Project manager: friend or foe of agile?

Project manager: friend or foe of agile?

This headline hurts. When I embarked on my agility mission, I did not expect that it would ever become necessary to even think about it. But I still see projects managers being scared or critical of agile and, more concerning, I see more and more agilists getting frustrated and sometimes accusative of project managers. This is not a good development as business agility requires both to work together. Let’s put some rationale on this.

I am a project manager at heart. I am about change. I look for opportunities wherever I stand. I constantly ask: “what can we do better here?”. I am a creator and builder. I am helping businesses and people to grow. And I do it through projects.

Projects are vehicles for change. Change is a constant. It’s needed more than ever. And it’s accelerating. Standing still is regression.

I love the passion and trail-blazer attitude of project managers. This extends to their teams. Together, they want to change things for the better. Often at the personal cost of added workload and long hours. Sometimes, without the certainty of being appreciated and rewarded appropriately. But mostly with the firm belief and clarity that this is the right thing to do.

I started to apply agile practices like daily stand-ups and code reviews in my software development projects as early as 1995. It felt natural. And it worked. We didn’t call it agile then. It was just common sense.

In 2001, the agile manifesto provided answers to the death-march-project-pains of the 1990s and agile project management practices like Scrum started to spread. Together, they revolutionized software development projects. For me, there is no conflict between project management and agile.

So why could there possibly be a conflict?

The topic of this article has been brewing with me for a while. I ignored it at first. Then, the other day, I was invited to a project management conference and executive breakfast. Agility was on the table, more than ever. A professor talked about what Industry 4.0 means for Project Managers. All the right and obvious things were said. But it raised the question for me: Why do we need to tell project managers about this? Shouldn’t they know what agile and change is about? Don’t they know that they need to learn, change, be open? But I could see the uncertainty in some faces and not for the first time.

What follows is my personal, subjective view. Please chime in. Take it as a discussion more than a lecture. Let me start by setting the scene and introducing the players.

The scene

It is 2019, and the third industrial revolution is in full swing. Change pressure is increasing. Businesses are in constant fear of disruption. VUCA rules. Agile methods are providing answers but many struggle with making the change, struggle to transform their culture and leadership, struggle to benefit from agile beyond software development.

The players

Project Managers: they are the heroes of the past, weathered and scarred by driving change. Full of purpose, mission and dedication, battling the dragons of organizational conservatism, pulling along the stoics, dealing with open and underground resistance and yet, prevailing again and again. The weapons of the past, Waterfall, WBS, Critical Path, Risk Management may be chipped and worn, but they still work well.

The Agilists: The new kids on the block, the proponents of the new ways of working. They realize that the battles have changed, that they moved from the open field to the jungle and that they require different weapons and heroes. They believe in the truth and potential of agility. They know it is easy to understand but hard to do. Some are evangelists. You need to do it 100% right, or you will fail. There is only one way. Follow my preaching, and you will be saved.

The Managers: They are the generals. They have proven themselves in numerous and victorious battles. They have served well and followed the line of duty. They took orders and risks, they lead missions and units, and they rose through the ranks. They served the system, the system served them, they understand it well, they are the system.

The Staffers: They are the troops, they face the external world, the new realities every day, and they manage despite. They understand the value of the old and hear the new callings. They waver but are prepared to experiment. They look for compromises, synergies, a balance between the old and new, wanting to preserve what is right, proven, but also seeing the need to change.

Prologue: “We have done it before.”

This story starts with the project managers. When agility came along, many old heroes saw familiar things. I surely did. So it was easy to quickly denounce it by saying: “This is not new, we are doing it already”. This a understandable way to react. This is how people reacted to cloud computing, this is how some are still reacting to agile.

Whenever something new comes along, we judge it based on what we know. About itself and ourselves. But as a futurist, I know that we tend to underestimate long-term potentials. Because we do not immediately recognize the true nature and power of something new. It takes time to fully understand it.

A lot of agile practices are indeed common sense and smart people simply do them. But the full potential of agile does not lie in its individual practices but in the culture change it drives and requires. This is big change that affects everybody, including managers and project managers.

