Agile Brings Changes to Key Roles and Responsibilities

May 27, 2011

Agile development is – or should be – a driver of change. And when change is in the air, everyone wants to understand, “How does this affect me?” This post is by no means comprehensive, but I’ll take a quick look at some key changes, and I’ll tackle one that is particularly sensitive territory: the project management role.

Developers and testers feel the impact of change because the nature of their roles changes with Agile development. For example, team members are expected to work together interchangeably and to hold each other mutually accountable for the team’s results, something that they might not be used to. And then there is the question of specialists versus generalists. I gave my opinion in a recent post, Agile Development: Specialists versus Generalists as well as discussing what I see to be problems with specialists on Agile teams in another post.

Other roles also change, like management’s. There was a notion that “We don’t need no stinkin’ managers!” when it came Agile development. There is a kernel of truth to this. In an Agile context, managers need to stop doing certain things – like assigning work – and change how they interact, becoming more of a partner and helping the team (and individuals) to grow and succeed. Pete Deemer has an excellent take on the subject of the role of the manager in Scrum. Since there has been discussion about specialists and generalists, I decided to weigh in on the issue on functional managers versus general managers.

And then there are project managers. Where do they fit in with something like Scrum? In the strictest sense, they don’t. A great deal of the classic project management work is divided between the team itself, the Product Owner and the ScrumMaster. (A typical recommendation is for project managers is to move into the ScrumMaster role.) Another aspect that puts the squeeze the project manager role is management – involved management – that should be operating in real time in an Agile organization, not through paper.

However, I don’t believe that the project manager role will actually disappear for some time. One reason for this is that most companies can’t go all-in with Agile like They need to start slow and grow into it. They need time to transition.

There is an opportunity for project managers in all of this. True, lasting change is a long and hard road, and project managers happen to be well-positioned to be a major part of implementing change. After all, project managers interact with different areas and various levels of an organization today, and as a consequence project managers have a great deal of visibility into how an organization can be tuned for greater performance. They can help make the case for change and help guide the organization in adapting itself into becoming an Agile organization.

So, while project managers aren’t defined as required by Agile development, there are needs that extend beyond Agile development that project managers can continue to fulfill. There are things that project managers are doing today that teams can take on, and in the short term this can free up a project manager’s time to operate as a change agent (and in part, a management proxy). Long term, there will be plenty to do as the organization gains its “agility legs” – real time management and fast action to remove impediments become increasingly important, and I can see where project managers can fill a role here in many organizations.