agile enterprise

  • Will project managers survive the agile enterprise?

    CEOs are starting to realise that the markets in which their companies operate are changing at an accelerating pace. What worked 10 years ago just doesn't work anymore.

    Customers are becoming increasingly demanding and their demands are changing constantly – driven by technology adoption in the consumer market.

    While the telephone took 39 years to reach 40% penetration, it has taken smartphones less than 10 years to reach the same adoption levels, according to a Harvard Business Review blog (The Pace of Technology Adoption is Speeding Up). And there's no sign of this stopping. Rather it is accelerating, which explains why CEOs now regard technology factors as the single most important external force shaping their organisations, according to IBM's 2013 Global C-Suite Study.

    The IT world is feeling the pressure too and this is accentuated in companies that rely heavily on technology to deliver their value proposition to customers. Approaches that worked previously just don't work any more because we don't have the luxury of the time – we have to think smarter and act faster.

    The central tenet of the Agile movement is about doing smaller and smaller pieces of work – getting them done and delivering value as fast as possible. The problem with the traditional discipline of project management is that it combines work in big batches that is completed in a sequential manner and is thus very slow to deliver business value. This begs the question: in an increasingly Agile world, will project management be able to scale down to these small batch sizes? Time will tell but right now it seems that project managers are struggling to make this paradigm shift.

    For any given piece of a work, a project manager allocates a management overhead, which makes sense if the batch of work is big enough. This overhead includes the project manager, budget, governance requirements, assigning a team and the other things needed to ensure the project is completed as required. If the piece of work is too small the team becomes too big for the work, and assigning a team full time to said project will result in wasted resources (among other things). The apparent fix in project management is to have many projects and assign people to many projects. But case studies have shown that humans are not good at multitasking and working on multiple projects, and assigning people across multiple projects just creates additional overhead. At a certain small size the project management paradigm falls apart.

    In Agile, one of the things we recognise is the concept of self-organising teams. The principle is that teams organise and manage themselves. An agile team is directed from outside but manages and organises itself internally. This is traditionally the domain of a project manager. But if the team is self-managing, what is the role of a project manager? This is one of the primary reasons why in Scrum they are called Scrum Masters, not project managers, because they do not manage the team. Although the project manager role could still be needed to co-ordinate where there are multiple teams, Agile looks at the team as the smallest unit and the project manager has no role in a team. In a small project with few teams the need for the overseeing role of a project manager is also diminished. Even though project management is still needed and done by the team, there is no need for a specialised role for this.

    Currently, the Project Management Institute (PMI) is trying to work out what the evolving role of project manager will be in an Agile world. The Institute is creating a body of knowledge for the Agile project manager including a separate certification, which shows that PMI recognises the difference in traditional IT project managers versus Agile project managers. Does PMI have a final answer yet? In the short term I don't think so. We see a lot of project managers moving from their traditional roles to Scrum master positions. Many of them struggle with this because in essence these two roles are different. Traditional project management is command and control – in Scrum, the leadership style is lead and collaborate. It's a big jump for project managers and they need different skills to succeed in that sphere.

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