Thursday, September 11, 2008

The role of Project Managers in Agile Projects

I recently attended Allan Kelly's presentation on 'Why and How to Become Agile', an event organised by the BCS Project Management Specialist Group. As you would expect from an experienced agile practitioner, Allan provided a good overview of what agile was and why he considered agile to be better.

However, given that the audience was mainly project managers of one sort or another, I was interested in his statements on the role of project managers in agile developments. Mainstream agile methods such as XP, SCRUM or Crystal are very silent about the role of the Project Manager. This doesn't mean that they can be dispensed with, it is just that the various agile developments concentrate on the approach to improving business value with a development rather than the associated management tasks. I know agile promotes self-organising teams (in my experience this is removing a hierarchy of developers, architects and testers) but I know of few organisations that don't allocate a project manager to a development project however small. I therefore advocate that the project manager role remains as critical as ever although the scope of some of his tasks may change.

Regardless of the development approach, all projects need to manage risk, budgets, communications and resources (physical and people). The classic management approach is for these tasks to be allocated to a (often dedicated) project manager so that the workers can get on with serious development work. I don't think there is any need for this approach to significantly change. One task which Allan indicated would change for the project manager was planning as the emphaisis on planning changes in agile developments to be much less formal. This may be appropriate for (small) purely software development projects but the vast majority of projects are multi-disciplined in which the dependencies between the various activities need to be accepted and understood by all parties regardless of the formality of capturing this information. The project manager's role still remains an important factor in the eventual success of the project and the choice of project manager is probably more important than ever. In my experience the best project managers for developments adopting some agile practices are those who are hands-on, are developers who have experienced agile first-hand, understand the project and are empowered to make decisions. It is the last point which mustn't be under-estimated; delays in decision making processes are classic signs of a development that is struggling and agile developments can't afford unnecessary delays.

I note that the latest DSDM version (Atern) now explicitly includes the role of a Project Leader (you can even get a qualification). Does this now recognise that the classic project manager now needs to more formally recognised in agile developments? I would probably say no; it is probably more a reflection on the type of organisations using DSDM who feel comfortable with an explicit role being defined rather a comment on the management of agile developments in general.

Now that agile development approaches have become more accepted as a 'normal' way of performing software developments, it is probably true to say that the role of the project manager has survived relatively intact. However the project manager now has a key role in being much more involved with the development rather than performing a purely managerial overview role; but this is what the best project managers have always done.