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Project Management and the role of the Project Manager in an Agile World

By Craig Lauchlan, General Manager, Customer Experience Transformation, AGL Energy

Project Management and the role of the Project Manager in an Agile WorldCraig Lauchlan, General Manager, Customer Experience Transformation, AGL Energy

It is 9:20 am on a Monday morning and I have just partic­ipated in the daily stand-up for a major digital channel initiative that we are delivering to market in two months’ time. The Release Train Engineer ran the stand-up, which included all the Scrum Masters, Product Owners and the Sponsor. We ran through the Kanban board, which the RTE had built in Jira; focused on the key block­ers, assigned resources to critical issues and had a quick discussion about organising the launch party. Only four Sprints to go! As the Project Manager, I wonder about the relevance of my role going forward.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? In today’s modern workplace where ‘Agile’ is the dominant paradigm for delivering change, we are surrounded by these relatively new activities and roles and we are starting to reflect on the value of project management and specifically the role of the Project Manager. It is my contention that project management competencies are still highly relevant and necessary in today’s environment; however, ‘Project Manager’ as a role is being disrupted.

Our work environment and context has changed significantly in recent times. Technology has underpinned exponential changes in our personal, community, and workspaces. Computing power in our hands is enormous, interactions are most often real-time online, and we are rapidly digitising and automating products and services. Technology has enabled our ability to design, create and deliver new services to market in record time. Our delivery and value realisation approach is defined more by iterative or continuous development of initiatives as opposed to monolithic projects with a defined start and end (and uncertain outcomes!).

Customer expectations are also changing rapidly, the market is shifting quickly and the traditional approach of locking in scope within a defined schedule and budget is fraught with the danger of not delivering timely and valued outcomes.

The Standish Group Chaos Report continues to identify that the vast majority of initiatives fail on traditional measures and only 29% of IT implementations are considered successful.

For the past two years, I have been the accountable executive for the design and delivery of a $300m digital and customer experience transformation. At peak, the program of work contained approximately 600 people and was characterised by an ‘agile@scale’ way of working with hundreds of initiatives that led to a 100 percent increase in speed to market. We have created an infrastructure, environment, and framework for delivering continuous change into the market and we have led with less than a handful of Program Managers engaged in the work.

Our delivery and value realisation approach is defined more by iterative or continuous development of initiatives as opposed to monolithic projects with a defined start and end

More importantly, it is worth noting that we have never asked for additional capital, our benefits are on track, and we have significantly changed the cultural fabric of the organization. The program based around customer journeys and solving the ‘jobs to be done’ for customers, ran five customer value streams led by Value Stream leaders, Program Managers, Release Train Engineers and Scrum Masters. 6-8 scrum teams were embedded in each Value Stream and funding was fixed for each stream. As a leadership cohort, we negotiated on initiatives and priorities using a combination of the MoSCoW(Must Have, Should Have, Could Have, Won’t Have) and DVF (Desirable, Viable, Feasible) models. A very small project office (aka Tribe Services) kept oversight of finance, risk and benefits.

The project management competencies and accountabilities were therefore distributed amongst a number of roles across the program. The Value Stream leader was accountable for cost and benefits outcomes, establishing the vision for the stream, and being the ultimate story teller for their work. The Release Train Engineer was accountable for orchestration of the Scrum teams and adherence to the rhythm of Sprints, Showcases and Program Increment planning days. The Product Owner was accountable for scope and backlog development, and the Scrum Masters managed small teams to deliver outputs.

Normally in this environment, we would have 5 – 10 Project Managers assigned to each program with responsibility to plan the delivery and control execution within the defined parameters of scope, cost, schedule, and quality. So, what became of these Project Managers? Well, in our instance we required very few but focused on a select number of high-performance Program Managers.

Our Program Managers played a key role in designing the system, ensuring the right resources were sourced and allocated, managed supply chain, and held the program to account for good governance. The Program Manager shifted focus from traditional scope control and financial management to flow (team productivity) and delivery of value (focus on benefits rather than cost).

Thus, in an Agile environment which is becoming commonplace and the most effective means for delivering customer value at pace, project management as a set of activities and processes remains critical, even when the distribution of work and controls requires far less traditional lower-level ‘Project Manager’ roles.

The ‘hierarchy’ of project management now shifts from a more traditional ‘command and control’ style of leadership to a model characterised by ‘servant leadership’ skills and techniques. Together, as part of a broader leadership fraternity, the Project Manager now focuses on people over process, removing blockers to performance and maximising the flow for benefit outcomes from the Value Streams.

Of course, no two environments are the same and each organization will need to design their roles and accountabilities relative to their context and level of maturity. However, the shift to more agile ways of working is fundamentally changing the way we operate and the roles within our organizations.

Project management remains a critical set of skills and expertise and Project Managers must become familiar with Agile ways of working. Adding new skills to their tool belts and lifting their game in regard to servant leadership, inspiring a sense of shared purpose, driving value for customers and organizations.

The irony facing the Project Manager is that they are usually the ones driving change; today, the Project Manager must lead by example and demonstrate how they too, can develop and change. Keep on learning!

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