We are seeing a shift in what project managers need to bring to the game to succeed—and it is all Agile. Do we need to call time on ‘project management’ as a discipline?

There was a time when you couldn’t miss the iconic Kodak logo because it was everywhere: A long-established business known for its innovation, great products, and possibly one of the earliest brands to become a transitive verb (well before Google).

But by 2011, the great photography icon was gone, having failed to innovate off the back of the digital photography it had helped to pioneer.

For all its successes, Kodak came undone by its resistance to change and unwillingness to hurt its traditional photography business while brands like Sony and Fuji ran at the challenge of digital. Despite inventing the first digital camera, Kodak held fast to the idea it was in the film business, not in capturing memories. Ironic, given that the phrase ‘Kodak moments’ has been in the lexicon for more than 40 years. (factcheck). Its mistake was attempting to protect its massive share of the market while competitors innovated and moved the market.

So, what does this story have to do with project management? Quite a lot, actually. Spend enough time on many online job boards and you’ll see that there are still plenty of project management roles available across a spectrum of industries. If you look closer, you will also see a proliferation of opportunities from scrum masters to agile coaches to product owners. Which begs the question: are we seeing project management beginning to lose its place in the world as businesses shift to agile delivery?

Water cooler conversations on the topic invariably turn to whether project management is a dying profession in an era when so-called ‘agile roles’, in particular, the scrum master, are quietly—or perhaps, not so quietly—taking the place of project managers. Current business thinking is that embracing agile is the key to delivering faster, better projects.

Project manager vs the scrum master

Let’s go back to some 101s: According to projectmanagement.com, project managers are the point person in charge of a specific project or projects within an organisation. They plan, budget, monitor, and report on the project with various PM tools, sometimes pitching a project to senior leadership, or being assigned to one once the project has been greenlit.

Project managers provide the bridge between upper management and the teams tasked with execution. They drive project fundamentals into the delivery and make sure that the project is delivering the scope on-time and budget with the quality required.

Scrum Masters, on the other hand, are the facilitators of the scrum, a lightweight agile framework with a focus on time-boxed iterations called sprints. As facilitators, scrum masters act as coaches to the rest of the team or “servant leaders” as the Scrum Guide puts it. Good scrum masters are committed to the scrum foundation and values but remain flexible and open to opportunities for the team to improve their workflow.

The biggest call-out here is that being a scrum master is focused on the team and providing a coaching role (support) whereas the project manager function is more akin to command and control (leadership).

What other differences exist? Have a look at the table below:

Project Manager Scrum Master
  • Manages the budget
  • Reports to business leadership on project progress
  • Focuses on process
  • Allocates tasks
  • Prioritizes features
  • Manages risk
  • Coordinates with other dependent teams
  • Serves the team where needed
  • Removes blockers or impediments that hinder project progress
  • Coaches the product owner
  • Monitoring the progress of the sprint
  • Helps team estimate and increase velocity
  • Promotes continuous communication
  • Facilitates sprint planning and other scrum meetings
  • Monitors and helps improve team dynamics
  • Lends support to whatever part of the project needs assistance at a certain time
  • Motivates the team
  • Acts as the glue that holds the team together

Source: Solstice.com

The disappearing PM

It is worth noting that when an organisation shifts from the traditional waterfall delivery into agile modes of delivery, the role of the project manager tends to disappear and the functions and responsibilities are allocated out across product owners, scrum masters and the team itself.

A ‘product owner’ is quite closely aligned with a traditional project manager’s role: they have to maintain the product backlog and ensure that the product fits within the business requirements. In case of any changes to the product, they must adjust and re-prioritise the backlog to fit these changes. In this regard, the product owner is more the command and control function.

In an agile environment, the scrum master guides the product owner on how to manage the teamwork with the use of product backlog, sprint planning and meetings – in this regard, a focused supporting function.

What is clear is that there are real differences in the way that an Agile team operates that a project manager, even an experienced one, will have to adapt to move into Agile delivery. That may mean looking at where they best fit in an Agile environment and identifying gaps in their skillsets that need to be addressed.

Is the new norm Agile?

According to Techbeacon.com, agile project delivery is the new norm, based on a survey of more than 600 organisations. The adoption of agile is accelerating. The implications of this for the traditional project manager are challenging.

Project managers will need to either step up into program or portfolio management roles, where a ‘command and control’ function still holds firm (albeit with the nucleus of agile projects running within) or consider retraining into a product owner, agile coach or scrum master role.

If, as described above, the role of the project manager no longer exists in an agile world, then it is likely to go by the wayside akin to Kodak: Replaced by a more dynamic, fast-developing alternative.

Are they really so different?

Some project practitioners believe that the personal attributes of scrum masters tend to differ quite starkly from those of project managers. While we don’t necessarily agree, in some cases, there will be challenges as an organisation shifts from a ‘front and centre’ leadership to support subservient leadership. In many cases, this may represent a significant cultural shift where immersion in the team comes before hiding behind the Gantt chart.

There are great opportunities for project managers in this seismic shift: As projects become BAU and no longer the domain of the IT portfolio, project delivery opportunities have never been greater.

To invoke the example of Kodak: The need for the purest film project is rapidly disappearing while digital has cemented its place. Project managers need to get their skillsets across agile … or they might find themselves out of the game.

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