April 13, 2015

The Role of the Project Manager in Agile Development

When it comes to agile methodologies, especially Scrum, the role of project manager simply isnt there to be found. This is because the very basis of a managers authority in a team stems from a set of values that is antithetic to those espoused by agile.

Unlike traditional waterfall methods, roles and responsibilities in agile teams are distributed equitably among all the members on a project and the main distinctive roles in this flatter environment are those of: team member, scrum master and product owner.

On the other hand, more moderate proponents of agile has taken a more evolutionary stance towards the role of project manager.

They suggest that the time has come for project managers to adapt their existing role into that of a scrum master or product owner in order to remain relevant in agile teams.

The agile team structure seems to confirm the notion that the role of project manager has become obsolete, however closer inspection of the differences between the project manager and scrum master suggests that at the root of any apparent conflict lies simply a change in perception of team dynamics.

Differences in approach

Whereas most people tend to see the roles of project manager and scrum master as diametrically opposite, in perpetual struggle with each other, this perception has its basis more in a polarised way of seeing things rather than in factual, unbiased observation.

The polarised way of looking at the conflict tends to ascribe a command and controltrait to the role of project manager and contrast it with the servant leaderquality of the scrum master role.

Whilst a command and controlmode of operation is unsustainable in an agile environment, this isnt a characteristic of project managers in general, but one inherent in traditional development methodologies where the role of project manager first originated.

Project Manager vs Scrum Master

Plugging project managers into an agile environment neednt be an impossibility.

Whilst assuming that a scrum master is simply a project manager wearing agile clothes, this facile reduction of both roles disregards important functional differences between the two.

Yes, the general approaches of a scrum master and project manager are indeed different and can be bridged together to find a middle-ground approach that benefits from the linearity and sense of purpose of a project manager, as well as the flexibility and versatility of a scrum master.

However, the functions executed by both roles cannot be so easily reconciled and made to overlap.

Executing specialised tasks

The move from waterfall to agile impacts project managers in that most of their functions become redundant or distributed to all the team members.

In the light of this shift however, I suggest that agile project managers dont become useless, rather their function in the team becomes more specialised to certain traditional business management tasks that dont quite fall within the scrum masters remit.

The tasks that can be overseen by project managers in agile teams can include:

  • Project financials;
  • Status reporting;
  • Project governance;
  • Identification of missing roles and/or resources;
  • Business stakeholder communication;
  • Risk communication and management;
  • Project planning;
  • Change management.

In conclusion

The role of agile project manager isnt going to vanish with the increase in popularity of agile methodologies.

What is happening instead, is a gradual yet decisive whittling away of functions traditionally associated with project managers.

The end-result of this process will be a leaner, more agile role that can fit in agile environments and help execute important tasks that complement those of the scrum master and are directed on a higher, team-wide and department-wide level.

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