It’s Not Your Uncle’s PM Job
What’s happening to the traditional PM Role?
An interesting thing is happening in the Project Management trade right now. Are we are on our way to losing the traditional Project Manager (PM) role? Certainly not in all industries, but the popularity of less rigid project management techniques that we’ve seen embodied in many of the most successful software companies who’ve moved to Agile methods is beginning to have more and more of an impact on the traditional PM role.
Do you remember when your uncle worked at that aerospace firm and always was in demand as the sought after PM, even thought the firm rarely seemed to finish its projects before they were massively re-scoped or cancelled. Well, the days of that type of command and control PM may be coming to an end.
Evolving Software Project Management Roles May Drive Changes in Overall Project Management Practice
To be sure, much of the everything-is-Agile craze is simply just the next management Fad (as I’ve written about in BlueProject before; see Made Up Agile), but with the project success rate that Agile has brought to Software Project Management cycles, which have always had a very high failure rate, you can see why traditional project management approaches are being questioned.
In his May 2021 Harvard Business Review article entitled How Project Managers Can Stay Relevant in Agile Organizations, Jeff Gothelf makes the case that “as agile becomes the norm,” PMs must adjust because, he asserts, that although “Agile does not have to be the death knell of project management …. It…. demand(s) a transformation” of project management practices.
I am not so sure I am in full agreement, unless Gothelf is speaking only about Software Engineering Projects here, but he certainly has a point.
The point is: Agile is working relatively well in technology companies — specifically software technology companies — and this means plenty of executives in all types of business functions are looking at what is being done around Agile Project Management and trying to see what they can learn from it.
It’s not entirely clear where this is all going, but as I pointed out in Made up Agile, even McKinsey Consulting (see The five trademarks of agile organizations by the “McKinsey Agile Tribe,” no less) has been trying to get into the game of doing Agile on all projects (not just software projects).
One potential outcome of this trend is that the focus on the PM as the indispensable role on every project really changes, and it becomes much more about the project team or teams. This is essentially the point that I believe Dave Cornelius is trying to make in his article for the Project Management Institute entitled The PM role in a lean and agile world. Cornelius points out that in some Agile practices (e.g., pure Scrum) there is not a defined role for the PM in the day-to-day management of the critical design, development, and work product delivery cycles, but he maintains that the PM can become more of a “Servant Leader” (see The Servant Leader GlobeBlog post) who eliminates roadblocks, ensures project strategic alignment, etc.
This does make some sense, especially if the PM can help to ensure that the strategic alignment of the project is consistent with the overall enterprise portfolio of project work, and if the PM can act in a more facilitative role with all the key team members. The shocker for the PM is that they will not spend a significant amount of time drilling-down on scope and schedule challenges, as many PMs are accustomed to doing. These issues would now be owned by the overall (Agile) development team.
It’s About the Project
The thing is, whether we want to admit it or not, a lot of us PM types have teeny tiny control issues (as Ann Lamott says: “if I was God’s west coast rep….”). Basically, we want to control outcomes. We also have been conditioned to believe that we are 100% accountable for those outcomes, and that we, alone, are the person who must stay on top of these critical items.
Except that just isn’t completely true in many circumstances. Sure, we may still be the one who is held accountable for a project’s success or failure, but the whole team is responsible for ensuring the delivery of outcomes. Isn’t it better if project management is something the whole team does? It is about the project’s success, not the PM’s glory in delivering it.
So, it may be that what happens from all of this potential turmoil surrounding PM roles is that we are all forced to focus on better teamwork, and we are reminded that empowered teams deliver projects, not PMs.
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