I mentioned on Twitter a while ago that, although we’re an agile organisation, we do employ Project Managers. To my surprise I was criticised – indeed derided – and unfollowed for it. Why, I wondered. Let’s be clear, I am not advocating that an agile team needs a traditional plan-everything-up-front project manager. Quite the opposite. But let me explore what’s wrong with the popular view of agile development roles and responsibilities.
It appears to me that most if not all the agile literature starts with a project already approved, a team already formed and a set of requirements already set out. But how did all that happen and who was in control of it? Who formed the team in the first place?
Who is it who identifies the stakeholders and manages the relationship between them?
Who identifies the major risks to the project, analyses them and manages mitigating actions?
Who liaises with the governance authorities?
The team is supposed to be self-managing. And in the sense that they plan and manage their own work at the detail level, they are. But who does the macro-level planning? Who plans how long the project will last and when benefits can be delivered? And don’t tell me the project ends when the business says it does; that’s just silly.
The idea that you can run a modern project with just a single business representative, a so-called “Master” in charge of the team and a self-directing group of individuals is not scalable beyond the smallest of projects. And Agile is being adopted on some large and complex projects these days.
A project manager is needed because of the skills he or she was trained to employ. Planning (yes, even in an agile sense), dependency, risk and benefits management, stakeholder management, motivation and coaching.
But the role definitely needs to change to suit an agile environment. The command-and-control PM is no longer welcome. Instead the agile PM needs to be an enabler. She needs to form the development team in the first place in accordance with the skills required of each role. She then needs to provide them with the big picture, the overall plan and with the direction for the detailed planning, which the team then do. She needs to be on top of progress and identify when things get in the way, removing blockages to enable the team to make progress. She needs to liaise with senior management, keeping them away from the development team so that they can make best progress. She needs to provide the team with the tools and skills needed to succeed, and lastly, she needs to step back and let them get on with it.
The agile PM manages not by controlling everything the team does, but by providing direction and doing whatever is necessary to enable the team to make progress. The traditional project manager of a software development team is like the same role in a building project. The agile project manager is like the manager of a sports team. Setting out strategy and coaching the team to best effect, then when they get out on the field, leaving them to do what they do best.