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Reclaiming Project Management: Let’s Embrace Agility and Stop Trying to Be Agile

Posted in ♦ Agility, ♦ Transformation

I’ve recently been encountering a lot of Agility free Agile.  I could write a book on why this happens, but this easiest thing to do is to offer some clarification on what agility is and the role it was always intended to play in project management.

Like any other profession project management has changed and morphed over the years in terms of the skills and qualities the profession has needed.  IT has been one of the largest areas of growth for PMs over the last 20 years but make no mistake, the role of a PM in a technology project 20 plus years ago is not the role most IT project managers play today.

IT has built an illusion of certainty and stability around the project management process by developing step by step methods and by continually shrinking the size and increasing the number of projects that PMs are asked to “manage” until virtually no real management was even possible.  When you combine this with the increasing demand of practitioners of Agile Software Development (ASD) to eliminate PMs entirely from software projects, it becomes clear something substantive must change.

PMI, in their report Job Growth and The Talent Gap, points to the answer by saying there will be “A dramatic increase in the number of jobs requiring project-oriented skills.”  One of those talents is or should be agility. Firms that want to be successful in the digital age will clearly need all the agility they can develop internally or hire. 

The key is agility is a noun and not an adjective.  You either have agility, or you don’t.  Agility is a state of mind.  It operates like intuition, and it magically directs you to take action D over action A because it will be faster, better, cheaper, or less risky. 

With agility, you strive to deliver a product on time or even early if it is humanly possible.  With agility, you realize that you ALWAYS need to stay focused on the Big Picture.  This ability to operate against a vision of the desired future state is what allows you to make trade-offs without compromising the value of the product you’re are helping to build.  Agility allows you to say no to lots of little requests, as often as required, without guilt because you understand that the project will deliver the product the stakeholders need in the time they requested it.

One of the most common refrains I’ve recently heard from agile software development teams is that they can’t commit to a date because of uncertainty.  That’s like saying we can’t commit to a date because of gravity.  Of course, there’s uncertainty.  There will always be random attacks of Murphy.  That’s why project management was invented in the first place, and that’s why we desperately need project managers who eat, sleep and breath agility.

IT changed the rules of project management and devalued the role of the PM years ago.  True PMs are scarce resources who LEAD projects. They don’t schedule meetings, and they don’t take meetings in minutes unless like a friend of mine they once worked as a journalist.  A PMs job is to lead a team of people in the creation of something new and unique.

I hope it’s glaringly obvious that without PMs (or people with the talent even if they don’t have the title) it’s going to be tough for any company to reach their digital objectives. Cross-functional teams, solving new organizational problems, will always need people who can think from the big picture down to a list of tasks that need to happen in a specific sequence and at specific times to make everything come together. Project Management is the art of the possible. Sometimes time is our friend, which is why all agile work is time-boxed, and sometimes it’s our enemy when we have failed to leave enough slack in the schedule to account of the inevitable but uncertain event that something will go wrong.

Project Management needs to mentally separate itself from the idiosyncrasies of IT to find its feet again. If there is a project with more than ten people assigned to it, then the odds are good it needs a project manager assigned as well.  Not to fill out status reports or to hound people for time cards but to help the team surface problems and get the problems solved. 

I would like to invite anyone who feels any sort of resonance with what they’ve read to join us at in charting a new pathway to the future of today’s PMs. Your skills are valuable, and YOU MATTER.  We may all need to learn new techniques and some parts of our traditional language might need to change, but that’s a small price to pay if it means we can continue to help our organizations be successful.