Why is there no project manager in Scrum?
The short answer is that it simply isn’t needed.
Project managers tend to get a lot of flak, particularly from the Scrum community and the Agile world in general. So, why don’t we have them in the scrum framework?
The role of a project manager
We need to look at the role of a project manager first.
They exist to ‘drive’ the delivery of a project.
A project is a piece of work that is looking for an outcome. It’s following a predetermined, detailed plan of what needs to be delivered, within what timeframes it needs to be delivered, by people who have been designated the work, within a predetermined cost structure.
In an environment where all the variables are known, this works well. In an environment where you have built the solution many times before and have a fair idea of who needs to do what and how long it will take them to complete that work, project management works well too.
It simply doesn’t work in a product development environment or any complex environment where the variables are unknown. If you are creating the solution for the first time or solving the problem for the first time, there simply cannot be any step-by-step guide to getting it done.
Therefore, the entire underpinning of a project management role within a product development environment is irrelevant and unhelpful. A project manager isn’t able to contribute effectively in a product development environment and they would be super frustrated in the environment because things will not work the way they have been trained or expect things to work.
Complex Product Development Environments
Project Managers have valuable skills, and we definitely want those skills in the product development environment, we simply have them in different roles rather than a chief supervisor role.
In a scrum environment, we do have scope management in the form of a product backlog that is managed and prioritised by the product owner.
The scrum master, development team, and product owner all come together to discuss the product backlog items and why each item matters to customers and product stakeholders. They define why each item belongs in the product backlog and use this tool as a form of scope management that is flexible, adaptive and empowers the team to be responsive based on data and evidence.
The team collaborate with product stakeholders and customers to ensure that they are always working on the most valuable items and that they have frequent, valuable feedback from those customers to ensure they are building the right thing, in the right way, at the most valuable time.
So, we don’t need a project manager to define scope or manage scope in any way. The scrum team manage these elements in collaboration with a product owner and product stakeholders.
In a project management environment, the project manager will assign work and deadlines to specific individuals or teams. In essence, telling them what to do, how to do it, and by when it needs to be completed.
In a scrum environment, the team are focused on the product backlog and having discussions around which items take priority, why those items are critical to the success of the product, and how they are going to tackle the problem or create the solution.
The development team are the experts. They are the creative, intelligent, qualified individuals who have the most experience in developing solutions and solving problems, so they are the ones who take the lead in deciding who should tackle what and how they should tackle that problem.
The scrum master and product owner are involved in that process and are fully aware of what items the team have selected for the sprint backlog and what their focus/goal will be for the short sprint period.
The team plan the work for the upcoming sprint and agree on how many items are going to be brought into the sprint during the planning sessions. A sprint is usually one or two weeks, so the team have a specific focus for that period and are committed to delivering items in that period.
So, we don’t need a project manager to plan the entire product development process upfront. In a scrum environment, the team are responsible for planning and are doing so using the highest level of expertise and experience at the table.
Rather than a single person with no deep knowledge and skills guessing what should be done and how long that will take, the experts who actually do the work are involved in the planning phase.
Managing the product development process
A project manager is known to actively ‘drive’ people and projects. It is their job to crack the whip and ensure that everyone is doing what they were told to do and make sure that the dots connect in alignment with the original plan.
In a scrum environment, things work differently.
In planning, the team are working with the unknown and setting out a plan based on what they know. As they do the work and discover new opportunities or better ways of doing things, the team will adapt and respond based on the data and evidence that informs how they move forward.
It also allows the team to adapt and respond as they learn more and discover new opportunities.
If the product requires a drastic shift based on a customer or market event, the team can respond quickly and effectively because they aren’t trying to follow a detailed, step-by-step plan. They are instead using their plan as a compass that informs what is known to be the most valuable work.
Because the teams are working in short, sharp sprints it allows the team to receive regular feedback from customers and stakeholders to make sure they are building the most valuable thing at the most valuable time.
If things change, they can quickly respond to that change. Product stakeholders and customers are also aware of what is happening through their regular interaction and engagement with both the product owner and the development team.
As the team move through the sprint, they use charts and digital tools to track their progress and to measure how many items or points they are delivering per sprint.
Over time, this empowers the team to accurately project how many items they will complete per sprint and allows the customers and product stakeholders to understand what will be delivered in the upcoming sprint and what can be anticipated in the sprints to follow.
So, we don’t need a project manager cracking a whip or managing the delivery process. In a scrum environment, the scrum master, product owner, development team, customers and product stakeholders are all actively involved in the process and understand what is happening, when it is happening, and why it is happening in that way.
A project manager is responsible for risk management and managing any risk that is associated with dependencies, people and suppliers along the way.
It really is a big ask for one person to manage all elements of risk throughout a multi-year project.
A project manager often does not have the skill set to build a project or to solve a complex problem, so they have no knowledge or expertise that could guide them in identifying risk let alone dealing with it as it comes up.
Add to that several complex variables that arise through market movements, customers, competitors, etc. and you’ve effectively got one person being set up for failure when things go wrong. The project manager.
In a scrum environment, the development team, product owner and scrum master manage risk in collaboration with customers and product stakeholders.
The most skilled, experienced and capable individuals in the team are the ones who assess risk and work with the team to understand dependencies and risk, and actively work together to mitigate those risks or develop an action plan to deal with elements of risk.
At times, that may mean that the entire team swarm on a single item to ensure it gets done and at other times, it means collaborating with customers and product stakeholders to understand what the alternatives are and how they can deliver the best possible solution.
A scrum master will also be looking to collaborate with others within the organisation to understand what organisational elements may present risk to the team and delivery. It could be policy changes on the way, or it could be at the point where the scrum team ends, and a new department is involved.
So, we don’t need a project manager to manage all of the risk associated with a project or a product development environment. The scrum team, product stakeholders and customers are all involved in risk management in conjunction with the broader organisation.
It doesn’t fall on a single person, it is managed and owned by the team.
And so forth…
I could carry on and make the case for every element of project management being effectively dealt with, and improved upon, within a Scrum environment. This isn’t knocking project managers in the least bit, if anything, I have a great deal of empathy for them because of how ridiculous it is to expect a single person to manage all elements of a project.
The bottom line is this.
In a complicated environment such as civil engineering, the path from point A to point Z is well mapped, well known, and well covered.
Each person in the project environment understands what is required of them, has done that specific job hundreds if not thousands of times before, and knows how long it will take and how much it will cost.
Over the past few thousands of years, we’ve built millions of bridges around the world and people in that industry get the process, understand best practice, and have the capability to deliver bridge after bridge after bridge without fail.
This is where traditional project management works.
You don’t need a scrum team to build that bridge, nor do you have to bring about an Agile transformation in your team to build that bridge. Agile and Scrum doesn’t belong in this space, and it wouldn’t serve you to change something which has worked for thousands of years.
A project manager is a powerful, valuable, and necessary role in this environment.
When we step into the complexity space where we are building something for the first time, and we are faced with multiple variables which are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous such as product development, software engineering, creative endeavours, etc. then Agile and Scrum come into their own.
This is when a team of skilled, experienced, creative and intelligent individuals working as a high-performance team will trump a single project manager attempting to manage every detail of a project.
It’s common sense.
So, hopefully that answers your question as to why we don’t have project managers in scrum environments but also, provides you with insights as to why a project manager skillset is incredibly valuable and transferable into a scrum master or product owner role in a scrum environment.
For more information on John McFadyen, visit https://www.johnmcfadyen.com or connect with John on LinkedIn.
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