How Agile transforms the project manager's role?

As the Agile approach to managing projects is getting more and more popular, there is a growing confusion about the project manager’s role. What happens to it? With Agile heavily preaching shared leadership and responsibility, is the project manager in such an environment doomed? 

Not at all. However, the PMs responsibilities change. Let’s find out how.

What’s the Focus of the Agile Project Manager’s Role?

Before we answer this question, let’s quickly recap the traditional project manager’s role.

In waterfall project management, PMs are responsible for distributing tasks across team members, defining scope in extensive documentation, planning work activities with great detail, updating project status, etc. This is what usually depicts the conventional command and control work environment that I am sure most of you are familiar with. 

In contrast, in Agile, the focus is on self-organizing teams, transparency, and shared ownership of the work process, as well as increased team collaboration. Having said that, if we also take a look at the Agile manifesto and its values and principles, we may quickly conclude that the project manager role becomes redundant. However, is this really the case? Let me explain.

what-is-agile

Agile manifesto values

There is a widespread confusion that when moving to Agile, project managers often should take up the role of a Scrum Master (if you are adopting Scrum). Even in Kanban, where there are no prescribed roles, many teams still choose to have a Service Delivery Manager and call them an Agile or Lean project manager. The thing is that those roles predominantly focus on the team level. In contrast, the project manager in Agile has allegiance to the higher, organizational level too.  

I believe that the confusion comes from the various interpretations of the project manager’s role, and it’s pretty much a question of complexity and scale. Especially if your organization is handling multiple projects, then the project managers are absolutely vital even in an Agile environment. They will act as coordinators and anchors between high-level requirements and work execution on the team-level.

Having said that, we can conclude that the project manager’s role in Agile differs from the responsibilities of Service Delivery Managers or Scrum Masters. Agile project managers abandon the old command and control approach and put more focus on collaboration, agility, and adaptability.

Shared Leadership

What Are the Agile Project Manager’s Responsibilities?

In an Agile environment, the responsibilities of traditional project managers change. Instead of controlling the playing field from a high-level position, they practice horizontal management and constantly seek both internal and external feedback. This way, they are able to successfully react to emerging changes or issues in a timely manner.

Let’s look at the key responsibilities of Agile project managers.

1. Facilitating discussions to improve the collaboration across the organization.

2. Empowering team members to self-organize around their work.

3. Supporting Agile transformation efforts through coaching and trainings.

Agile Project Manager as a Discussion Facilitator

Whether they need to plan work, resolve process roadblocks, understand the pace of the work’s progress, or the talents of their team members, Agile project managers are constantly engaging in discussions. The ability to facilitate such discussions through the use of various feedback opportunities is a critical asset of the Agile project manager. Productive feedback is important to establishing cross-functional teams and a key prerequisite for success in Agile teams.

The Motivator

PMs in Agile turn into top-leaders that lead by example and empower their teams to self-organize their work, considering their strengths and interests. By doing so, they manage to not only maximize the potential of their team, but also to shift the focus to optimize the value delivery process rather than individual performance.

The Change Management Agent

Project managers play a significant role in ensuring the success of every Agile transformation by advocating the principles and values of Agile management. Inconsistency in Agile practices across teams adopting the Agile mindset is still identified as a leading cause of failure to adhere to the Agile ways. In this regard, project managers are responsible for teaching and supporting their teams to understand the reasoning for collaboration, shared leadership, self-organization, and flexibility on their path to true organizational agility.

Agile Challenges

Challenges when adopting and scaling Agile practices

What Are the Skills of Successful Agile Project Managers? 

Agile project managers must develop certain qualities and skillset to ensure that they fulfill their responsibilities at all times. Here is a short list of the qualities that a project manager should have in order to be successful in an Agile environment:

  1. Understanding the big picture and prioritizing work based on high-level goals.
  2. Emotional intelligence and active listening.
  3. Excellent communication within and across hierarchies.
  4. The ability to identify and analyze potential risks.
  5. Conflicts resolution through adaptive leadership.
  6. The ability to continuously improve the processes.

Start by Embracing Agile Thinking

Turning into a project manager in Agile is easier said than done. There are many organizations where Agile frameworks are in place. However, project managers still act in the way they are used to. That’s why to thrive in an Agile environment, you need to first and foremost embrace the Agile mindset.

agile mindset
The Agile mindset: image by Ahmed Sidky

In fact, this is probably the most crucial step of all. To be successful in an Agile environment, PMs need to be more proactive and start putting in practice the Agile principles and values.

Final Words

No matter what, project managers have their place in Agile. However, their role evolves in the form of project leaders rather than just managers. To become a successful PM in Agile, make sure that you embrace the Agile mindset first. Then focus your efforts on leading by example, empowering your team, and managing the work, not the people. 

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