Many software development teams seem to be adopting or intending to adopt agile methodology. While there is no shortage of articles on best practices to implement this philosophy, every agile journey is different and so is every individual experience. Agile is a refreshing change from waterfall, but to avoid falling back into a waterfall mentality, management teams must invest the time, both upfront and continuously, to coach and transition teams to stay in agile mode.
When we shifted to agile at my organization, I was excited but concerned about where a project manager, like myself would fit into the picture. The primary roles in an agile environment – product owners, scrum masters and agile teams – don’t include a project manager, but I quickly learned the importance of my role. With everyone focused on their own granular responsibilities, I, as a project manager, needed to have the bird’s-eye view of the project to ensure that the collaboration and communication was occurring at the appropriate levels to avoid potential project level issues that could impact the overall timeline of a project.
My responsibilities did not change much once we transitioned to agile, it's likely other project managers will experience the same, but the lens in which I viewed my day to day tasks differed slightly. Here are takeaways I’ve gathered during my journey thus far:
- Get comfortable with the fact that a project manager is no longer the focal point of the project and no longer plans and drives work for the teams. The responsibility is now decentralized as everyone on the project is truly responsible for its success in terms of scope and schedule. While the project may have control points, responsibility to deliver is shared by everyone on the project.
- Move forward with only a high-level scope at the start of the project. Focus on supporting your product owners with their responsibility of regular elaboration of requirements and prioritization of the backlog.
- Adopt a pragmatic approach to documentation that ensures a right amount of useful documentation that incrementally evolves throughout the project.
- Leverage the flexibility which agile provides, always keeping the focus on the business value delivered to the customers and the company.
- Proactively look out for potential failures in the processes followed and focus on continuous improvements. Sprint retrospectives could be a good source of information to identify areas where improvements are needed. Become comfortable with the possibility of implementing regular improvements to the process.
- As an agile project manager, utilize whatever forecasting tools makes sense (as simple as Excel) to create release projections using estimated scope and velocity. Work with the product owners to estimate the scope; functional managers and scrum master to estimate the team velocity. Most importantly use historic data to build the initial chart. Update the chart at the end of every sprint with actuals and use it to monitor the health of the project. As a project manager, you can identify many issues from this chart. This also helps your product owners manage/prioritize the release scope.
- Monitor project risks but unlike traditional risk management, address them at the earliest possible. The iterative nature of agile allows us to quickly address every possible risk.
- Dependency management is critical in agile projects to reduce project slippages. Achieve consensus on an approach to manage the dependencies between the cross functional teams whether it is through a dependency board and/or periodic meetings.
- Open communication is critical for the success of a project. It is an essential element in the agile approach. Devise and manage a communication plan and guidelines that provides different means of communication to raise impediments and keep everyone informed on the status of the project.
- Assist scrum masters in keeping the noise away from the teams by handling the project level issues across the teams.
- Help foster a collaborative environment and create a mindset that small failures are acceptable but failing to learn from them is not.
- Give support to everyone involved in the project to stay focused on their roles and responsibilities. It took us a while but only when we all began to understand our roles and responsibilities and tried not step on each other’s toes, did we truly start to evolve as an agile organization.
With every experience I gain a greater appreciation for agile principles and values. With the ever-changing business needs and a fast-paced delivery environment, agile project management plays an important role in helping adopt an adaptable approach to project delivery. It helps us to deliver working products that produce value for our customers in short intervals of time and increase their trust in us on a regular basis.
Jaya Panchavati is a senior agile project manager at Sparta Systems, the leading provider of quality and regulatory management software solutions.