They say life isn’t linear, but your career path as a project manager may have looked like this:
Life seems good. You work on interesting projects with great people. You have learned how to do project management within a structure that follows a waterfall (or somewhat linear) series of processes.
Suddenly, your organization decides to ‘go agile’. You find yourself asking, ‘now what do I do?’ Am I capable of being a project manager in an agile environment?
The answer, of course, is yes! In this article, I’ll explore how to make the transition from delivering projects in a traditional ‘waterfall’ framework to adopting agile processes.
What Is Agile?
Agile seems to be a commonly used buzzword these days that’s used to describe how people work (I’m working agile), how things are planned (we’ve planned this to be agile), and everything else in between. Before we can look at how to transform yourself, let’s start with an understanding of what agile is as it relates to project management and project management methodologies.
According to Scrum Alliance, “Agile is an umbrella term that refers to a family of approaches that share common values and principles.” Agile frameworks like Scrum “break down complex projects into smaller pieces so teams can continuously deliver value on a more frequent basis to customers”.
Agile project management is an iterative approach to managing projects that focuses on continuous release of project deliverables (in increments) and incorporating customer feedback with every iteration or release.
Agile principles and values such as ‘people over processes’ and ‘customer collaboration over contract negotiation are derived from the Agile Manifesto (officially known as The Manifesto for Agile Software Development).
Project teams that embrace agile project management frameworks like Scrum or Kanban increase their productivity, expand collaboration and communication, and foster the ability to better respond to market trends.
As agile project management places a high value on continuous improvement and incorporation of feedback, there is a high degree of collaboration and communication required among a project’s stakeholders (which can include people like the project team, the Product Owner, the product manager, and, of course, the customer).
What Does An Agile Project Manager Do?
Regardless of whether a project manager is delivering an agile or waterfall project, there are some common tasks that a project manager will need to complete that may include:
- Facilitating project planning
- Planning project resources (which could include people, equipment, and materials)
- Overseeing the project timelines and budget
- Communicating with the project stakeholders (which could include the project team, customers, clients, and senior management)
An agile project manager will spend a majority of their time communicating and interacting with the project team and acting as a facilitator, just as a waterfall project manager would. However, the main differences between agile and waterfall lie in how each of the tasks above may be accomplished.
For example, in waterfall project management (and if a project manager follows a framework such as the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), a whole phase of a project may be devoted to planning. During this phase, the project manager and team will be expected to define all of the work that will need to be completed during the project upfront.
As Bruce Garrod notes, “A project lifecycle typically involves four phases. Ideally, each phase is completed before the next begins. For example, documentation created in the initiating phase is completed prior to the beginning of the planning phase, all planning is completed before executing (implementation) begins, and so on.” Actual work on the project’s deliverable does not actually begin until the ‘execution’ phase.
By contrast, as agile project management is intended to deliver smaller increments of work or value to a customer at more frequent intervals, an agile project team may not devote an entire phase to planning before work begins.
In an agile project, project teams may start working on the project deliverables with a base set of requirements or expectations from a customer. As the project progresses, the deliverable(s) will become more defined based on customer feedback.
A project manager will still be required to complete planning on an agile project, but planning may be done at a regular 2 week interval (or sprint). In this case, the project manager will need to plan for the upcoming sprint or two as opposed to planning for the entire project’s work upfront. During the sprint, the team completes work, presents it to the customer, and obtains feedback, after which the planning and executing cycle repeats.
Agile Project Management Roles
If you find yourself in an organization that is transforming to agile delivery methods or if you have switched employers and find yourself joining a new agile team, you may be asking yourself, “What exactly is my role on this team?”
That’s a great question as there is some overlap between the responsibilities a project manager may have in both agile and waterfall project teams, but there are also some differences.
Let’s start by taking a look at some of the different roles.
Agile Project Manager
This may seem like a big contradiction—how can a traditional, waterfall project manager be agile?
As much as we would like to believe that organizations and teams are either strictly agile or waterfall, there are a lot of gray areas where an organization may be in a transition or, for business reasons, decide to adopt both concepts from waterfall and agile methodologies.
In project teams like this, an agile project manager may be involved with some of the tasks such as planning for resources and managing a project budget, but they may also conduct project planning utilizing agile methods such as Scrum or Kanban.
An agile project manager may help the team with project planning tasks such as story point estimation and sprint planning, as well as assist the Product Owner with communications to stakeholders.
As many organizations still require project governance, the role of an agile project manager can be helpful to ensure that other tasks, such as alignment with a formal PMO, are followed.
If an organization has adopted an agile framework such as Scrum, Kanban, or SAFe®, the role of the Scrum Master is part of the project or software development team. If you are new to agile frameworks, you may not be familiar with the Scrum Master role so let’s take a minute to define it.
According to Scrum Alliance, “A Scrum Master is the Scrum Team member tasked with fostering an effective and productive working environment and guiding others to understand Scrum values, principles and practices.”
Scrum Masters play an important role on an agile team by:
- Helping to facilitate agile events such as sprint planning meetings, daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, retrospectives, and backlog refinement sessions
- Assisting the Product Owner with refining and prioritizing the product backlog
- Helping to remove blockers or impediments that might prevent the team from meeting their goals
- Mentor and coach the team on Scrum, Kanban, or agile approaches, processes, workflows, methods, and tools
The role of a Scrum Master is often seen as a ‘servant-leader’ role in that the Scrum Master heavily supports the work of the agile team. Project management tasks like stakeholder relations may not be the responsibility of a Scrum Master, as this is most often associated with the role of the Product Owner.
