IIL-logo-globe_250x200px (003)

Why Project Managers Need to be Agile

As an agile and project management instructor and practitioner, I am asked often, “Should I worry about this agile thing?” or “Why do I need to be agile?” Many project managers are seeing the trend of organizations transforming to agile 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 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?

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 of these skills are still used, but some are downplayed for other skills. For example, detailed planning upfront and then following it to the letter for the rest of the project is not needed or wanted in the agile environment. In agile projects, flexibility, adaptability, and teamwork are at the top of the list. These are not necessarily 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 traditional project managers 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. Agile 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 for. In some organizations, project managers transition into scrum masters, facilitators, or coaches; in others, they become product owners; in still others, they are no longer needed and released. Each of these has its inherent difficulties.

What are Agile roles?

Let’s look at the scrum master, facilitator or coach position. In this position, we are the experienced agile team member who knows enough about agile to help the team overcome obstacles and guide them to successful implementation. At first glance, this may be at odds 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 may not be 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, and more importantly, practice using the concepts, especially of a 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 if we do not know the customer side well enough, we cannot 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 are an expert of the product, the product owner role may not be 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.

Looking ahead 

Agile methods are increasingly becoming more prevalent, and organizations need people to facilitate projects. Companies need people to ensure the discipline of rigorous methodologies coupled with the flexibility to meet shifting customer needs. Companies need people who understand both traditional project management and Agile to produce the best possible result.

Also with larger projects, Agile involves multiple teams and there is a need to have someone organize the efforts of all the teams. Project managers are perfect for this higher-level coordination role.

To be able to transition or succeed in any of these roles, a project manager would be smart to learn agile tools and processes.

IIL has a great Agile and Scrum Fundamentals course that helps teams and project managers understand Agile basics and begin using the tools to improve project delivery. IIL also has an Agile Practices for All Projects course that presents key Agile techniques and processes that can be incorporated into the traditional project management framework. Explore 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. 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 with making your move.


About the Author

Jeff Nielsen, PMP, PgMP, PMI-ACP, CSM is a Senior 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.

©2022, Nielsen Solutions, LLC

Scroll to Top