The role of Project manager in Agile software development

Scrum Project Management

Are we approaching an era where there is no more a place for project managers in the software development life cycle?

Is agile project manager an oxymoron?

Why don’t we have project managers in Scrum?

With the popularisation of Lean and Agile based ways of working in the past decade there is no doubt that software development is moving away from a project based mindset to a product based mindset.

noproject by infoq

Credit: InfoQ: #noprojects – A Culture of Continuous Value

The above infographic has so much to say. We can talk about each one of the items in this image for pages. Each one of these items is worthy of its own blog. But today we are not going to elaborate on why we are moving to a #noproject approach. Instead we are going to talk about the role of project managers in a world that is moving towards #noproject way of working.

Lean-agile mindset promotes breaking down the roles and responsibilities of project managers across the team. Scrum in particular breaks down the responsibilities of the project manager and assigns them to the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and the Team.

Project Manager at Scrum

On larger programs there are other roles (e.g. release train engineer and product manager at SAFe) that now take the additional responsibilities that project managers used to have in similarly sized projects before. These responsibilities include but not limited to managing scope, cost, quality, personnel, communication, risk, procurement and more.

With the #noproject way of working and the inversion of the iron triangle, all project manager responsibilities now can be handled in a distributed manner. So in theory project managers are not required any more in lean-agile ways of working.

Now let’s see if there is any situation where we actually need a project manager in an agile environment.

A pragmatic approach – Agile project Managers

Most Agile transformations are not big bang and there is transition period. Sometimes for various reasons organisations are not happy making the fundamental changes that are required for a true lean-agile transformation.

This means organisations usually build agile software development teams in a context which is not agile (agile teams in non-agile organisations). In these situations, agile way of working is forced in a non-agile context. Experts call this having team and technical agility without business agility.

technical agility without business agility

For example many organisations still use traditional budgeting and forecasting, commit to detailed scope, set up temporary project teams, and in general do not use #noproject and the inverted iron triangle. But they use Scrum and “sprint” during their development and testing phases (i.e. cross functional small teams with short delivery iterations).

Having agile teams in non-agile context still does have significant benefits for organisations but to realise the orders of magnitudes improvements promised by agile case studies we need to fully transform the organisation and have both technical and business agility across the entire enterprise.

In these situations, an agile project manager is a very valuable resource as they both understand the non-agile way of working and agile ways of working. Agile project managers help bridge the gap between non agile business and agile team. It is a very difficult task as they are oiling a machine with two incompatible gears and making it work.

However, as more and more companies move to business agility and #noproject way of working what is going to happen to the role of agile project manager?

Conclusion, What the future beholds

Looking at my magic orb, I can see the silhouette of two possible futures:

  1. More and more organisations will adopt the #noproject way of working and the inverted iron triangle. Eventually we will have a perfect world were project managers are not required any more for software development projects.
  2. We will always have resistance towards business agility and enterprise wide adoption of #noproject approach. We will keep creating agile teams in non-agile organisations. In these situations, we will need agile project managers to bridge the gap between agile teams and the rest of the organisation that treat programs of works as projects instead of products/value Streams.

I think in reality we will probably end up somewhere in between. We will have more and more organisations moving towards #noproject. Over time some will regress back to project based way of working but in general we will have less positions available for agile project managers. So, we will not completely eliminate agile project management but require it less and less every day.

Further learning

Our Leading SAFe course (with SAFe Agilist certificate) dives deeply in agile leadership questions like this one. Apart from discussing and answering questions like the role of project managers in Agile and SAFe, we spend over 2 hours discussing Agile portfolio management in large organisations.

If you are interested to learn more about the role of project managers in agile software development, please read this article by Mike Cohn:

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