It is common to see a role in company hierarchies and organization charts, in job adverts even that of the Agile Project Manager. The questions that come to mind are, what is that role? What are the roles and responsibilities? Then, bluntly, where does it fit in?
These days I work in the Agile space, enabling organizations and helping them become more value-focused and successful. At the same time, I've spent roughly an equal amount of my career focused on traditional Waterfall projects and program management. I hope this background gives me enough experience to discuss this role at the crossroads of Agile and Waterfall.
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What is an Agile Project Manager?
I shall begin with a definition/explanation of the traditional role of the project manager and then explore it with an Agile eye to see where it fits.
A project manager is a role that pervades most industries, whether in aerospace, government, IT, finance, or marketing. The role is pertinent and widespread. We see it used in space and deep sea exploration, skyscraper building and microchip manufacturing, hospitals, and pollution clean-up. The role is everywhere. It is ubiquitous.
The role of the project manager is to enable:
- The delivery of a project within specific parameters,
- Customarily understood to be Scope,
- Budget and Date.
The project manager manages these three to give an understanding of the future that, indeed, many would call 'control'. Yet, when we pause and use logic, we all know that we cannot control the future; it is the great unknown in our lives. Nobody knows when lightning will strike or when ships will capsize.
Nonetheless, we insist on when a project will be delivered, what scope it will contain, and what it will cost. Just think of any large-scale publicly paid project, and you will quickly see what a falsehood this usually is; HS2 in the UK or the F-35 fighter aircraft program in the USA are good examples of projects run over by billions.
Seek Trusted Environments
Between Waterfall and Agile, there is a fundamental difference in that project management seeks control whilst agile teams seek trusted environments. Furthermore, project management focuses on delivering supposed knowns whilst agile accepts the unknown state of the future and relies on rapid testing of hypotheses to find the best future as quickly as possible.
This completely different approach means that when Agile and its frameworks, such as Scrum, were created, a project manager role was never included. For example, the Scrum Master role in Scrum is not there to control the team or to pass on their progress information to stakeholders. Instead, it is the role of the delivery team optimizer. The team themselves are the ones who take on responsibility for updating their progress reporting in the software progress tracking tool of choice (see JIRA and Azure DevOps software as examples), and this, in turn, provides most of the reporting.
Linking different groups with common goals
So, this takes us all the way back to the beginning; what is the role of the Agile Project Manager? It is a role between two worlds.
First, a Waterfall role is being used with Agile teams. In my experience, the Project Manager role is used in the Agile space when those seeking data from the delivery teams have yet to take the time to or do not want to learn Agile working methods. In this sense, the Agile Project Manager offers a translation service between the Agile delivery teams and the Waterfall management. Effectively, the delivery teams can practice Agile delivery whilst the management still receive the same documents and reporting that they are used to.
From the management point-of-view, this is undoubtedly a valuable service to offer, which is why the role of Agile Project Manager is not uncommon. Indeed, it is a good indicator of organizations that are looking to transform but are still working out the details of how that will work. Some level of change resistance, at all organizational levels, is guaranteed and to be expected. This is normal.
For a potential Agile Project Manager, the focus is on how stable that role is... what are the management team's expectations?
The reality still exists that a role crosses two worlds and is helpful for organizations in a transition.
But there are —
Two Concerns of The Agile Project Manager
- The Agile Project Manager role is a patch used to cover up that some parts of the organization still need to open to other, newer ways of working. This is worrying; organizations only survive through change, and staying still is the death knell for any organization in a competitive environment. It also undermines the delivery teams' belief in the organization's commitment to change and will limit their commitment to said change.
- What is the future of the Agile Project Manager? The organization is in a paused transition state, and it needs to be clarified where the priorities are. For any budding Agile Project Manager, I suggest seeking great clarity on the role and responsibilities expected of it.
Then, it is essential to put into practice —
Some sensible precautions for an Agile Project Manager (APM)
1 - Create a working agreement with the management
Agree on how often you will meet. It should be regular and frequent.
2 - Define the management team's vision and expectations
Allow the management team to own the writing of this. An APM may coach them neutrally, but it must be the management team's document. This will be a loose statement of intent, with likely emotional descriptors.
3 - Agree to expectations on both sides.
Clarify the responsibility of leaders and stakeholders to be available to the team and APM and define the multiple feedback loops, but also define the shift away from status reporting to feedback based upon actual delivery.
- What success vectors are there?
- What defines success?
- Is the product hitting quality standards?
- Is the project hitting a date?
- Don't promise miracles.
Ideally, when setting expectations and defining success vectors, use OKRs, not KPIs, to imply direction, not success points.
The future is unknown, and therefore so is the definition of success; allow the definition to be learnt (management will likely need to be taught this).
If you want to aid your delivery teams' success, they will thrive with greater autonomy and a trusted environment. So define the focus of the delivery team as being on the here and now with a near-term planning focus and the leadership/management's planning focus firmly on the mid-to-long-term future. This drives mindset and organization.
I hope this gives some good idea of what an Agile Project Manager might be and how it works. Please reach out with questions and feedback to email@example.com
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This piece was originally posted on Feb 25, 2020, and has been refreshed with updated links and styling.