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What is Agile Project Management? How Is It Different?

There’s a lot of confusion on the subject of “What is Agile Project Management?” and how is it different? I’ve even heard some people in the Agile community say that “there is no such thing as Agile project management”; because officially, there is no defined role for a project manager in an Agile/Scrum environment.

  • I don’t really believe that “there is no such thing as Agile Project Management” but it is true that the role of a project manager in Agile is not well-defined and is still evolving
  • I also believe it will take a major transformation of how we think about project management to reshape the project management profession to fill this new role

What Is Project Management?

Let’s start with the standard PMI definition of “Project Management” from PMBOK that exists today:

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

What’s Wrong With That Definition?

It seems to me that this classic definition that so many people seem to take for granted is way out-of-date. It:

  • Seems to be based on the narrow, traditional notion that a project manager is someone who manages the costs and schedule of a project to meet defined requirements
  • Implies that there is only one way to do project management and that is based on a traditional plan-driven approach to project management.

And the definition assumes that “Project Management” is only performed by someone called a “Project Manager”.

We need to significantly expand that thinking to embrace the idea that a project manager may play a role in a much more uncertain environment where:

  • The requirements may not be not well-defined and
  • The project requires a more adaptive (Agile) approach

In that environment, the goal is typically focused more on:

  • Maximizing the value the project produces rather than
  • Managing costs and schedules to deliver well-defined requirements.

The person performing that function may not even have the formal title of “Project Manager”.

Many people may claim that is not “project management” because there have been so many well-established stereotypes that have developed over the years about what “project management” is. So the first challenge is to get past many of the stereotypes that exist about what “project management” is.

Project Management Stereotypes

Here are a few of the common stereotypes that exist about project management:

1. Project Managers Are Very “Command-and-Control” Oriented

One common stereotype is that Project Managers are very “command-and-control” oriented. There is some amount of truth in that. Project managers are held responsible for getting results and:

  • Sometimes that means being assertive and somewhat directive to set goals and manage the performance of project teams
  • Many times, a project manager is expected to perform that role by the businesses that they operate in
  • In many companies, the Project Manager is the one held responsible and is expected to take corrective action to get the project on track if there is the project does not meet expectations

2. Project Managers Are Rigid and Inflexible and Only Know How to Manage by the “Waterfall” Methodology

Another common stereotype is that project managers are rigid and inflexible. That also has some truth to it. For many years,

  • Project managers have been accountable for the costs and schedules of projects and
  • In order to meet cost and schedule goals, project managers have to control the scope of the project.
  • That, in turn, requires a disciplined approach to defining and documenting detailed requirements and controlling changes

The emphasis on managing costs and schedules naturally leads to extensive use of plan-driven or “Waterfall-style” methodologies. Those methodologies are based on

  • Trying to define the project requirements in-detail upfront before the project starts and
  • Controlling changes once the project is in progress

3. Project Managers Are Just Not Adaptive and Cannot Adapt to an Agile Environment

A final stereotype is that project managers cannot adapt to an Agile environment. Like the other stereotypes, there may be some amount of truth in this stereotype. However, it would be inaccurate to generalize and say that this is true of all project managers. For many project managers:

  • Agile will require some considerable rethinking of the project management approach and
  • It will also require a significant mindset change

Where Does Project Management Fit in Agile/Scrum?

If you look at how an Agile/Scrum project works, There is actually a lot of “project management” going on but:

  • Many people will not recognize it as “project management” because it doesn’t fit the traditional stereotype of what “project management” is and
  • You may not find anyone at the team level with the title of “Project Manager”

The project management functions that would normally be done by a single person called a “Project Manager” are distributed among all the members of the Agile team. For more detail on that, check out this article:

What Is an Agile Project Manager?

It is difficult at this point in time to precisely define how the Agile Project Management role may wind up, we can certainly see that a very significant transformation is needed. That transformation involves a new definition of what “project management” is that embraces Agile as well as traditional, plan-driven project management in a well-integrated approach.

Basically, an Agile Project Manager is someone who knows how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit any given situation. It’s a bit more difficult to define exactly what role that person would play in a typical Agile environment. Some logical questions would be:

  • What’s left for a project manager to do in the Agile environment if there is normally no dedicated project manager at a team level?
  • What role does he/she play in the real world?

Those are not easy questions to answer because:

  • The role of an Agile Project Manager is not well-defined and
  • There may not be a role at all for a dedicated Project Manager at all at the team level in an Agile project

There are a number of different roles an Agile Project Manager might play in an Agile environment. Check out this article for more detail on that:

Overall Summary

In my opinion, we need to make some radical shifts in thinking about what “Project Management” is. The basic definitions that are published in PMBOK that many project managers have taken for granted for many years tend to perpetuate a narrow view of what “Project Management” is. Here’s my suggestion for a broader definition of what “Project Management” is:

“Project Management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to maximize the value that the project produces.”

Project management is focused on maximizing business results within the context of the business environment that a project is part of in a way that is appropriate to the nature of the project.

I’m sure that definition could be fine-tuned, but the key points that I’m trying to get across are that:

  • There isn’t just one way to do project management and we need to fully embrace Agile as a legitimate form of project management
  • The emphasis of project management is on maximizing the value that a project provides
  • One of the greatest skills of anyone performing a project management function should be to select the right approach to fit the nature of the project

This definition of “Project Management” is not limited to someone who has a title of “Project Manager”. In an Agile environment, “project management” functions are often distributed among other roles but it is still “project management”.

Why Is This Transformation Needed?

Traditional, plan-driven project management has been around since the 1950’s and 1960’s and is based on some fairly well-established principles and practices that haven’t changed much over the years. In today’s world; however, that model is starting to break down. There are two major factors that are causing this transformation:

  • Level of Uncertainty – The world today is much more dynamic and rapidly-changing and the level of uncertainty in many projects (particularly software development) is much higher. Attempting to force-fit a project with a high level of uncertainty to a traditional plan-driven project management approach is fraught with lots of potential problems. It would typically require making lots of assumptions to try to resolve the uncertainty and many times those assumptions will be wrong.
    A better approach for dealing with high levels of uncertainty is to use a very different approach with much more flexibility and adaptivity. Instead of attempting to develop a complete, detailed plan for a project upfront that is not expected to change significantly; the project needs to be built around the expectation that change is expected and of the plan may need to evolve and be further extrapolated as the project is in progress.
  • Creativity and Innovation – The second major factor is that in today’s competitive environment, there is a much higher need for creativity and innovation to develop leading-edge products. That also requires a somewhat different approach. An excessive emphasis on planning and control can stifle creativity and innovation.

This doesn’t mean that we need to throw away everything we’ve learned about traditional plan-driven project management and replace it with Agile, but it does mean that we can’t think of traditional, plan-driven project management as the only way to do project management and force-fit all projects to that approach. Many people have the impression that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” and that is not the case. It is very possible to blend the two approaches together but it does require a lot more skill. The general idea is rather than force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, you have to fit the approach to the nature of the problem.

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.

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