The Agile Project Manager

It is common to see a role in company hierarchies and organisation 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? Bluntly, where does it fit in?

These days I work in the Agile space enabling organisations and helping them becoming more value-focused and successful, but at the same time I’ve spent roughly an equal amount of my career focused on traditional Waterfall project and program management. So, my hope is that this background gives me enough experience to discuss this role that sits in the crossroads of Agile and Waterfall.

I shall begin with a definition/explanation of the standard 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 exploration and deep sea exploration, skyscraper building and microchip manufacturing, even in 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 certain parameters, normally understood to be Scope, Budget and Date. I discussed these in more detail, in a previous blog of mine – Project Management Basics.

These three are managed by the project manager to give an understanding of the future, that indeed many would call ‘control’. Now we all know, when we pause and use logic, 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 try to insist 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 both good examples of projects that ran over by billions.

Between Waterfall and Agile there is a fundamental difference in that project management seeks control whilst agile teams seek trusted environments. Project management focuses on delivering supposed knowns whilst agile accepts the unknown state of the future and so relies on rapid testing of hypotheses to find the best future as quickly as possible.

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This completely different approach means that when the world of Agile and its frameworks, such as Scrum, were created there was never a project manager role included. 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 delivery team optimiser. 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.

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. It is a Waterfall role that 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 not taken the time to or do not want to learn Agile ways of working. In this sense the Project Manager offers a translation service between the Agile delivery teams and the Waterfall management. Effectively, the delivery teams are able to 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 and that is why the role of Agile Project Manager is not uncommon. Certainly it is a good indicator of organisations that are looking to transform but are currently still working out the details of how that is going to work. Some level of change resistance, at all organisational levels, is guaranteed and to be expected. This is normal.

Perhaps for a potential Agile Project Manager the focus is around how stable that role is…what are the expectations of the management team?

The reality still exists that the Agile Project Manager is a role that crosses two worlds and is helpful for organisations in a transition, but there are two concerns here;

  1. The Agile Project Manager role is a patch used to cover up the fact that some parts of the organisation is not open to other, newer ways of working. This is worrying; organisations only survive through change, staying still is the death knell for any organisation in a competitive environment. It also undermines the delivery teams belief in the organisation’s commitment to change and so will limit their commitment to the change.
  2. What is the future for the Agile Project Manager? The organisation is in a paused transition state and it is not clear on where the priorities are. For any budding Agile Project Manager, I would suggest seeking great clarity on the role and responsibilities expected of it.
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Some sensible precautions for an Agile Project Manager (APM), then;

  1. Create a working agreement with management
    1. Agree how often you will meet (regular and frequent)
    2. Vision
      1. Define the expectations of the management team – allow them to own the writing of this. An APM may coach them, neutrally, but it must be the management teams document. This will be a loose statement of intent, with likely emotional descriptors.
    3. Agree expectations on both sides
      1. Clarify the responsibility of leaders and stakeholders to be available to team and APM and define the multiple feedback loops, but also define the shift away from status reporting to feedback based upon actual delivery.
      2. What success vectors are there? What defines success? Quality? Project hitting a date? Don’t promise miracles
        1. Ideally when defining success vectors, use OKR’s and not KPI’s so that they 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).
      3. 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 organisational

I’m hoping 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 robert@gwspartners.co.uk

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