Starting Your Project Management Career with Agile
If you're a developer or IT pro looking to enter the fray of project management, Agile might be the place to start because its self-directed teams allow members to practice planning and management strategies. If you're on an Agile team, you can move into a Scrum Master role as a way to test the waters and see if project management is your path.
Project Manager Duties in Agile
Traditionally, a project manager plans, gathers, and manages tasks and resources so that the project achieves its scope and quality within time and budget. One common model sorts the activities of a manager into four buckets:
Planning: Figuring out goals, the steps to get there, and the constraints.
Organizing: Bringing together and structuring the people and resources needed to reach goals.
Leading: Communicating goals, motivating the team, and resolving conflicts.
Control: Tracking progress toward goals, diagnosing problems, and making adjustments or corrections.
An Agile project re-factors many of the duties of a traditional project manager across multiple roles. Whatever role you play, you'll gain relevant experience and the leadership aspects of the Scrum Master (or Agile coach) are particularly significant. Below we'll use Scrum as our archetypal example of an Agile development framework.
The Scrum Master facilitates and protects the team and the process, keeping things moving. The Scrum Master's project management duties include leadership (specifically servant leadership) to the team, resolving impediments that hinder progress, and ensuring the Agile process is followed.
The Product Owner represents the interests of the customer/user, maintaining the Product Backlog, and thus determining what goes into the final product. The Product Owner's project management duties include prioritizing requirements, cost control, and managing stakeholder expectations.
The Team Members (developers, testers, writers, etc) are motivated individuals trusted with the project's success. The particular project management duties of the Team Members include task allocation (via sprint-planning) and status reporting (in the daily Scrum stand-ups and the sprint review meeting).
All (Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Team Members). Some traditional project manager duties are spread across the entire Agile project: estimation and planning (in sprint planning, demos/retrospectives, and continuously during the sprint); risk management (ditto); and overall accountability for project goals.
Team Members and Project Management Skills
Any role within an Agile project offers opportunities for practicing project management skills. Team members gain experience in several ways.
Because planning by the self-organizing team happens just-in-time throughout the project, team members get valuable experience in planning and estimating.
The daily Scrum standups give regular practice in status reporting and in analyzing and troubleshooting obstacles, learning from each other. If the project uses Kanban practices, additional practice in tracking progress and creatively tackling team-level bottlenecks occurs.
Exposure to gathering and leveraging metrics is gained by team-wide awareness of Agile metrics like Scrum's Burndown Rate and Kanban's Lead Time.
The sprint demo provides the experience of interacting with the customer (or customer proxy), and the retrospective gives practice in analyzing team performance and improving practices (process improvement).
The Scrum Master Role
Moving into the Scrum Master role gives you key experience with team leadership.
The Scrum Master is focused on individuals and interactions, a facilitator and protector rather than the boss. This provides a great experience with practicing the soft skills needed by any leader, including communication, listening, team building, nurturing team members' growth, problem-solving techniques, negotiation, conflict resolution, optimism, and acting as a change agent.
Broadening to non-Agile PM Skills
Agile frameworks distribute many project management responsibilities across the team, but there are some tasks of the traditional project manager that are absent. Some are outside the scope of most Agile projects; some are superfluous in Agile, but still show up in other types of projects.
What if you must lead a project with non-Agile aspects, or your project must work closely with a non-Agile project? If project management is your trajectory, consider learning more about non-Agile project management so you have a versatile toolbox.
Leadership. Non-Agile projects do not presume a self-organizing team. The organization is typically hierarchical, and the project manager is the boss who team members report to, with authority over them in a chain of command. This requires a somewhat different mix of skills than the servant leader role of the Scrum Master.
The non-Agile project manager is responsible for the details of task definitions and for assigning tasks to people. The project manager is also responsible for awareness of the big-picture view of the project's state.
Planning. An Agile project has continual just-in-time organic planning. It is also often preceded by an upfront, high-level planning exercise that pencils in a ballpark sketch of the architecture, top-level plan, and estimates; this supports the go/no-go decision and the project launch.
In contrast, in traditional projects planning is a large upfront effort to predict in detail the overall trajectory of the project, with the sequencing of all anticipated tasks, start/finish dates, labor estimates, etc. This sort of large-scale detailed planning is supported by several sophisticated planning methodologies, with accompanying charts and tools.
Tracking and course corrections. In Agile projects, tracking progress and making course corrections are inherent in how the team continually responds to change. In a non-Agile project, the detailed, upfront plan is the basis for measuring progress, detecting deviations, and responding with corrections. And there are methodologies and tools to support that.
Status reporting. In an Agile project, status reporting is lightweight and driven by the Agile boards used by the team every day; status reporting also presumes the regular involvement of stakeholders who are involved (directly or by proxy) in Sprint planning and reviews.
In contrast, non-Agile reporting is based on the upfront detailed plan and involves producing separate documents which roll up status to inform upper management and stakeholders who are not regularly engaged with the project.
Learning about these aspects of project management is not only useful for the flexibility to manage projects with non-Agile aspects, they are also useful for interfacing with your broader organization where Agile has not penetrated.
Is PM Your Path?
Is project management in your career path? An Agile project is a great chance to try out project management skills, and the Scrum Master role, in particular, gives you great practice with key leadership skills.
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