Act 1: The wind of change

The culture change is about a fundamentally different way of working. It’s about a results-driven organization based on professionalism, individuality, and commitment. Project managers won’t have problems with that. But this new organization is founded on self-organization. And self-organization does not need managers. Not even project managers.

Managers are often in a comfortable position to be above change. They instil, own and drive change, but they are not affected by it. This is different now. And it does what it always does. It creates resistance. This is normal, no surprises, nothing new.

Some call it the “frozen middle” or the “permafrost” of an organization. It’s the powerful middle management resisting change. Change to a flatter, more process-oriented organization. Change to a servant front-line leadership style. Change away from corner and window offices, big desks and other status symbols, office politics, information hiding, fancy titles and hierarchies.

I see resistance in managers but also in some project managers. In the past, project managers were the masters of change. Now others claim to be better at that. Agile is change for the old change agents. That is tough. I have been there.

Some still think that “this bus will pass” and that they can sit it out. But there are smart drivers and passionate people on the bus. And the need for change is stronger than ever.

Act 2: The entry of the frustrated agile evangelists

Not every agilist is an evangelist. But when you learn about agility you will run into them. And they can be brutal. They tell you that you don’t understand, they make you feel stupid, they shroud themselves in intelligible words. They love admitting that they don’t know – just trust and follow the process. They don’t care to bridge the old to the new. They are the purists. Believe first, follow me, understanding will come.

I struggled with this. As a consultant, I always try to understand first, then make myself understood, then help others to make the transition. I understand them now. Looking back, I am thankful for having had such touch teachers. But I can also understand that others despair.

So everything is well from the perspective of the agilist? Not at all!

If I talk to agile practitioners in my communities and clients, I increasingly hear something that worries me: frustration. Frustration about the resistance of managers, frustration about how long it takes, frustration about faux agile, and frustration about their inability to fix it.

Most of the agile evangelists I have met are pure breeds. They grew into agility from university and live it to the fullest. Like me, when I was a young software developer, they believe that doing the right thing is enough to be successful. And they despair when they face the old generals with decades of organizational experience and their big stakes in the system.

What worries me also is that some agilists start to oppose project managers by saying things like: “Waterfall is wrong”, “Projects are so yesterday.”, “Project managers are not needed anymore.” Although there is some truth in those purist messages, they are unfair, and there is a middle ground. Let me take it.

Act 3: “Waterfall is wrong”

It depends on the situation. Yes, the situation is changing. And it favours agile over waterfall.

But there are still situations where waterfall is warranted for high reliability or compliance. Sometimes, a hybrid approach is best: build the infrastructure with waterfall, then the software with agile. Many of our agile transformation programs aim at building hybrid project management frameworks.

Waterfall and agility are just tools in the organizational toolbox. They need to be understood and used wisely. Neither provides answers to everything. There is no silver bullet.

Waterfall and agile are often seen as black and white alternatives when managing projects. Let’s assume that there may be pure agile, but pure waterfall only exists in theory.

During my project management classes, we don’t teach that you need to plan only once. Instead, we prepare project managers for constantly adjusting their plans as needed. Even in a fixed-price project there is some flexibility. In project management we call it risk buffer.

Over-planning is futile, and phases should be regarded as constant activities that may be performed repeatedly as required.

Waterfall tries to do as much as possible when the phase for it comes. Agile distributes it more. But both follow the same principle. Agile calls it Plan-Do-Check-Adjust and does it continuously. Waterfall calls it planning, implementation and controlling. And does it regularly, as needed.

So agilists are right that waterfall is increasingly being challenged by agility. But it does not invalidate it.

No big drama.

Act 4: “Projects are so yesterday”

A project is a temporary organization that is staffed with cross-functional people to implement change. An agile team is a permanent organization that is staffed with cross-functional people to own change. It sounds similar, but it is the permanence that matters.

One of the most emotional moments in projects is when an established and well-performing team needs to disband at the end of the project. After going through all the – often painful – team-building phases.

