirements it was supposed to meet within the planned cost and schedule. To control costs and schedules, you obviously have to control the scope of the project and limit changes to the requirements once the project has started. These ideas have been so well-ingrained into the way projects have been managed for so long that it has begun to define what project management is just as the image of quality control inspectors used to define what quality management was at one time.

What’s Wrong With That Picture?

What’s wrong with that picture?

  • It might work OK in some areas like the construction industry where it is more realistic to predict and control the requirements, cost, and schedule for a project. It doesn’t work well in other areas where the requirements are much more difficult to define and control and a more adaptive approach is needed such as most software development projects. In those areas, there are many projects that might meet their cost and schedule goals but fail to deliver significant business value because it can be so difficult to define all the requirements before the project starts.
  • The traditional “iron triangle” approach does not recognize the value produced by the project as a variable. It assumes that the requirements accurately define the value that the project must produce and those requirements can be defined before the project starts – in many areas today that just isn’t very realistic at all and a much more flexible and adaptive approach is needed.

What Does That Mean for the Project Management Profession?

So, what does that mean for the project management profession as we know it? Does that mean that traditional project managers will become extinct like dinosaurs? I don’t think so, but I think any project manager who only knows the traditional project management disciplines of managing costs and schedules and can’t take a more adaptive approach when required may be severely limited in his/her career options. If you look at the way “project management” is implemented in an Agile project at the team level, you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” but there is actually a lot of “project management” going on:

  • It’s a different kind of project management,
  • The project management functions are typically distributed among other roles in the Agile team, and
  • If there is a “Project Manager” involved at all, he/she is likely to play more of a coaching and mentoring role than a controlling role

That’s probably a much more effective approach to project management in that kind of environment where team empowerment is important to support creativity and innovation and a much more flexible and adaptive approach. Instead of only one person with the title of “Project Manager” being responsible for everything related to “project management” with an emphasis on control, there is a much more broad-based commitment to a more flexible and adaptive project management approach. Check out this article on “Distributed Project Management” for more on that:

What’s the Impact on Project Managers?

How does that impact project managers and the project management profession?  It is having a major impact and it’s causing a lot of confusion and turmoil at the moment.  There is likely to be a shift in the way “project management” is implemented just as there was a shift in the way “quality management” was implemented years ago. That evolution will probably look something like this:

The role of a PMO Will Likely Change

The role of a PMO will likely change from an organization with an emphasis on control of all projects with a lot of restrictions and rules on how projects are managed To more of a consultative and supporting role to help others manage projects more effectively using a more adaptive approach to fit the nature of the project.

The role of a Project Manager Will Likely Change

Companies recognize the importance of “project management” and don’t want to give up that discipline but having a dedicated role called a “Project Manager” may not be the best way to preserve that focus As a result, some companies are trying to find people with project management skills who can also play other roles such as a Scrum Master or a Product Owner.

This is an evolving transformation, we are in the early stages, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers of exactly how it will evolve. However, there is no question that there is a major transformation going on that we can’t ignore.  The curriculum that I’ve developed in the Agile Project Management Academy is designed to help project managers transform themselves into a high impact Agile Project Management role to align with this overall transformation in the project management profession.

Overall Summary

I’m proud to be a project manager and I am dedicated to doing whatever I can to contribute to the ongoing improvement of the project management profession, but I do understand that we need to adapt and change to embrace new ways of doing project management. I learned a long time ago that anyone who thinks that they can “rest on their laurels” and stop learning and growing makes themselves noncompetitive and may be out of a job.

A Vision for the Future

I have a vision for what I call “The Next Generation Project Manager” that I’ve tried to articulate in my two books – it’s a project manager who is equally well-versed in all the traditional project management principles and practices as well as all the Agile principles and practices; but beyond that, he/she understands those principles and practices at a deeper level and knows how to blend them together as necessary to fit any given situation.

Does that sound like an ambitious goal? It certainly is, but it is no more ambitious than what other professions such as the quality management profession have gone through over the years. I hope that through the writing I’ve done and the training I’ve developed that I’ve been able to help others in the project management profession recognize the magnitude of this change and successfully adapt to it. You can find more information on my training here:

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on the “Future of Project Management”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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