Agile project management

It is interesting – and somewhat telling – that I have sometimes been asked by business representatives “But what does a project manager actually do?”

Of course in a traditional waterfall project this is well understood. The PM is the key person responsible for planning and delivery to the plan, managing communication, risks, changes and issues along the way.

But what about an Agile project? Surely an Agile project team is self-managing, and the business end is handled by the Product Owner?

Well perhaps. But in practice most companies who have used Agile for more than just small, discrete projects have found, unsurprisingly, that there is a need for a project management role also.

The best analogy I have seen here is from Steven Thomas

“The role of the Project Manager is subtly different when using an Agile approach. From my fairly biased view an Agile PM is more a shepherd (or sheep dog) and less a military officer. There is lots of rushing around the edges of the development team but relatively little direct control of what the team does. If you merge together a description of the Project Manager, Scrum Master, Coach, and Tracker from XP, DSDM, Crystal Orange and Scrum you get:

Gather information from all stakeholders and integrate into workable plan; log estimates; advise programmers on their estimates using historical figures; log task assignments; sustain high rate of progress; make decisions; remove impediments; build and sustain team culture; ensure team sticks to process; liaise between management and team; manage customer relationships; fend off “feature creep” and other project hazards; get agreement on the prioritisation of requirements and detailed content of timeboxes; track progress against the timebox goals/plan; collect information without disturbing the process; update plans; communicate progress; ensure that the lessons are learnt; log defects; stay calm.

Things like “remove impediments” and “build and sustain team culture” aren’t normally seen in traditional PM role descriptions. Then there are the softly, softly items like “collect information without disturbing the process” and “get agreement on …”; and notice we “log task assignments” we don’t “assign tasks”. However, when the crunch comes we must still “make decisions”.”

In their paper “Agile project management” Maven make a similar point

“Whilst the role of Project Manager and Team Leader exist as they do in PRINCE2 , the emphasis on the responsibilities is very different and this can cause some adjustment for those project managers coming to Agile from a waterfall background.

The project team is empowered to plan their work in detail and to address issues as they arise with whoever is best placed to solve them. This means that not all communication comes through the Project Manager. [He is] not formally managing the project team, but must be on hand to guide them and to help remove any obstacles that will impede their progress. At the same time, [the PM needs] to be fully aware of the progress that the project team is making so that he or she can relay this to the stakeholders and ensure they have enough information to assure themselves that the project is on track and will deliver what they need.

For project managers used to planning every aspect of their project and conveying this information to team members via detailed work packages, this lack of control over the day to day work can appear threatening. This is why trust and honesty between the team and the Project Manager is vital, as is knowing when to stand back and let the team get on with their work.”

So there you have it. More guidance, less direction. Less a military officer, more a sheepdog.