The agile imperative for project managers

The agile imperative for project managers

Agile is such a hot topic at the moment with clear recognition that agile approaches are increasingly important to fast-paced, organizational change.

Jane NicholsIt’s definitely up there as important to the future of the project management profession and the people in it. Project managers need to be good at it and make it work well, not just work.

Currently, the response to agile varies: some people have embraced it wholeheartedly but found it doesn’t work for everything. That suggests we’re not going to lose the more traditional project management approaches, especially with projects involving regulatory change. Agile’s “80% complete” scenario is not going to work there!

In circumstances where the requirements are fully known, you don’t need agile’s iterations and I’d be concerned about people using agile for physical infrastructure projects.

However, agile is important to the future of project management and I think there are three main areas to consider:

  1. Management and techniques – monitoring and control
  2. Engaging with sponsors and stakeholders
  3. Governance.

Management techniques

Managing an agile project management environment needs to focus on the delivery of value rather than the traditional delivery and completion of products. In practice, that means:

  • Asking how closely your current release meets stakeholder expectations?
  • Prioritizing your work according to gaps – the difference between meeting expectations and what was possible to deliver in that release/sprint.
  • Agile can’t involve heavyweight status reporting. What stakeholders want to know is that there’s progress towards realizing value.
  • Managing teams needs a high level of motivation and collaboration, e.g. a Kanban board of sticky notes that move with progress
  • Ideally collaboration requires the technical people to sit next to the business people, working together. If this is not possible, as project manager you still need to find a way for the team to work collaboratively.
  • In decision making, who will have the balance of responsibility? It used to be the sponsor, but now you’ve got product owners too, so who will have the final say?

Engaging sponsors and stakeholders

  • They have to be comfortable with an agile way of working.  
  • Timings for engagement have to be in line with the rhythm of to keep the fast pace going while giving them what they
  • If the sponsor isn’t located in the same workspace you keep them informed, probably more frequently than with a traditional approach.
  • You need to (re)confirmwith sponsors and stakeholders what value.


  • Who are the decision makers and who are the deputies who can make decisions in order to not waste time with consensus maintain agility? For some organizations that will be a cultural change, never mind the experience for project managers!

Ultimately, project managers need to be able to move between agile and traditional approaches as appropriate. Evangelists for agile believe it can be used for everything, which I don’t believe is the case. However, traditional project management doesn’t work for everything either.

To live in the brave new world, it’s going to be different, but the techniques project managers already have must be adaptable.

For example, within a programme you can have both agile and traditionally-managed projects working side-by-side towards the organization’s ultimate vision. Each side needs to open its eyes and learn from the other one.

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Ultimately, project managers need to be able to move between agile and traditional approaches as appropriate
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