The key difference is that project managers generally act as just that – ‘managers.’ They allocate tasks and duties. Agile methods and frameworks generally don’t define a manager role because the expectation is that a team is self-organizing. The team members decide how best to complete the tasks prioritized by the business.
Agile team leaders act more as ‘facilitators.’ They don’t tell people what to do, they make sure that teams and developers have all the tools and information they need to do their jobs. They also unblock the blockages i.e. they fix problems so that the team can concentrate on doing its work.
Regardless of your background or experience, the ability to successfully implement agile methodologies or integrate oneself into an agile environment requires training and an understanding of Agile.
Moving into agile project management
Agile comes in many shapes and forms. One of the great features of agile is that it can be adapted to suit almost any context.
Not every agile method requires a complete overhaul of existing systems. Some approaches (such as lean agile) aim to take existing ‘traditional’ project management frameworks and rework certain aspects to improve workflow and development.
Because of this, knowledge and experience gained as a project manager within a traditional project management environment can still be applied to projects within an agile context.
Not every agile project management role requires complete retraining. Some agile mythologies simply help refine pre-existing ‘best-practice’ project management methodologies. One such example is lean agile.
Lean agile is a management philosophy that began in the automotive manufacturing industry. But, because it focuses primarily on aiding the productivity of workers and developers, its’ principles can be applied to any industry.
Lean agile focuses on waste reduction while creating a better, less stressful workplace through investing in and respecting employees.
Lean agile improves productivity and profitability by eliminating slow and wasteful procedures like excessive documentation, micromanagement, lengthy meetings, avoidable mistakes, overreliance on predetermined product requirements, and unproductive multitasking.
Aside from lean agile approaches, there are also other ‘light’ agile approaches. Traditional project management environments can still benefit from employing individual agile tools such as Kanban to improve workflows with little/no interruption to normal operations.
Because many agile methods are radically different from traditional project management, with a little training, project managers can successfully transition into an agile environment.
Dedicated agile roles
Comprehensive agile approaches such as Scrum or SAFe® agile (Scaled Agile Framework®), generally do away with project managers, substituting them for Scrum Masters or an equivalent role.
If you want to transition into a dedicated agile role, you will require extensive agile training.
Project managers assign tasks, enforce deadlines, and control multiple aspects of development to ensure that a project meets its goals on time and within budget.
Scrum Masters however, focus their attention solely on the application of the Scrum. They help developers understand their role within the agile framework, facilitate cooperative efforts and communication, but have no authority to allocate tasks to developers.
Your primary goal as a dedicated agile manager is as much about utilizing your soft skills as it is about your hard skills which you may have acquired in your career as a traditional project manager.
Scrum Masters are ‘servant leaders.’ Occasionally, you might be asked to guide with authority based on your knowledge and experience, at other times you must learn to step aside and allow others to do the same.
How to work effectively as an agile project manager
Becoming effective in your agile role requires training, understanding, empathy, and the correct mindset. Here are just a few practical examples of how agile managers operate within an agile environment:
- Highlight issues and ask the right questions. If the team expresses an interest in the topic being raised or the issue being addressed, offer advice, or suggest solutions. Work collectively with the team to decide a course of action.
- If you’re working with a team that is new to agile and agile practices, consider how to best introduce them to the framework. Do you throw them into the deep-end, so to speak, and address issues as they arise, or do you roll out one new practice at a time? Understanding which would be less time-consuming requires you to know the limitations and abilities of those involved.
- If you see someone making a mistake, highlight the issue and suggest alternatives. Alternatively, if you recognize a mistake that has already been made, educate your team on how to avoid repeating it.
- Build a reputation as a source of knowledge and advice. Encourage the team to come to you for guidance rather than having to seek out opportunities to offer advice. You shouldn’t have to force change. Good agile managers teach teams to welcome change.
- Teach developers to rely on client feedback. Find new ideas and new sources of information that can help teams gauge and assess their work.
- Plan your growth within your role. Pursue continuous improvement by creating a regular system of feedback on your own performance.
- Connect with others that you can learn from, be it trainers, coaches, or mentors. Use this experience as leverage, pass it on freely and use it to demonstrate your value as an agile project manager. You need to embody agile values and show others ‘how it’s done,’ so that they can follow your example.
Understanding the Agile mindset
If you are considering moving into an agile environment, the Agile Manifesto is a great way to understand the agile mindset and how it differs from other project management methodologies.
If you want some practical examples of how to make the move into agile, here are a few tips:
- Understand that an agile project manager is no longer the primary authority of the project. Responsibility is now decentralized as everyone in the project is accountable for its success. While the project may have control points, responsibility is shared.
- Agile projects start with a high-level scope. Planning is done in ‘rolling waves’ i.e. higher-level plans and scope are progressively broken down into more details as the project progresses. Detailed requirements are added by product owners if/when needed.
- Agile project managers should ensure that documentation is kept to the minimum required for the team to do its job properly. Teams need documentation to help them understand what they must deliver, but also to help them reflect on past progress and make improvements.
- Proactively look out for risks in the development processes and make continuous improvements. Retrospective meetings are a good source of lessons to learn to identify areas that can be improved. You’ll need to implement regular improvements to the development process.
- Make forecasts using the current development speed. Work with the product owners to understand the scope and with developers to understand their development speed.
- Leverage the flexibility of agile: Monitor project risks, address them as early as possible. Work proactively, not reactively.
- Communication is critical for the success of a project. It is also essential to the agile approach. Utilize low-tech communication methods such as whiteboards or burn-down charts and keep everyone informed about the status of the project.
- Keep upper-management away from your developers by mediating the project-level issues across the teams.
- Foster a collaborative environment that doesn’t punish small errors and rather encourages learning from mistakes.