Are Project Managers Angry About Agile?

At Agile Coach Camp somebody asked me if Project Managers are angry about agile. Well, yes, actually we are.

Bear with me for a minute. As a Project Manager, I delivered a huge number of projects over many years. By and large my projects were delivered on time, on budget and to an agreed scope. That, to a Project Manager, is success. Now the goalposts have moved. In fact, this game is so different, we don’t even have goalposts. In an Agile organization, our focus is on the value we are delivering. I love it. That makes so much sense to me. I will adapt.

But I was angry. Here’s why:

“There are no Project Managers in Agile.”

The first thing I was angry about when we transitioned to Agile is the leadership in my organization saying “there are no Project Managers in Agile.” As the manager of a team of Project Managers, you can expect that was not a sentiment that we wanted to hear.

The actual truth is that we were transitioning to Scrum and Scrum has three roles, Product Owner, ScrumMaster and the team. There is no role called Project Manager. There is also no role for VP of Engineering, Business Analyst, Lead Developer, QA Manager and Sales Director. You get the idea. Agile is a very different way of thinking about who does what in an organization. It isn’t a game of musical chairs where you better grab a role quickly or you are left without a chair.

There are credentials available for Agile Project Management. I have taken courses on Agile Project Management. I attend lectures and read blogs on Agile Project Management. There are jobs advertised for Agile Project Managers. In spite of that, there are elements of Project Management which directly contradict Agile Principles. I believe that a Project Manager can find a place in Agile. However, to do that, she has to change her mind-set. I have actually evolved to believe that ideally we shouldn’t have people called “Project Managers” when we work in an Agile organisation (some frameworks do include Project Managers and some find they need them outside of teams while they are working towards Agile principles).

A Project Manager can transition to an agile role such as a Product Owner or ScrumMaster. Don’t just take the chairs away. It is important to reassure people that their job is secure even though their role will change.

“Don’t go chasing Waterfall”

I hate the term “waterfall”. Waterfall itself is a straw man term that has only been used to describe the opposite of Agile. All of a sudden I was being told that I did “waterfall” and that waterfall projects are failures. I beg to differ. Waterfall is generally used to describe the hypothetical (or real) worst project ever to compare to a mythical perfect agile project.

I love focusing on specific, measurable outcomes rather than the project itself. I think you will find that we actually had outcomes before – and metrics.  We even achieved them. Having had to deliver so many bad ideas, I am thrilled to see so much focus on value. Identifying a key metric and measuring an outcome is a terrific thing.

Nevertheless, delivering a well-defined project on time, on budget and to scope isn’t a bad thing. Particularly when a project has a low level of uncertainty.

Recognize that Project Managers may have a tougher journey than the rest of the team

Project Managers do process, that’s all we do. Others have other roles. If you are a developer, your primary focus is to code. With agile, developers will pick up self-management. But as a Project Manager, management is what you do. A transformation hits Project Managers harder.

We can adapt.  However, it’s a big change. I think a lot of people look at moving to Agile and say “oh goodie, we don’t have to listen to those pesky Project Managers harping about the plan any more.”  Project Managers look at Agile and say “but what am I going to do?”  (There are answers to that but I am moving on.) Remember, it’s “adapt to change over following a plan”. It’s not that there is no plan. We focus on what we want to achieve and adapt if we head in the wrong direction.

It’s not me, it’s you

Project Managers have to change because many of their responsibilities are either done by the team or no longer relevant. However, here’s the bit that you might have missed in the small print. It’s not just the Project Managers who need to change. Team Leads, Managers, Specialist Information Architects and Directors have to change too. There is a risk that once the Project Managers are removed from the command and control roles that they had that others step into their place.

To truly be agile, an organisation needs to transform their structure completely.

We need guidance from leaders

Whether from inside the organization or outside of the organization, Project Managers need leadership. Learning agile is not just the few hours it takes to master the basics. It’s an on-going metamorphosis from one way of acting and thinking to an entirely different way of acting and thinking. This level of change needs support.

It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are

As far as the change to who you are, I can’t compete with how Lyssa Adkins explains it in Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition so I will just say insert “Coaching Agile Teams” here.  Go read it.

Be Careful

Please be very careful with your transition. Agile values are very different from what is valued in traditional Project Management. That kind of change takes time. Watch the language that you use. Reassure and support the talented individuals that work with you and make sure they find a role that suits and inspires them. If you just dump Agile into your organization and hope all goes well, your Project Managers will be angry.