How Project Managers Can Stay Relevant in Agile Organizations


By Jeff Gothelf

Traditionally, project management has taken a linear approach. Based on the assumption that projects have a clear definition of “done,” project managers are trained to work toward explicit deadlines, budgets and objectives. But that way of operating is becoming increasingly obsolete.

As agile work become the norm, the systems that drive many of our organizations are shifting from fixed to continuous models. The second we determine a system to be “done” is the second it begins losing value. To get a sense of the growing irrelevance of the concept of a finished project, ask yourself: “When is Netflix or Google done?”

Without a targeted end state, traditional project management tools such as Gantt charts, fixed budgets or strict road maps are not only impossible to implement—they’re also a waste of time. Instead, organizations large and small are increasingly moving toward 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 the 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 it is therefore incompatible with a traditional management approach that’s focused on meeting predetermined project requirements.

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

An agile model 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 in order to stay relevant and effective:

1. Understand the goals of the agile model for their organization

Your organization may have provided a corporate training program on the agile approach, 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 the model. Is it to decrease the time it takes to get new products to market? Is it to reduce dependence on external vendors or partners? Importantly, it’s not always obvious what your organization’s goals are. 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 success metrics

In the past, project managers were 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 research and development 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. 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. While it’s not always possible to precisely quantify how decisions are being made, even regularly thinking about the question can help keep project managers on track.

3. Continuously inspect and adapt ways of working

One of the core guiding principles of the agile approach is empiricism, or the 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 adjusting to new information. Some of the traditional tools and techniques that project managers are already familiar with will work well in an agile setting. Others might not. You should also bear in mind that our years of experience and expertise can blind us to opportunities for improvement. Consider adopting a mindset of “enthusiastic skepticism,” as Astro Teller, the head of Google’s X program, describes it. 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 feedback and adapt your approach to better meet the needs of your co-workers and customers. Some of these changes will inevitably conflict with how you’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.

An agile world 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 to their own development.

Jeff Gothelf works as a coach, consultant and keynote speaker.

Image courtesy of WWW.FREEPIK.COM

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