What happens to Project Managers?

From one of our students:

Thank you Joe, I took the exam and passed 34/35! One question if I may: I noticed in the top mistakes list that ‘having a project manager’ is listed. Why is Project Manager so bad here? Does that just mean that a team tries to implement Scrum with a typical waterfall Project Manager role instead of the Scrum roles? I heard Project Manager is a bad word in some circles — just trying to understand.



My response:

Dear H.,

Two basic things to say about Project Managers, at least regarding Agile and the Agile community.

1. Are Project Managers good?

In general I think all people are good (well, virtually all the people we work with), and this of course includes people who have been called Project Managers (and that includes me).

Be aware that in the Agile community there are “good Agile people” who think that Project Managers are evil. Well, I am not sure that’s what they’d say in polite open company, but in their hearts that what they think. They think: If you are a Project Manager, you are working for the dark side (for waterfall).

To be fair to that point of view, there are “evil” project managers who “make waterfall work” and basically, while not necessarily trying to, but they make work almost like hell. The PM decides the tasks, the PM enforces the waterfall mentality, the PM holds them to unrealistic dates and budgets, etc.

Are all PMs like this? Of course not, but some are. And so, the anti-PM part of the Agile community has some basis for concern. Agile people have tried to “convert” some PMs and failed. Some PMs are much harder to convert than the average “Agile skeptic.”

On the other hand: Some of the very best Agile people I know are former PMs.

So, I find that in fact most PMs tend to cluster at the two extremes. Either very good or very bad (vis-a-vis real Agile understanding).

2. What happens to the Project Managers in Scrum?

The short answer is: We do not have that role any longer “in” the team.

What happened to the role? That work (lots of different types of work, and people do not agree on all the activities that a PM should do, but it is always a pretty good list) is now done by the PO or the SM or the team — at least most of it — or maybe someone else (not a pig).

OK, what happens to “Helen,” the former PM, when Scrum is introduced?

We talk to Helen and learn about her and ask her what she likes to do.  Based on that information and other things:

  1. she might become an SM
  2. she might become a PO
  3. (least likely) she might do into the “team” or implementer role on a Scrum Team

Or she might be a “project coordinator” or some manager role outside any one Scrum Team.

Or she might leave (and go to a waterfall department or another firm doing waterfall).

The best fit depends on many factors, but often we think “personality” is a key one. If she really likes the “command and control” thing, then she won’t be happy with Scrum. Let’s get her to a place where she will be happy.

3. What about using the title “Project Manager”?

We do not recommend that.

In most cultures, most people think that title means something. We think the typical meaning is: “That is the one person responsible for project success. The others are ‘just helping’ her [Helen].”

Put another way, the rest of the team no longer needs to be committed, no longer feels they have skin in the game.

You may say, “Well, it’s just a word (or two words) and words mean what I choose them to mean…” (Sorry, just teasing.) It might be at your place that all most everyone agrees to use the meaning that you want.

But, sadly often, words have meanings and therefore consequences and, in terms of Agile, typically not good consequences in this case.

Is it really worth the energy to re-educate them that “Project Manager” never meant (in your mind) “The PM is solely responsible for success.” I do not think it is worth the effort — better just to not use the words.

But, do find another good word to describe the role of “Helen” by all means. She will contribute to our success (usually) and deserves respect along with the others.

Helpful enough?


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