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What Is Distributed Project Management? Why Does it Make Sense?

“Distributed Project Management” is a new approach to project management.   Here’s a brief overview of what it is all about.

What is Distributed Project Management?

“Distributed Project Management” is very important to help people see the relationship of “project management” and Agile in a very fresh new perspective.  It has the potential to redefine many of the heavily-ingrained notions that we have about what “project management” is.

What Is Distributed Project Management?

There are a number of people in the Agile community that believe that “project management” is not consistent with Agile. That opinion is based on:

  • A very narrow and stereotypical view of what project management is
  • An assumption that all project management functions are done by a single person called a “Project Manager”.

I think it is time to take a broader and more modern view of what “project management” is.

How Is Project Management Implemented in an Agile Team?

There is actually a lot of “project management” going on in an Agile environment, but many people won’t recognize it as “project management” because:

  1. It’s a different kind of project management, and
  2. The project management functions have been distributed among multiple people on the team

Let’s explore each of those areas individually.

1. It’s a Different Kind of “Project Management”

We need to broaden our thinking about what project management” is 

  • The traditional view is based heavily on planning and control to achieve predictability over project costs and schedules.  
  • A more modern and broader view of “project management” is based on delivering business value. 
    • That doesn’t mean that meeting cost and schedule goals is unimportant.
    • Achieving cost and schedule goals is only one component of business value and not necessarily the most important component. 
    • Creativity and innovation to maximize the value of the solution can be at least equally important

2. The Project Management Functions Have Been Distributed Among the Team

The functions that would normally be performed by someone called a “Project Manager” at the team level have been distributed among other members of the team.  As a result, you typically may not find anyone at the team level in an Agile project called a “Project Manager”.

In an Agile team, everyone on an Agile team has some kind of responsibility that might normally be performed by someone called a “Project Manager”:

RoleProject Management Function
Product Owner RoleThe Product Owner comes closest to the overall responsibilities of a project manager. However, the Product Owner role actually goes beyond a project management role. The Product Owner is expected to:
  • Take overall responsibility for the success or failure of the project
  • Make any decisions or trade-offs that might be needed to meet the project goals
Developer RoleIn an Agile environment, developers actually have responsibilities that might normally be done by a “Project Manager”. Developers are expected to:
  • Take responsibility for planning and completing the tasks that they are responsible for
  • Following through to meet commitments that they have made
  • Reporting progress and coordinating their work with other members of the team as necessary to produce an overall result
Scrum Master RoleThe Scrum Master also has responsibilities that might normally be performed by a Project Manager. The Scrum Master is expected to:
  • Facilitate the work of the team and team meetings
  • Coaching the team in Agile practices and
  • Removing any obstacles that might be impeding the team’s progress

A project manager in a traditional plan-driven environment would normally perform those functions.   A “Distributed Project Management” approach distributes these functions among multiple people.

Why Does Distributed Project Management Make Sense?

In an Agile environment:

  • Solutions can be much more complex and the level of uncertainty can be much higher. That makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to completely define a solution prior to the start of a project
  • That environment requires a much more flexible and adaptive approach

In that environment,

  • It is essential to further elaborate the requirements and the design of the solution as the project is in progress.
  • That calls for a very different approach to project management.

Distributing the project management functions among the different Agile team roles provides a much more dynamic approach:

  • Instead of centralized control where all decisions are made by a project manager,
  • Decision-making is more decentralized among the various roles on an Agile team
    • The team, as a whole, is self-organizing and empowered
    • That approach is very well-suited for an environment with a high level of uncertainty

I think you can see that if your objective is control, a traditional plan-driven approach to project management of putting one person called a project manager in control of a project might be a good approach; however, an emphasis on control can be inflexible and doesn’t work well in an uncertain environment that requires a more adaptive approach. We need to adapt the approach to fit the nature of the project and the level of uncertainty in the project is a major factor in choosing the right approach.

Overall Summary

Distributed Project Management is a new way of thinking about how to do project management:

  • Instead of the normal project management functions being performed by a single person called a “Project Manager”
  • Those functions may be distributed among other roles

This approach may be threatening to many traditional project managers because, in many cases,

  • It could eliminate the role of a project manager at the team level in an Agile project, and
  • It also could require a significant adaptation for many project managers who are used to being in control of a project

For more on that check out this article on The Future of Project Management:

For the project management profession to continue to thrive, we need to recognize this fundamental shift in thinking and develop a broader vision of what “project management” is.

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on “Agile Teams”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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