Why Project Managers Need to be Agile

Why Project Managers Need to be Agile

By: Jeff Nielsen

As an agile and project management instructor and practitioner, I am asked quite often, “Should I worry about this agile thing?” or “Why do I need to be agile?” Many project managers are seeing the trend towards agile by many companies and are worried they may not be ready for the transition — and they should be!

As companies look for a way to avoid the problems with a traditional project approach, they are finding that agile looks promising. So if companies are moving in that direction, project managers should be looking at how they fit into the agile environment.

The first big problem in the transition is that there are no direct correlations to the project manager position in the agile environment. This alone should be a warning sign. If a project manager isn’t getting ready for this transition by picking up new “agile” skills, they are going to be left behind, or worse, let go. Smart project managers are looking to understand and develop these skills before the transition takes place.

What skills are we talking about?

To begin with, the traditional project manager skills include organizing, planning, negotiating, defining scope, managing change, motivating, facilitating, communicating and more.

Do these skills go away in an agile environment? 

Many are still used, but some are downplayed for other skills. For example, detailed planning up front and then following this detailed plan to the letter for the rest of the project is not needed or wanted in the agile environment. On the other hand, flexibility, adaptability, and teamwork, are at the top of the list.. These are not the skills we learn in traditional project management. So taking the time to learn about, develop, and practice these skills now –before they are required—is beneficial.

What else do project managers need to be concerned with?

Since the job functions are different, where do we fit in and how do we ensure there is a place for us? One of the most difficult things for a traditional project manager is thinking agile. Agile isn’t just another methodology that if you follow the process, you will be successful. It is a new way of thinking, a new way of working. If we have a new way of thinking and working, then we need to start changing now.

The position of project manager doesn’t exist in the minds of many agilists.  If you are to transition, you need to figure out which agile role you feel best suited to or can become best suited to.  In some organizations, project managers are converted into scrum masters, facilitators or coaches; in others they are product owners; in still others they are no longer needed and released.  Each of these has its inherent difficulties.

Let’s look at the scrum master/facilitator/coach position. In this position, we are supposed to be the experienced agile team member who knows enough about agile to help the team overcome obstacles and guide them to successful implementation.  Just by the description, this seems to be a bad fit for a project manager who is used to organizing the project with the help of the project management team, and then focusing the team on following the plan.

In agile, teams are self-directed! Telling them what to do will undermine the entire effort. Also, if you do not have experience with agile, you are not the best person to be guiding the team to a successful agile transition. If you want to move into this position it will take some study, andmore importantly, some practice using the concepts, especially of servant leader and group self-direction.

How about the product owner? This position seems to be a natural transition due to the amount of interaction and relationships that have been developed with the customer in working on traditional projects. So, what could be wrong with this situation? We may feel comfortable going into the position but will quickly find out that we do not know the customer side well enough to make daily decisions about how to move forward without consultation with the customer.

Unfortunately, this is exactly why a product owner is assigned to the agile team full time, so the team doesn’t need to wait for decisions, that can be made by the product owner. Unless you come from the product side or you have become an expert of the product, this is most likely not a realistic position to transition into.

Well, that only leaves being released! In some cases, where a project manager cannot make the transition, this might be in the best interest of both the individual and the company; however, what I have seen is that many organizations are short-sighted. They don’t think they need the project managers anymore, only to find out that they need someone to organize and coordinate the efforts of the developer teams using agile and the infrastructure teams still using waterfall; someone who understands both sides.

Also with larger projects, agile involves multiple teams and there is a need to have someone organize the efforts of all the teams. The project manager is perfect for this coordination roll at the higher level. You can sell this position for yourself to management.

In order to be able to fill any of these roles, a project manager would be smart to start educating themselves on agile tools and processes. IIL has a great Agile and Scrum Fundamentals class that helps teams and project managers to understand the basics and begin using the tools to improve project delivery. IIL also has an Agile Development and Project Management course to help you understand how you could transition from a traditional project management methodology into agile. See IIL’s full Agile and Scrum curriculum

Let’s revisit the original question: “Why do I need to be agile?” As organizations transition to an agile environment, we can choose to be part of the solution or not. Why not help to lead the transition to agile in your organization? This way you are ensuring there is a position for you in the new environment rather than waiting until you are required to transition. Good luck on making your move.

©2017, Nielsen Solutions LLC


Jeff Nielsen, PMP, PgMP, PMI-ACP, CSM is a
Sr. Program Manager and Agile Coach.He has over 30 years of project management experience and 7 years of program management experience in both the military and the airlines industries.

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