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

What is Distributed Project Management?  I’ve just finished a new section in one of my Agile Project Management courses on that subject.   Here’s a brief overview of what it is all about.

What is Distributed Project Management?

“Distributed Project Management” is a new concept that I think 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 and I’ve even heard someone say that “project management is antithetical to Agile”.  That opinion is based on a very narrow and stereotypical view of what “project management is that has been well-ingrained into our minds for years.  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”:

  • It’s a different kind of “project management” – it goes beyond the traditional view of 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 but 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
  • 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”:

  • The Product Owner comes closest to the overall responsibilities of a project manager and has overall responsibility for the success or failure of the project.  However, his/her role actually goes beyond a project management role and is more like a product manager role with overall business responsibility for the project.
  • Developers have responsibility for planning and managing their own work, reporting on progress, and integrating their work with others on the team
  • The Scrum Master is responsible for facilitating the work of the team, coaching the team in Agile practices and removing any obstacles that might be impeding the team’s progress

All of those things are functions that might normally be performed by a project manager in a traditional plan-driven environment.  That’s the essence of what “Distributed Project Management” is all about.

Why Does This Make Sense?

In the environment we live in today, solutions can be much more complex and the level of uncertainty can be much higher which 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 to further elaborate the requirements and the design of the solution as the project is in progress and that calls for a very different approach to project management.

Distributing the project management functions at the team level among the different Agile team roles provides a much more dynamic approach that is very well-suited to a the flexibility and adaptivity that is needed in a very uncertain environment.  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 and the team, as a whole, is self-organizing and empowered.

What’s the Impact on Project Managers?

All of this may be threatening to many project managers because, in many cases, it will likely eliminate the role of a project manager at the team level in an Agile project.  And, it also can be a significant adaptation for many project managers who have been used to being in control of a project.

At the team level, if a project manager is involved in an Agile project at all, he/she may play more of a coaching and mentoring role rather than a management and control role.  There is a much more significant role for project managers for larger and more complex projects that require multiple teams and for projects that require a hybrid approach such as Agile contracts.

There are some people in the project management profession who are in denial about recognizing this impact and/or are resisting this transformation.    For the project management profession to continue to thrive, we need to develop a broader vision of what “project management” is.