Goldilocks and the three Project Managers

At Iteration 1 of the Agile Winnipeg User Group we were doing the Agile ball game exercise. I won’t go into details here, but details can be found on Boris Gloger’s Blog by following this link:

For this exercise we appointed one person to be an observer for each team. This observer watched the proceeding and then made comments in the retrospectives. At the end of the session, it was subtly postulated/proposed that the Project Manager in Agile could actually be fulfilled by playing this observer role.

That statement bothered me for a while. I am not a proponent of a directional Project Manager, but I do believe they offer more value than just observing, So here we are with the three bears analogy:

The first Project Manager – Too hot

Well, we all know the first Project Manager was too hot for everyone’s liking. This first Project Manager is indeed the directional, traditional, micro-managing Project Manager we see in our past experience. This Project Manager is the Military Leader that is leading all team members by defining the plan at a very discrete level and then directing the individuals to execute that plan. This Project Manager is not at the Military General level as they typically do not contribute towards strategy. They only execute the plans that have been previously decided as the realization of strategic objectives.

This analogy works well  as it fits well with the traditional Project Manager not being concerned with value. They don’t have the extended awareness of value because they were not involved in the strategy creation. All they know is to execute what has been previously decided.

The second Project Manager – Too cold

The second Project Manager is somewhat too cold for my liking. Given that we have swung away from the traditional Project Manager for very valid reasons, I think we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. By labelling the Project Manager as merely only an observer, we have missed out on a great opportunity. I think it is a delicate balance to retain the additional value that a Project Manager role typically brings while still creating an atmosphere where a team can self organize.

But what are these skills that a Project Manager uniquely has more so than others? Well I am glad you asked. I would argue that a Project Manager has these additional competencies:

  1. Confidence to question – to ask why and to seek justification
  2. Comfort in conflict/Negotiation – to negotiate in the case of disagreement
  3. Workshop Facilitation – to facilitate all workshops
  4. Process Steward – to create the right process with the team and then govern the process

The third Project Manager – Just right

So if a Military Commander is too hot and an Observer is too cold, what is just right?

A True Agile Project Manager – The Referee

But wait, isn’t this just an observer? I would suggest that the observer was not required to have these other competencies. How does the Referee analogy provide this value you ask? Please indulge me by letting me use the analogy of an National Football League(NFL) Referee.

Foremost, the Referee is a student of the game and has contributed to the rules of the game. The Referees have detailed domain knowledge of the process (Rules of the game) and I would argue they also have domain knowledge of what the Offence (Technology), Defense (Business Domain), and Special Teams (Requirements) are trying to achieve. The Referee now can let the teams play the game (Self-Organize and deliver scope), but challenge the play when individuals over step any rules that everyone has agreed to. The Referee then is an expert in conflict resolution and facilitation.

For experienced teams, the Referee probably provides less guidance than he or she does for new teams. Once teams have worked together, they really manage the project themselves and require little guidance.

Ultimately, the Referee should be a former player. This will grant the Referee Domain Knowledge and allow him or her to challenge the play at all times.

In fact, I would argue that an Agile Project Manager must be a current or former player. Thoughts?

My final comment is something that anyone playing sports can probably attest to. I would estimate that 90% of a GOOD Referee’s time and effort is not spent calling infractions, but rather encouraging proper behaviour while the game is being played. Now that fits into the role of an Agile Project Manager!


Author: Terry Bunio

Terry Bunio is passionate about his work as the Manager of the Project Management Office at the University of Manitoba. Terry oversees the governance on Information Technology projects to make sure the most important projects are being worked on in a consistent and effective way. Terry also provides leadership on the customized Project Methodology that is followed. The Project Methodology is a equal mix of Prince2, Agile, Traditional, and Business Value. Terry strives to bring Brutal Visibility, Eliminating Information islands, Right Sizing Documentation, Promoting Collaboration and Role-Based Non-Consensus, and short Feedback Loops to Minimize Inventory to the Agile Project Management Office. As a fan of pragmatic Agile, Terry always tries to determine if we can deliver value as soon as possible through iterations. As a practical Project Manager, Terry is known to challenge assumptions and strive to strike the balance between the theoretical and real world approaches for both Traditional and Agile approaches. Terry is a fan of AWE (Agile With Estimates), the Green Bay Packers, Winnipeg Jets, and asking why?

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