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What are some of the challenges I will face when working with a project manager?

In most cases, adopting scrum or a large scale scrum framework involves an integration of the old waterfall style of project management and the new agile style of working.

It is very seldom that you’ll find an entire company undergoing a complete agile transformation and having all departments aligned with agile values and principles.

Instead, you’ll be working as a Scrum Master or Agile Coach with a scrum team and you will be working alongside other teams and departments that still follow the traditional 19th and 20th century styles of working and thinking.

So, what do you do? How do you work with project managers and project management departments despite being a leader in the scrum environment?

Types of Project Managers

It depends on the type of project manager that you will be working with.

Project Managers are impressive people with an impressive skill set. They are also incredibly busy, stressed, and productive individuals that tend to ‘drive’ multiple projects at the same time.

In traditional waterfall style project management, a project manager needs to draw up the scope of the entire project and manage deadlines, dependencies, and risk on a daily basis.

Often, they are doing this across 4 or 5 projects.

If you’re working with the traditional straw man style of project manager that is all about driving, driving, and driving projects whilst insisting you do exactly what they say, when they say it, you’re in for a rough day out.

These types of project managers can be incredibly challenging and demanding to work with and you’re going to have your work cut out for you.

Many project managers, however, are great people who are working hard to get the best out of the teams they work with and to achieve the best result they can for the organisation.

Despite being stressed and overworked, these individuals have an open mind and understand that there is more than one way to achieve goals, objectives, and targets.

7 out of 10 times, this is the kind of individual you’ll be working with and there is plenty that you can do to make sure that the relationship is productive, rewarding and satisfying.

Understand what they are trying to achieve

Your first challenge will be understanding what a project manager is trying to achieve, why they are trying to achieve that, and how they are trying to achieve that.

People want to shine in their jobs. They want to look great to the management and leadership teams they serve. Project managers are no different and often, they really want to do a great job that creates a favourable impression within the organisation.

Your job is to help them do exactly that.

Project Managers have valuable skillsets and their deep expertise and experience with projects makes them credible, reliable and valuable individuals within the organisation.

They simply have a different style of working that has proven to be less effective than Agile frameworks and styles of working in complex, ambiguous, volatile and uncertain environments.

In short, they are trying to achieve the same thing as you are.

To build a great product. To solve a compelling problem. To produce something that delights both the organisation as well as the customers it serves.

They are simply trained in a different methodology to achieve that and often don’t fully understand the role of a scrum master or the importance of using a scrum framework to build products and services.

Before you can help them understand your role and how effective scrum is in doing twice the work in half the time, you need to fully understand their role and what they are trying to achieve.

Understand how you can help them

After sitting down with your project manager and understanding what they are trying to achieve, your next step is to figure out how you can help them achieve their goals and objectives.

Take the time to understand how your role and team integrates into the bigger picture and allow your conversations with the project manager to inform how you can help them.

As a scrum master leading a scrum team, you have your own priorities, goals, and objectives to achieve and so whilst you are seeking ways to help your project manager, you also need to ensure that whilst doing so, you minimize the impact on the scrum team you serve.

Striking this balance will be your second challenge.

Do they need plans from you? Who are they talking to about opportunities? What opportunities are they talking to people about? Why are they talking to those specific people?

Understanding what the stakeholders are requesting from the project manager helps you understand what you can do from your side to alleviate pressure for the project manager and assist them in satisfying those stakeholders.

Ideally, you’re looking to see what you can formulate that will keep the project manager away from the team on a day to day basis. Project managers have a very different style of engagement and set of demands with the developers of a product than a scrum master or product owner does.

You want to ensure that your team aren’t forced to work in a waterfall style of project management yet at the same time, you want to ensure that your project manager gets what they need to keep their stakeholders satisfied and that they are satisfied everything is moving along nicely.

That may mean that you teach the project manager how to observe progress via the Kanban boards or through any software that you may be using, or it may mean that you have regular conversations with the project manager updating them on the progress of the team.

You want to avoid a project manager stepping into the team environment and demanding status updates from people or disrupting the flow of their work by requesting reports and unnecessary meetings.

Find a way to ensure that your project manager has the information they need whilst protecting the team from unnecessary interference and micromanagement.

Help people help themselves

In many organisations, a project manager will be in control of the budget. In scrum, we would love for the product owner to control that budget but in many cases, it simply won’t be that way.

Great, how do you facilitate conversations and meetings between product owners and project managers that help the product owner understand how the budget is managed and how best to work with the project manager on all things budget related?

Fostering that relationship and helping the two integrate well will go a long way to ensuring that you preserve the integrity of your scrum team whilst keeping everyone in the loop.

You’ll be making sure that the product owner has a great working relationship with the project manager and ensuring that the development team don’t need to approach anyone outside of the scrum team to get things done.

Helping the project manager understand your software, systems and processes enables them to keep a finger on the pulse without disrupting the team or stealing too much of your time. As a scrum master, you still have a job to do and it’s important that you have enough time to do that effectively.

In essence, the tasks and responsibilities of a project manager are effectively distributed across a scrum team so there are heaps of opportunities for members of your team to take pressure off the project manager.

A product owner can take care of a lot of these elements for the project manager and free up their time to focus on other projects and products they are responsible for.

Your goal as a scrum master is to create a self-organising, autonomous team and by taking work off the project manager, you’re achieving that by ensuring that your team is as autonomous as possible with as little dependencies as possible.

Leverage the Project Manager’s skillset and relationships

Project managers tend to have great relationships across the organisation and often work with senior management, leadership, and stakeholders to achieve specific objectives.

They may have established, trusted relationships with individuals that are outside of your reach.

Great. Use that.

If you have impediments and obstacles that your team need you to remove, look at where you can leverage your relationship with the project manager to get these elements addressed and resolved.

It may literally take a single phone call from a project manager to solve a major issue you have so don’t be afraid to share any challenges or difficulties you may be having with the project manager.

It’s also useful to ask for introductions to your project manager’s network and seek to develop your own relationships on the back of a warm introduction and recommendation.

Project Managers also tend to know where all the skeletons are buried and where trouble usually originates within the organisation so tap into that knowledge and learn how to better anticipate potential problems and where they might arise.

Learn from the project manager how to solve problems early and learn who you should develop relationships with to help you solve those problems early and timeously.

As you grow more adept at solving these issues on your own and developing a network that helps you solve problems, you are going to earn your project manager’s trust.

You’re going to allow them to worry less about you and your team and focus more on the areas where their expertise and skills are most needed. Affording them that opportunity will win you a fan and you’ll find that when you call for help, help comes quickly and easily.

Use the trust equation to develop this relationship. Demonstrate your credibility, reliability and keep building on those two. Grow your relationship and build intimacy by demonstrating that you have your team’s best interests at heart and that you have the project manager’s interests at heart.

Doing these things will go a long way to ensuring that you have a great working relationship with the project managers in your organisation and are respected as a valuable partner in getting things done.

If you like the idea of becoming a scrum master, visit our Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you are already a scrum master and want to upskill, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to both validate and certify your professional skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master course page.

If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Agile Coach Academy.

If you have identified coaching as a valuable skill to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to coaching course page.

For more information on John McFadyen, visit https://www.johnmcfadyen.com.

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