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6 reasons why Project Managers are still essential to the success of an agile project

6 reasons why Project Managers are still essential to the success of an agile project

There are, as you may know, a few key differences between agile and traditional waterfall projects, when managed using PRINCE2®.

Matt PerkinsTraditional waterfall projects are delivered sequentially, whereas agile projects tend to be iterative and incremental. Traditional project practitioners are constantly balancing between the six controls of time, cost, benefits, risk, scope and quality - within defined and agreed tolerances. On the other hand Agile project practitioners in a PRINCE2® environment will be fixing time and cost tolerances to zero, whilst being change friendly in regard to scope.

The image below shows the PRINCE2 Agile™ guidance about which project controls may flex, and which must be fixed. It’s not that the fixed controls cannot ever flex – but they have their tolerance set to zero, meaning any expected deviations would require escalation (management by exception, for instance if more budget was required then this would need to escalated to the project board via an exception report).

Fixed and Flexible Project Controls - PRINCE2 Agile™

©AXELOS Limited, reproduced under licence from AXELOS Limited. All rights reserved.

A question we are sometimes asked is: if the two approaches are so different in how they’re run, is there still a need for a Project Manager on an agile project?

The answer is simple: Yes! A Project Manager is essentially the glue between the overall governance of the project, and the team(s) delivering the project’s scope. Agile hasn’t changed this. In fact, it is perhaps even more important on an agile project to have someone responsible for tracking the project to the business case and steering the direction of the project. This will help ensure a ‘fast moving’ delivery team keeps their ‘eyes on the prize’ – and the Project Manager is that person.

Project Managers in the agile community

Some agile practitioners have indicated they feel a servant leader role (i.e. scrum master) is a suitable and sufficient replacement for a Project Manager; and that the Project Manager role is no longer required.

In a business-as-usual context, where a product already exists and additions/improvements are being made, we would agree. In this situation it is entirely sensible to require a servant leader only, and not a Project Manager.

However, projects are different. By definition projects are temporary, unique and complex. They are setup to address a specific problem, opportunity or change; and as such require specific governance and management for their duration. On a project a service leader and a Project Manager have two completely different functions; the former is embedded in a delivery team to remove obstacles, the latter plans, monitors and controls the project.

Differences between Projects and Business as Usual

©[email protected] and Dave Watson. All rights reserved.

What can Project Managers bring to agile projects?

1. Communication

One of the biggest elements of being a Project Manager is having those all-important soft skills to enable confident, clear and concise communication within the project team, and between the project and the wider organization. It’s common (and essential) for individual agile development teams to communicate well between themselves, but less of a priority to communicate with other teams internal and external to the project. Delivery teams may be carrying out the necessary activities to achieve the intended outputs, but it’s a secondary priority to see how this fits into the bigger picture. A Project Manager can help to monitor/manage all the teams (both within and outside the project) to keep the project heading in the right direction.

2. Stakeholder engagement

Defining escalation paths and intentionally managing project stakeholders is a vital part of any successful communication management strategy. This a key responsibility for a Project Manager and includes escalating risks and issues up to the governance team, and communicating decisions back down.

3. Enabling teams to do what they do best

Project Managers create and maintain the environment for people to do what they do best and for agile delivery teams that is collaboration with customers and understanding the requirements and the solutions as the project evolves: inspecting, adapting and learning throughout. What agile delivery teams don’t do so well is senior stakeholder management and understanding the overall risks and issues associated with the project from the business’ viewpoint. That’s where the Project Manager fulfils the role so delivery teams can concentrate on what they do best.

4. Removing obstacles

Project Managers help agile projects progress by understanding and anticipating risks, mitigating them and therefore being in the prime position to remove obstacles. They understand the organization and how the project fits in, so they assign the right people to the right roles. Project Managers are responsible for maintaining a high performing team environment – something delivery teams need to focus less on while trying to deliver products and services.

5. Aligning the project with the business case

The Project Manager ensures the business case is well defined and constantly revisits it to verify the teams are heading in the right direction. Often there will be multiple delivery teams involved in a project requiring a higher level of planning and control, led by the Project Manager with that holistic view.

6. Planning

Many think agile projects don’t or can’t plan - but that’s not true. Even agile projects still need an overall project plan to ensure the right thing is delivered, in the right way and at the right time. To do this the Project Manager needs to coordinate roles, arrange meetings with senior stakeholders and have an understanding of projects and set goals – key criteria for an agile project.

Project vision and roadmap - PRINCE2 Agile™

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Regardless of whether a project is agile or traditional waterfall, we believe the role of the Project Manager shouldn’t be up for debate.

If you were organizing a holiday in a typically traditional or waterfall approach you’d know exactly when you were leaving and when you were coming back. You’d also have booked all the restaurants, activities and hotels in advance and you would know day by day what was happening. If you organized that same holiday using an agile approach, you’d know exactly what your budget was, when you were leaving and when you’d be back but you might have only booked in a few “must-do” things; the rest is a case of seeing what happens when you’re there. Regardless of how you plan your holiday, you still need to know what clothes to take, how much money is needed, the arrival and departure dates and manage to that.  It’s the same with projects.

Traditional waterfall is about committing to an initial plan and controlling any changes. Agile on the other hand is about having a clearly defined destination, and enabling the team to discover the best way to get there as the project evolves (being change friendly).

But, in either case, we believe you still need a Project Manager to ensure it’s done right.

See our PRINCE2 Agile™ section for more information.

Read Dave Watson's previous AXELOS Blog Post, PRINCE2® Agile - best of both worlds.

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