Agile teams will also have a Product Owner. As described by Scrum Alliance, “A product owner decides what the team will create next in order to deliver more value to the customer.” Apart from working with the team and Scrum Master to prioritize a backlog of features and work for the team to complete, they also own the customer vision. As such, Product Owners are seen as the voice of the customer and a point of contact for the customer and other stakeholders.
Some of the responsibilities of a Product Owner include:
- Setting a vision and goal for the product based on the customer’s needs
- Prioritizing work and features for the project team in a product backlog and maintaining the backlog
- Clarifying customer requirements and the customer vision for the project team
- Creating and updating a product roadmap
Based on some of the responsibilities listed above, Product Owners may take on more of the traditional stakeholder management and scope planning tasks during an agile project.
Making The Transition To Agile
Now that we know a little about some of the different roles you may see on an agile project team, the questions you need to ask yourself are:
The type of team you join may dictate your responses to some of the questions above.
Transitioning To An Agile Team
If you are coming from a traditional waterfall team to an agile team in an organization that has adopted Scrum, Kanban, or another agile framework like Lean, one of the first things you will notice is that within these frameworks, the role of ‘project manager’ does not technically exist.
The two roles that are present are Scrum Master and Product Owner. In this case, you’ll need to decide whether or not to choose the Scrum Master or Product Owner path. Which path you decide to choose may answer question 1—where can I bring value to the team?
If you enjoy the coaching and mentoring aspects of being a project manager, then the Scrum Master path might be for you. Likewise, if you feel that you have very strong product knowledge and manage stakeholders very well, then the Product Owner path is likely for you.
In many organizations that have transitioned from waterfall to agile, project managers have had to make a decision on which path they want to take. Often, the decision-making process involves taking an honest look at your skills and where you feel you will bring value to a team.
The second question you should consider before making the transition (and really before making any move that affects your career) is, ‘how does this new role align with my overall career goal?’. If you foresee that one day you may want to coach and mentor others, then maybe the Scrum Master path is for you, as it will prepare you nicely for roles such as an Agile Coach, or, in SAFe, the Release Train Engineer.
Likewise, if you enjoy interacting with customers and stakeholders and are keen on translating customer needs into a deliverable, then maybe the Product Owner path is for you as it also will prepare you for roles in Product Management and Program or Portfolio Management.
If the team you are transitioning to is a hybrid team, you should still examine the two questions above to see where you feel you can bring value to the team and if the role aligns with your overall career goals.
Based on the evolution of your team and organization, the agile project manager role will also prepare you to pursue roles such as Scrum Master and Product Owner later, if you move to a fully agile team and organization.
Skills Project Managers Need For Agile
If you have decided to make the transition to an agile team, congratulations! You will find this to be an exciting and rewarding role. To help you prepare for your role, here are some skills that will be helpful for you to have.
Knowledge Of Agile Frameworks
Depending on the framework your team/organization will use, it is helpful to have an understanding of what the framework is, the roles involved, processes, and events. Helpful articles like this one provide a great overview of some of the common agile frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, and Lean.
If you would like to increase your knowledge of a particular project management framework, formal training and agile project management certification is also an option. Organizations such as Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, the Project Management Institute and Scaled Agile offer numerous agile training courses, resources for learning about agile, and certifications for the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles.
Agile Estimation Skills
As estimating effort may use concepts such as story points or t-shirt sizes (as opposed to estimating effort in days or time), understanding how to estimate and guide the team in estimating required effort to complete tasks or user stories is a skill that is beneficial to have. Organizations such as Scrum Alliance have a number of excellent resources available to help project managers develop their agile estimation skills.
As the name of the methodology implies, there is a degree of flexibility and adaptability that is required for project managers in an agile world. If you feel the need to know all of the scope and project details upfront, agile may not be for you.
Often, projects start with a high-level understanding of the work to be done and value to be provided to the customer, but this understanding is elaborated on as the project progresses and feedback from the customer is incorporated into each iteration.
This requires a degree of flexibility as the project plan may change based on a customer’s feedback or a reprioritization of work from the Product Owner.
Coaching And Mentoring
Within an agile team, a project manager may be involved in training the team on what the agile framework is, what events and ceremonies need to take place, and what artifacts (or outputs) are produced.
As such, the ability to coach, teach, and mentor the team to improve their knowledge of agile and agile tools (and other project management tools) is essential to efficient teamwork and team success. Being empathetic and a good communicator is also needed for coaching and mentoring a team.
Sense Of Humour
No project management framework is perfect. No framework will be implemented exactly as stated in a textbook. All frameworks need to be adapted to the realities and circumstances of the organization and team in which it is adopted. As such, things can and will go wrong.
Maybe your team was off in their estimation big time. Maybe the team didn’t fully understand and deliver what was of value to the customer. Maybe Scrum just isn't the right agile framework for your team (this one is real—trust me).
Regardless, there will be times where having a sense of humour and not letting the small stuff bring you and your team down will be needed.
You Got This! Go Forth And Be Agile
So now that you have learned a little about the roles of project managers in hybrid and agile organizations, I wish you success in your transition to an agile team.
While this may be daunting, challenging, and just straight-up scary at the start of your journey, there are many rewards to delivering projects utilizing an agile framework and developing your agile project management skills. Just look at yourself in the mirror and repeat after me—“I got this!”
If you are in need of some more resources to help you on your journey, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter, and find out more about transitions to agile in agencies here.