How Project Managers Can Stay Relevant in Agile Organizations

Much of traditional project management involved working along a pre-defined plan to achieve pre-defined goals. But in an agile environment, the concept of “done” is becoming increasingly obsolete. What does it take to effectively manage projects whose requirements are constantly shifting? In this piece, the author offers three key strategies to help project managers adapt to an agile world: First, managers should make sure they understand their organization’s goals when it comes to implementing agile workflows. Next, they must rethink their own success metrics: rather than meeting a set budget, timeline, or scope or work, project managers should focus on metrics like development cycle time and proportion of decisions made based on objective data. Finally, agile project managers must continuously examine their own processes and seek to adapt and improve themselves to meet the evolving needs of their customers and coworkers.

Traditionally, the practice of project management has taken a linear approach. Based on the assumption that projects have a clear definition of “done,” project managers have generally been trained to work towards explicit and pre-defined deadlines, budgets, and scopes. But that assumption is becoming increasingly inaccurate.

As agile becomes the norm, the systems that drive many of our organizations are becoming continuous, rather than fixed. The second we determine a system to be “done” is the second it begins its descent into irrelevance. Ask yourself, “When is Netflix or Google done?,” and you start to get a sense of the growing irrelevance of the concept of a finished project. And without a target end state, traditional project management tools such as Gantt charts, fixed budgets, or strict roadmaps are not only impossible to implement — they’re a waste of time.

Instead, organizations large and small are increasingly moving towards a model of small teams that work in short cycles and learn continuously. These teams pursue outcomes rather than output, collecting evidence and making real-time prioritization decisions to determine their next steps rather than religiously following a predefined plan. This process fundamentally defies predictability. It embraces the uncertainty of rapidly evolving technologies and customer behaviors, and as such, it is incompatible with a traditional management approach that’s focused on meeting predetermined project requirements.

Given these challenges, what are project managers to do? Do they become product managers? Scrum masters? What happens to the years of experience and insight they have acquired?

Agile does not have to be the death knell of project management. It does, however, demand a transformation of the practice. Specifically, there are three things project management professionals should start doing today to stay relevant and effective in an increasingly agile world:

1. Understand the goals of agile for your organization

Your organization may have provided a corporate training program on agile, or you may have read a book on the subject — but that doesn’t mean you know what your specific team hopes to achieve by transitioning to an agile mindset. Instead of stopping at the surface level, dig deeper to understand why your organization is adopting agile. Is it to decrease the time it takes to get new products to market? Is it to reduce dependence on external vendors or partners? Or perhaps the organization implemented agile simply because “everyone else is doing it.” If that’s the case, you have the opportunity to define your own goals, and demonstrate how organizational agility can help your team achieve them.

Importantly, it’s not always obvious what your organization’s goals are. If you don’t know why your company adopted agile, just ask. Challenge your leaders, colleagues, and other stakeholders to answer the question, “If we get this right, what gets better?” Follow up with, “How can we use our unique skills to help make that happen?”

2. Rethink your success metrics

In the past, a project manager was considered successful if they delivered a specified quantity of work, on time and on budget. But in an agile world, the way project managers measure their success needs to change. Agile project managers must focus on metrics such as cycle time — that is, the amount of time it takes an item of work to go all the way through a team’s R&D process. Cycle time is a direct reflection of a team’s capacity to learn and adapt quickly, and it can be applied not only to the delivery of a product or feature, but also to the length of time it takes a team to learn new skills.

For example, think about quantifying how long it takes an idea to go from a proposal to production. And more importantly, how quickly does your team determine whether an idea even worth investing in? Cycle time can reflect how quickly a feature gets into customers’ hands, which of course is an important metric in and of itself. But what’s even more critical is how quickly the team can learn and decide whether to stay the course or pursue another idea.

In addition, project managers should strive to increase the percentage of decisions being made based on objective evidence such as customer input, rather than subjective, arbitrary assumptions. Consider measuring how many new initiative proposals are backed by market data, rather than just someone’s opinion that it’s a good idea. While it’s not always possible to precisely quantify how decisions are being made, even just regularly thinking about the question can help keep project managers on track.

3. Continuously inspect and adapt your ways of working

One of the core guiding principles of agile is empiricism: a philosophy of evidence-based pursuit of knowledge. As project managers navigate their roles in this new agile world, their success will hinge on continuously trying out ideas, evaluating what worked and what didn’t, and iterating accordingly. Some of the traditional tools and techniques that project managers are already familiar with will work well in an agile setting. Others might not.

For example, a few years ago, I worked with a team at a large bank that had spent six months validating, designing, and building out a new product idea. They were confident it would be a big hit with consumers and generate a substantial new revenue stream. But on the day of legal review — the last stage in this organization’s standardized R&D process — the legal team dropped a bombshell: “We love the idea,” they explained, “but everything you’ve built is illegal. As a bank, there is just no way we can go live with this initiative.”

The team was crushed. The project manager even more so. We had followed standard project management processes, and yet now we faced six months of work down the drain. We were understandably disappointed, but instead of simply accepting that that this flawed process was immutable, our project manager suggested a change at our next retrospective: Instead of legal reviews coming at the end of each initiative, could someone from Legal sit in on team meetings for just one day every two weeks? It was a small change, but it allowed dialogue to flow between the development and Legal teams, eliminating the opportunity for unpleasant surprises after months of work.

Sometimes our years of experience and expertise blind us to opportunities for improvement. Consider adopting a mindset of what Astro Teller, the head of Google’s X program, describes as “enthusiastic skepticism.” Continuously seek feedback on how you can improve your processes to fit the current organizational context. Talk to colleagues to understand how your work is helping them, and where you could be adding more value. Facilitate retrospectives with your team, and don’t fear criticism. Learn from it and adapt your approach to better meet the needs of your coworkers and your customers. Some of these changes will inevitably conflict with “how we’ve always done things” — but this is exactly the kind of evolution that is necessary to keep teams responsive, agile, and building products and services that are relevant in an ever-changing marketplace.

Agile doesn’t have to mean the end of project management. But it does mean project managers have to adapt — or risk becoming obsolete. To be successful in an agile workplace, project management professionals must seek to understand their organization’s goals, rethink their own success metrics in light of those goals, and bring a mindset of continuous growth and iteration to their own development.

This article was first published on Harvard Business Review


Jeff Gothelf helps organizations build better products and executives build the cultures that build better products. He is the co-author of the award-winning book Lean UX and the Harvard Business Review Press book Sense & Respond. He works as a coach, consultant and keynote speaker helping companies bridge the gaps between business agility, digital transformation, product management and human-centered design. His latest book, Forever Employable, was published in June 2020.

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