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Role of Project Manager in Agile Projects


In many organization, there is paradigm shift from traditional project management styles (widely based on PMI PMP and PRINCE2 standards) to Agile Project management. Role of Project Manager in traditional methodologies is quite prominent and well acknowledged. The Agile project management style being completely different; one obvious question comes – what should the Project Managers do when none of the Agile models define the role of Project Manager? Should they change their role to become a Scrum Master or Product Owner or remain with limited left-over management responsibilities or should do something else? Let’s introspect form different angle.

Is Project Manager a Scrum Master or Product Owner?

Simple answer is ‘NO’; neither a Scrum Master nor Product Owner. Scrum Master is not a Manager; but a ‘Servant Leader’ or ‘Sheep Dog’. True Scrum Master understands that he or she provides services to the project team, remove impediments, coach the team, facilitate meetings and support Product Owners in backlog grooming. He or she is neither a manager nor a leader; rather provides help and support to the project team, Product Owner and acts as the voice of the project team to project stakeholders and customer representatives. He is the Agile process owner, who mandates and enforces adherence to Agile manifesto’s values and principles; and ensures that project processes are implemented appropriately to maximize overall project benefits. They are also responsible for creating project status reports and tracking them, facilitate project ceremonies, meetings and discussions,

Unlike traditionally, Project Managers have complete accountability to the project’s fate and he/she is responsible to plan, manage and take authoritative decisions for the benefits of the project. Scrum Master does not completely owns the project; rather it’s the collective ownership of entire project team including Scrum Master and Product Owner.

Product Owner has the complete ownership to the product being built and represents business users. He or she is responsible to develop and maintain product backlog; resolve team’s functional queries, share users experience and feedbacks with development team, prioritize what features need to be built, bring changes to product features and as per the business need decide which changes should be considered into scope or out of scope and at what priority. Project scope and changes are managed with due consideration to project cost and schedule impacts in collaboration with team. Because of the inherent nature of the Agile projects, role of Product Owners become very critical for the project success in bringing the utmost functionality to market at earliest.

Though, Project Manager has the responsibility of requirement and changes management; but the complete ownership does not lies with him or her. Requirements are defined by customer and changes are governed within Change Control Board under change management process.

Why Agile does not advocate Project Manager’s role?

In one of the post “Agility and PMI” on Ken Schwaber’s Blog; mentions that Project Manager’s role becomes counterproductive in complex and creative work projects. Because they create and follow plans; that limits the creativity of empowered, motivated and self-organized project team. In Scrum model, Project Manager’s role has been replaced by distributing one’s responsibilities among Scrum Master, Product Owner and development team. Because the more emphasis is on collaborative ownership and decision making; team themselves plan to achieve both short-term (sprint/release) and long-term (project/program level) goals and individual members take ownership to do their best to achieve the stated goals. Essentially, most of the project management related activities falls among these three roles collectively. In traditional model, Project Manager is the whole and sole of the project having the complete ownership to command and control. But Agile advocates to collective accountability by the self-directed team, where not a single member is held responsible to any project issues or takes credit to project success. All members are team players having same level of influence on project results and work with collaboration and shared responsibilities.

Are there some management activities that are overlooked?

As both Scrum Master and Product Owner have their own roles and responsibilities and area of influence; but these cannot be considered to be completely as team management or project management. Most of the activities performed by them are subset to what project managers have been doing, but not all. As mentioned earlier, Agile relieved Project Manager from some of the management activities – such as task allocation, task progress and status tracking, quality management, delivery and builds, scope and change management, team meetings and ceremonies facilitation etc.

There are several management activities that are not apparently described in Agile Framework. Following are some of the project management activities which still need to be performed, but Agile models are silent on that…

– Ensure availability of project team and required project resources

– Procure project infrastructure and work-space

– Coordination with organization support and functional groups

– Securing project charter and negotiation to project contract terms and budgets

– Identification project stakeholders, and ensuring buy-ins from them

– Risk identification, mitigation and management strategies

– Third party vendors, partners and suppliers management and coordination

– Client relationship management and satisfaction management

– Ensuring project governance and compliance requirements are met

– Identification and providing customer value add and satisfaction survey

– Communication outside the project, upward to management and sponsors

– Team recruitment and performance appraisal etc.

The list of such management activities are still valid and need to be managed for smooth functioning of the project. Hence, either a project manager, PMO or some dedicated authority with appropriate skills is required to take care of these activities.

What are the options to a Project Manager in Agile projects?

At the ground level, Agile projects can do well without having somebody to manage the projects if there is backing from management to take care of activities mentioned above and Agile project team definitely don’t need a dedicated Project Manager.

Project Manager can choose to become either Scrum Master or Product Owner. Both roles require different approach and mindset shift to perform their functions.

Option-1: Become to Scrum Master & Agile Coach

Person coming from Project Management background can choose to become a servant leader by renouncing authoritative style of management, and learn to become Agile Coach provided team accepts and owns them. Project Manager has already been performing many of the Scrum Master’s functions – project planning, task allocation and monitoring, ensuring team dynamics and performance, help and support to team, generate project status report and metrics, internal and external communication, product delivery quality, resolve issues or conflicts and ensure team bonding etc.

In some of the organizations that are adapting to Agile, Project Managers are naturally treated as Scrum Masters. In such scenario effectiveness and acceptability (both from team and self) of Project Managers are challenged and remains questionable. This ultimately affects the team and manager themselves performance and morale, and ultimately because of this impacting overall project health. In many cases, reasons are simple like many managers face difficulties in renouncing their authority and working style, micro-level management, unable to perform duties and responsibilities of Scrum Master to work with and for the team.

Option-2: Become a Product Owner

In case Project Manager has good domain knowledge and business analytical skills then he could choose to become a good Product Owner. Having project management background and understanding of development process from technical and functional aspects; performing role of Product Owner should help Project Managers.

Person switching to Product Owner’s role should also have to solid understanding of the market dynamics, product functions, and customer preferences and ability to identify the changing business need to prioritize the product backlog as per business value delivery. These are very important functions where most of the Product Owners struggle with. Product owner should not micro-manage and respect development team’s ability to plan and execute sprint / release level work.

Option-3: Choose to be an Agile Change Agent

We noticed, there are some residual responsibilities which Project Manager used to take care of. These responsibilities could be taken care of by PMO or a Project Manager. But it might not be a viable option to have a dedicated Project Manager, but a program or account level it would be needed. A Project Manager trained on Agile methodology, can perform a role of Agile Change Agent, who can assist in strategic decision making, Agile adaption, and scaling to maturity at account and organization level. As a change agent, experienced Project Manager can steer organizations adaption to Agile to maturity by blending best practices at strategic program or account level and promoting Agile practices at tactical project execution and delivery level.

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