Some of my closest friendships started in projects. The long hours together, the trust, the respect you gained for each other. The many battles you fought and won together. This is magic! Wouldn’t it be great if this could continue? If we could all move together to the next project? If we could do it again and even better?

Guess what! This is now becoming a reality in agile teams. Agile teams, following DevOps, are often constructed for permanence to own the development and operations, the change and run.

If permanent agile teams are the new operational blueprint and the new vehicles of change, then, yes, there will be less need for projects. Projects will still be needed for the occasional top-down, big change. There will also be less overworked staff struggling to fulfil their ops and project duties loaded on-top, burning high and eventually out.

So agilist are right with the long-term trend towards the reduction of projects, but there are benefits that project managers will also enjoy.

No big drama.

Act 5: “Project managers are not needed anymore.”

Obviously, if there are fewer projects, there will be less need for people to manage them. But the question is: “When?”. It depends on the speed of the organizational uptake of agility. Many are struggling with this. It also depends on the speed of external change. And that is increasing.

Talking to my clients, I don’t see that the project load is decreasing. So, don’t hang your shield on the wall and retire as a project manager yet!

Another argument of agile evangelists is that agile methods like Scrum do not have the exact equivalent of a project manager as the single point of responsibility for a project as they assume self-organization.

At the beginning of the project, project managers are hired for project management and often domain and technical expertise. But at the end of the project, they are usually appreciated and successful because of their social competency.

Project managers don’t have formal authority. They need to build it, earn trust and respect through coaching, supporting and guiding their teams, rather than micro-managing them. This is what good project managers do. And this is what an agile team needs from its Scrum master. It needs a servant leader that helps the team to succeed.

Most project managers have no issue with becoming Scrum masters or agile coaches. It is the role that allows them to continue doing what they are doing best as project managers anyway: coaching their teams and keeping them productive.

The project manager might not be called “project manager” anymore, but the capabilities, strengths, and experiences of great project managers are still needed. And probably even more so.

As a traditional project manager, you are often confined to your project without influence on your environment where problems for your project may originate from. This can create frustration with project managers.

As a Scrum Master you are on the mission to resolve external impediments that impact the performance of your team. You are expected and allowed to take an active role in shaping the environment of your project. This brings project managers’ capabilities to manage without authority to the next level.

So, agilists are right that the number of projects will eventually decrease when organizations learn how to continuously adapt and change. But it is unclear when this will happen.

Sure is, that the strengths of competent project managers will continue to be of extreme value to their organizations and will have an even greater impact when they act as agile coaches with a broader organizational scope.

No big drama.

Last Act: Happy end?

So there should be peace between the agilists and the project managers. At last, they both want the same: successful organizations, happy customers, powerful results. They just do it differently.

What unites them is a common challenge: helping the organization to make the change. In this case: the bit change to business agility. What if they would work together to drive it?

The agilists know the targets at which the old heroes can direct their weapons and experience of organizational change. Together, they can win this!

So here it is, my suggestion for a happy ending: Let’s unite. The Davids and Goliaths together. All Avengers. For this one last, big change.

Epilogue: The beginning of the last big change

I have seen many organizational changes. From inside and outside of the organization. I was driving it as a sponsor, I was managing it as a change agent and consultant, and, sometimes, I was also impacted by it.

An agile business transformation is probably the most challenging transformation you will ever do. It will probably also be your last. It will be your last because it changes your organization to one that is able to continuously change itself. But getting there is hard, very hard.

Addressing this is not about agility. Not at all. It is about good old change management. Prosci and Kotter to the rescue. Wisdom from before agile. Done better than ever before. It requires dedicated and professional change management and a full 360-degree program. And it requires leveraging the best you have: your project managers and your agilists.

Instead of foes, project managers should be regarded as the friend and a key to the success of agile not only in projects but also and primarily in the business.

Project managers have no reason to fear agility. It plays squarely at their strengths. They should embrace it and make the personal change needed to help their organizations to use it wisely.

Agilists should not be frustrated. Change at the magnitude required by an agile transformation is hard and resistance is to be expected. They should reach out to project managers and learn from their experiences about how to manage it.

Both should unite to drive this last big change taking along the generals, the managers, and the troops.