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What is an Agile Project Manager?

There is a lot of confusion and controversy about what an Agile Project Manager is. It’s understandable why this confusion exists:

  • There are many stereotypes and misconceptions about both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management and
  • The role of an Agile Project Manager might play is not well-defined
What is an Agile Project Manager?

There are some very strong stereotypes of what “project management” is and what a “Project Manager” is:

  • Those stereotypes are centered around the belief that traditional plan-driven project management is the only way to do project management
  • Project managers are so heavily ingrained into that way of thinking that they can’t possibly adapt to an Agile environment

Agile Versus Waterfall

One of the biggest misconceptions that many people seem to have is that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between Agile and “Waterfall” with nothing in between. That ignores the possibility of blending the two approaches to fit a given situation.

Agile is Not Limited to Small, Single-team Projects

Many people think of Agile in a very narrow sense as limited to simple, single-team Scrum projects.

  • Because there is no “Project Manager” role defined at that level, they assume that there is no role for project management at all in an Agile environment
  • However, there is more to Agile than simple, single-team projects

The Role of an Agile Project Manager is Not Well-defined

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; however,

  • PMI has never really defined what an “Agile Project Manager” is and what role he/she might play in the real world
  • The PMI-ACP certification is a general test of Agile and Lean knowledge and is not designed around a particular job role
  • To some extent, PMI still treats Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two

A Broader Vision of Project Management

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
  • Finally, What an “Agile Project Manager” is

Important Goals

We need to recognize that:

  • The discipline of ”project management” isn’t limited to traditional, plan-driven project management and
  • An emphasis on planning and control is not the only way to do project management

A Different View of Project Management

For example, there is actually a lot of “project management” going on in an Agile project although:

  • You may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” and
  • 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.

  • It may not have the traditional emphasis on planning and control
  • The project management functions that would normally be performed by an individual with the title of “Project Manager” have been distributed among the other members of the team

Distribution of Project Management Functions

Here is a summary of how the project management functions that might normally be performed by a Project Manager have been distributed among other roles at the team level in an Agile project:

Product Owner Role

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

Scrum Master Role

The Scrum Master also has some responsibilities that might be done by a project manager including:

  • Removing obstacles that might limit progress and
  • Facilitating and coaching the project team

Team Role

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.

Overall Summary – 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
  • He/She should know how to blend them together in the right proportions to fit a given situation. 

What Role Might an “Agile Project Manager” Play?

I think it’s sad that some project managers see their only alternative in an Agile environment is to become a Scrum Master. That’s because the role of an Agile Project Manager is so ill-defined and poorly-understood.  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.

Related Articles

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

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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