Project Management in an Agile Environment

By: May 1, 2017

About a week into my shiny new project management position at AWeber, I was basically told that the role itself was met with much disdain, water cooler dissension and a communal question of “We’re an agile shop. Why do we need a project manager?

It’s certainly an excellent question.

After all, the teams are already pretty well-stacked. Every product team at AWeber has a scrum master who is responsible for the day-to-day process of the team. Each team has a dedicated team lead to handle “people (i.e. resource) management.” All teams have their own product owner.

And on top of that, each team is empowered to be autonomous and mold their processes to their needs. There are even common linkages between teams in the form of Birds of a Feather (BoF), where every team has Operations, Design, User Experience and even a Customer Service lead represented. It’s so agile it hurts.

So, why hire a project manager?

The answer is simple: cohesion.

Spokes on a Wheel

Like spokes on a wheel, each product team is its own full-stack development house. Each supports their own weight and are an integral part of the company cart. However, if there is no rim – something bringing all the spokes together as a whole for a common goal – the cart moves forward, but maybe strays from the path every so often or has a wheel out of alignment.

Project management is that rim.

It keeps all of the spokes in-line to not stray from the path. It shares a little bit of the overall load from each spoke and helps make each spoke stronger as a result. It provides feedback to all the spokes when bumpy roads are encountered.

Are you sick of this metaphor yet? I think you now have a nice mental image in your head of where the project manager sits in the overall scheme of things. This was what AWeber was seeking. This is why project managers are valuable in agile environments.

Doing Agile v. Being Agile

I get questioned frequently on “agile” practices. My usual response is, “Do what works for your team that serves the customer best.” Just because you read an article that scrum should be limited to two week sprints does NOT mean you have to adhere to that.
There are projects by their very nature that break down beautifully into two-week chunks. Often, larger, more complicated projects will never fit that mold; breaking down user stories only gets you so far.

Sometimes, the smallest deliverable is just too big to be completed in two weeks. This is where the team needs to have the awareness and confidence to BE agile instead of being a slave to the process of agile.

With that said, I do have a personal preference for kanban. I feel it’s leaner than scrum with more of a “Get Stuff Done (GSD)” attitude. Don’t be afraid to switch between multiple agile methodologies or a combination of them to deliver projects to your customers.

At AWeber, we are focused on creating remarkable experiences for our customers. Sometimes that means thinking differently, breaking the mold and pivoting. Isn’t that the ultimate agility? There is never a “one-size-fits-all” process in any company, so why do so many attempt to force just one?

Several times in the past year, AWeber product teams have rallied around critical, large cross-functional projects. While the default mode of operation on many of the product teams is scrum, an overnight change to a kanban-ish process has been adopted at points in time where focus was needed to get projects over the finish line. Was the transition seamless and without flaw? No. Was it WHAT was needed WHEN it was needed to achieve monumental goals? Yes.

Project management is present to advise, facilitate, coordinate, communicate and monitor these agile changes. By having project management present, it allows the team to remain as focused as possible on their own team goals while the project manager handles cross-functional-oriented tasks.

On a daily basis I will switch between any or all of the following:

  • Status reporting
  • Cross-functional team leadership
  • Team metrics generation, gathering and analysis
  • Third-party vendor selection and management
  • Stakeholder communications and escalations
  • Risk management
  • Project planning
  • Change management
  • Process management

There are any number of things a project manager can organize and measure to add value to any product team. Use them well.

Measure Everything

This brings me to a key factor in BEING agile: Teams cannot be agile if they don’t have information to make choices. This is an area where the project manager can shine in an agile organization. Team members at AWeber often wear many hats. Scrum masters are also developers and split their time accordingly. Team leads often commit code. Product owners for individual teams have responsibilities to steering committees and leadership groups. This leaves little time to dive deep into metrics and create pretty charts and graphs.

The project manager should be able to answer questions about the projects in-flight, the backlogs and the team at any point for any of the stakeholders I just mentioned. They want to make choices for their teams, but might not have the time to devote to organizing information to make those choices.

As project manager, I make a point to capture every meaningful metric I can around project and team velocity, classification of work breakdown, team capacity, where time is spent, cycle times, etc. Tools like JIRA can be leveraged for many things. It just takes someone focused on capturing and visualizing meaningful metrics to the various audiences so they can make better informed decisions.

Could any one of the stakeholders I mentioned do this? Yes, of course. But that’s one less hat they have to wear so they can focus on being a scrum master, team lead or product owner without wrestling data into submission.

It’s So Agile!

When teams need to come together for a common purpose or when you need some quick process engineering from a different perspective, call upon a project manager. Need some metrics, but don’t necessarily know how to procure or visualize them? Call upon a project manager. Need someone keeping track of the “bigger” picture…? You guessed it… call upon a project manager.