Some people dislike the idea of agile project managers; some even hate the idea of management at all in agile organizations. But for teams transitioning to agile, there is a place for management. That place is creating an environment in which the team learns how to self manage.
Sometimes there will be a team with a lot of risk and a lot of unknowns where the normal, out-of-the-box agile solutions don’t work.
That team needs everyone to lead, and it often needs someone to represent that team to management to explain the agile process. That part might come now or it might come later, but in an agile transition with many unknowns, it almost never happens at the beginning—even if management is saying, “Please go agile.”
A geographically distributed team needs management support. It does not need command-and-control.
This is when the person working as the project manager should start removing impediments. The team will create its own visual board. The team members decide the length of the timebox for this feature and if they want to use iterations. They decide how to spike it. They start making decisions.
That team especially needs to understand the problem of bottlenecks, experts, and how to stop needing experts. After they practice this a couple of times, they have the confidence they need to do this more times on their project. They can call this agile, but it might not have a real name. It’s a mishmash of timeboxes and kanban; but if it works for them, it doesn't matter what it’s called.
Teams might need management support. For example, geographically distributed teams often don’t have enough testers. Well, you say, that team flunks the “we have all the cross-functional roles to do the work” part of agile. Yes, but what if they don’t know that? What if they want to try agile? What if they want to work through their obstacles and impediments? They need someone to represent them to their management while they try to test as they proceed.
You could substitute “database administrator” or “GUI designer” or whatever it is you need for tester in the above paragraph. Whenever you need someone to advocate on behalf of the team to management, you might want an agile project manager. This person shouldn't say, “When is the project going to be done?” You want to type who will say, “What does the team need? I can help acquire that.”
Project managers who provide servant leadership to the team and represent to the rest of management what the team has accomplished can be invaluable. They can help the team understand its process and facilitate what the team can do if the team gets stuck. These are agile project management skills.
Do you need a project manager? No. But I think you do need a servant leader.
In your experience, do you think a team transitioning to agile must have a project manager? What about a servant leader? Do you have a geographically distributed team that does not have a servant leader? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. She is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and Gantthead.com, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman.com, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.com.