What Does an Agile Project Manager Do?

It probably isn’t too surprising that most of the difference between a traditional project manager (PM) and an Agile project manager comes from the processes they use.

An Agile project manager is … well, Agile (this is helpful, right?).

Here’s an example:

When a production bug has been reported, a traditional project manager would assess the scenario. Then they would direct a team member to take actions that the PM has come up with.

An Agile PM, on the other hand, would initiate a huddle where the team would discuss the issue at hand, figure out the immediate action items to fix the problem. The team would decide who is best suited for the bug fix. Then the team would decide on who should help deploy it to production.

An Agile project manager would then facilitate a retrospective to find the root cause of the problem using techniques like 5-Y analysis or fish bone. Ultimately, the team would decide on the long term solution to avoid those issues from happening through changes in their process or tools.

Agile Versus Waterfall Methods

Agile is an iterative approach that is open to change. A team delivers products in small increments so that the product owner or customer can be involved in the process. An Agile project manager ensures that a team and customer understand how to be Agile.

In traditional software development methodologies like waterfall the process is linear. A customer or product owners specifies what they want, the development team delivers that product when it is finished. The project manager is organizing a team that will take an idea and turn it into a tangible product with only the customer input at the beginning and end of the project.

What makes an Agile PM different from any other project manager is “basically the difference between a normal traditional type of project and an Agile project,” says Agileana project manager Virginia Alvarez.

“So, a traditional type of project is more rigid. You have different phases, but they’re all very linear. So at first you do the requirements and the design, then the development, and then that’s it you’re done. In Agile, you can do the same phases, but it’s iterative.”

The release cycles are smaller and deliverables are reviewed by a product owner. An Agile PM ensures that this process is happening correctly.

There are a few advantages to Agile project management – receiving input from the product owner allows teams to be adaptable. It also ensures that the customer or product owner gets their priorities completed. 

Agile Project Managers Will Put Themselves Out of a Job

In Agile, teams are self-organizing. And in Agile methodologies like Scrum, teams are non-hierarchical so no one would be overseeing anyone else.  

So, if you’re Agile, do you really need a project manager?

“In my opinion, there is no such thing as an Agile project manager,” says Agileana’s Shefali Naik.

“There is no role as a project manager in Agile because inherently Agile advocates moving away from the model in which one person directs and the rest of the team follows. The role is more of an Agile coach or Scrum Master.”

When a team and the customer or product owner are truly Agile, the project manager shouldn’t really have that much to do. Occasionally, that’s what happens.

“I’m very lucky because my client understands Agile,” says project manager Virginia Alvarez. “So they understand that we want make progress. We want to release stuff as soon as they’re done so that we can get feedback from the users as soon as possible.”

Because everyone is well versed in Agile, Virginia often takes on other roles like quality assurance and business analyst. In other instances, Agile project manager can work on tasks like removing obstacles or blockers for team members so they can do their work.

But, most teams aren’t able to be truly Agile — whether it is because of personnel or the organization they work in. When this happens, an Agile PM guides a team and product owners or customers and does some training around how to do Agile. The role of Agile PM can be interpreted as an Agile coach for a team, guiding them towards a path of continuous improvement on all fronts – people, processes and projects.

The Potential Downsides of an Agile Project Manager

There are some potential downsides of an Agile project manager – but these downsides are often universal.

“I think this could happen any type of project,” says Virginia Alvarez, “but a downside is that since you are being iterative, then you keep looking at stuff over and over again, if you don’t prioritize correctly and you don’t release as soon then it might be that you never release anything because you keep on trying to fix stuff.”

Virginia adds that not releasing products or prioritizing isn’t really Agile. Often times, the perceived downsides of Agile are when people aren’t able to really be Agile.

“An Agile project manager falls prey to the traditional project manager’s ways of command and control. Assisting a team in their process of being Agile is a slow. People need to have patience,” says Shefali Naik.

“This ecosystem that Agile thrives in often difficult to get. Also, procurement both in government and private sector is still mostly traditional and that hampers the full adoption of Agile. Agile PMs are still expected to cater to traditional reporting standards and milestones and to come up with a detailed project plan upfront which are all anti-Agile.”

Why Agile?

So, in closing. Whether an Agile PM actually exists or not, having an Agile coach or PM has a few benefits:

  • Faster delivery
  • Stakeholders are involved from the start to the end of the project
  • Information radiators (Velocity charts/burndown charts/Risk burndown) help keep the team abreast with the latest
  • The team is empowered to make decisions which makes them work at their full potential
  • Continuous improvement  of people processes and project.

And the big payoff to going Agile is that the PM will eventually be able to fill other roles.

“If you have a good Agile PM, over time their job is made redundant and the team becomes truly self organizing, self sufficient, highly passionate and driven,” says Shefali Naik.

The team produces quality deliverables and they focus on the improvement of those deliverables.

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