Charles G. Cobb – Making Sense of Agile Project Management: Balancing Control and Agility

Agile methodologies are intentionally lean, they focus on fundamental principles, and they are also not prescriptive—that is by design. Agile methodologies do not specifically define a project management role or a business analyst role. The lack of definition of these roles has led to the perception that the project management and business analyst functions are no longer needed in agile projects. Charles G. Cobb’s 2011 book – Making Sense of Agile Project Management: Balancing Control and Agility really helps.

Project management is needed

Several factors create a very different environment on agile projects that dramatically impacts the need for project management and how it is performed:

  • Many of the decisions are made collectively by the team, and the ScrumMaster plays a facilitative rather than a directive role.
  • The team also uses a consensus-driven approach to come up with schedule estimates for the project and release plans.
  • There is typically a much more limited amount of upfront planning and documentation on each project.
  • There is also a much greater emphasis on taking a more flexible and adaptive approach to optimize business outcomes rather than a control-oriented approach that is focused on managing costs and schedules.
  • The primary members of the team are usually assigned full time to the project, so there is less of a need for resource planning and securing commitments for resources to support the project from functional departments; however, there is much more of a need for the team to be self-managing without as much direct intervention by functional managers.
  • The methods for reporting and tracking progress of the project are also built into the way the team operates and are typically less formal.

There are basically two levels of project management in a pure agile project:

  1. Within a Scrum team, the ScrumMaster typically performs many of the tasks that would normally be performed by a project manager such as leading and facilitating the team and tracking and managing progress of the project. It is done in an entirely different context, and it is a very different role from a traditional project management role, but some of the functions that the ScrumMaster performs involve some project management skills.
  2. In larger, more complex agile projects, an extra layer of management may be needed to coordinate and manage the work of multiple teams in addition to the role performed by the ScrumMaster within individual teams. That layer of project management can be implemented in a number of different ways, but it will also require an additional level of project management responsibility.

Self-organization has its limits

Putting a lot of faith in self-organizing teams is a good idea, but it clearly has its limits:

  • The success or failure of it is highly dependent on the skills of all the individuals on the team in following the Scrum process, and it only works if the individuals on the team are experienced enough and knowledgeable enough to take on that responsibility. Making a self-organizing team work effectively is also very dependent on developing a very collaborative approach both among all of the direct participants in the team and between the team and any external stakeholders.
  • The self-organized team model isn’t very scalable to larger projects, and it doesn’t adequately address many of the typical higher-level project management planning and management roles that are essential to the success of projects, especially those requiring multiple teams.
  • In situations that require a balance of agility and control, a hybrid project management approach might be needed that blends an additional level of planning and management with self-organizing teams as a foundation.

Required: mind shift

To succeed in an agile environment, some Project Managers may need to adopt new ways of thinking. There are several important shifts in thinking that may be needed:

  • Systems-thinking. From a project management perspective, it means not getting lost in the mechanics of how a particular methodology (agile or non-agile) works, being able to see the “big picture,” and being able to understand the principles and practices that are behind methodologies at a deeper level.
  • Focus on customer value. Agile methodologies require a more flexible approach designed to maximize customer value in addition to maximizing control and predictability. There are two key changes that may be needed:
    • Balance of Control and Agility—In addition to the traditional project management emphasis on controlling costs and schedules, Project Managers need to focus on developing a balanced approach that blends the right level of control with a sufficient level of agility to also successfully deliver business outcomes.
    • Flexibility and Adaptability—Instead of rigidly implementing a given standard project management methodology (either agile or non-agile) “by the book,” Project Managers need to be able to craft a project management approach that is tailored to an individual project and to the business environment that project is associated with.

Inspect and adapt your project management approach

The shift in thinking that is needed is, instead of force-fitting the project to any particular methodology (agile or non-agile), fit the methodology (or combination of methodologies) to the project. It takes much more skill and a broader and deeper understanding of a number of different methodologies, principles, and practices to do that:
Agile methodologies are, by design, loosely defined and meant to be tailored and customized to fit the situation.

Some people have the narrow view that project management is primarily an administrative function associated with estimating and managing project costs and schedules. That is a function that many Project Managers are required to perform, and it is an important area that they are measured on, but in most cases, project managers have a fairly broad range of skills that go well beyond those basic project management functions. In the IPMA Competence Baseline for project managers you can find also:

  • technical skills
  • business analyst skills
  • people management
  • leadership
  • process design

Agile project management principles and techniques

There are a number of principles of an agile project that dramatically change the project management role.
Even without Scrum you may apply techniques like:
  • daily stand-ups
  • consensus building instead of asking for agreement
  • timeboxing

Agile Project Management Models

  • Scrum-of-scrums approach
  • Agile Project Management model by Jim Highsmith (envision, speculate, explore, adapt, close)
Only two? Yes, it’s up to you to do your job. Cobb has some suggestions on how to blend PMBOK with Agile thinking. Tailoring and principle over prescription are key. In Part 1 the author explores agile values, principles and practices. In Part 2 he takes you along the project management issues, covered above, but also software development life cycles.
In two appendices he shares overviews of agile development practices and the agile project delivery frameworks Scrum, DSDM, Agile Modeling (a methodology by Scott Ambler) and Agile Unified Process (simplified version of the Rational Unified Process (RUP) developed by Scott Ambler).