What Shall We Do with the Project Managers?

What Shall We Do with the Project Managers?

(To the tune of “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor“).

I speak regularly in front of project managers. I phrase it thus because we rarely have a dialogue. I fully accept that I must appear like some crazed loon from their perspective. It’s mutual. Sigh. Our views on the world of work seem somewhat – erm – different (cough).

Back in August I posted an Open Letter to the Project Management Community, making a plea for a little more mutual compassion and understanding of our differences.

And before that, in April, I wrote about the distinction between Management and Managers. Like Eisenhower’s take on plans and planning:

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

I see much need for “project management” in the effective organisation, but good reasons not to have project managers doing it.

Existing project managers do not define the system in which they must work. In most cases they are as much prisoners of “the system” – the way the work works – as everybody else. In some ways, more so, given their “accountability”. So let’s not blame them or start telling them what they should do or must do to adjust to the new world of work.

Instead, let’s listen to what they need. Coz I’m pretty sure that they’re not getting much of what they need as things stand.

And while we’re doing that, let’s explore that new world of work I just mentioned. How about we talk together about where their skills, experience, and – most of all – talents and strengths can best serve their needs and the needs of the organisations in which they work. Here’s some scene-setting…

Regard and Respect

I’m all for celebrating folk’s strengths and talents. With creatives and developers, this happens fairly regularly. Although not as regularly as perhaps we – and they – might like. I tweeted recently:

Of course, as things stand in most organisations, with Project Managers the (often reluctant) policemen and disciplinarians of the piece, this seems unlikely. How might we change the way the work works such that discipline becomes intrinsic rather than extrinsic, and the need for coercion, compliance and that whole nine yards transmutes into something much more collaborative, something more like fellowship?

Of course, it’s not all going to happen overnight. But doing some (joint) planning might help everyone handle the inevitable uncertainty and consequent unease that often accompanies change. And by preserving a sense of agency, maybe we can help enhance folks’ well-being and feelings of security too.

It’s not only the project managers that are facing change – just about everyone will be involved – impacted – in such changes. How about we call them stakeholders?

When we’re considering the future, these are just some of the issues we might like to make discussable. Are they yet discussable in your organisation?

– Bob


I’ve chosen not to open up that other can of worms related to project management, here – the whole question of doing away with projects entirely, in favour of a more flow-oriented approach, like e.g. FlowChain. See the Further Reading section (below) for Grant Rule’s paper exploring the topic.

Further Reading

What’s Wrong with the Project Approach to Software Development? ~ Grant Rule
Compassionate Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
Jackal And Giraffe Language ~ High Branch Ideas
Discussing the Undiscussable ~ William R. Noonan
Principles of Product Development Flow ~ Donald G. Reinertsen

  1. In some corporations I’ve seen, the responsibility of the PM is to run around in the organization and explain to everybody who will listen why the project/application/whatever is even needed. The PM does not have any resources of his own to spend, (s)he depend upon upper management. If upper management does not understand/like the project it is killed.

    In these organizations the PM is a mere salesman, selling an idea to upper management. Unless these organizations change, there must be a lot of internal marketing done by someone, or else the project will be killed. Renaming the PM to “stakeholder” might not be valid here (even though it goes along the agile lines). “Project promoter” or “project PR-guy” might be better?

  2. “Traditional” project managers might have big difficulties in the transition to the agile way of working. I switched from being a developer to become an agile Project Manager when our company started the transition to agile and those who worked in the old command & control ways are really struggling.
    For me personally working with an agile team is much more similar to the work of a scrum master or agile coach than the watch dog or project police. Helping the team by gaining their trust from bottom up but at the same time be a servant leader who helps lean thinking and negotiation with Product Managers or Stakeholders.
    Thats’s just one of the many aspects a “project manager” could have in an agile environment.

    But “Project Manager” and “Agile Project Manager” should not be confused, the Agile part is not a simple addon to the skills of the traditional approach but a complete new job description which doesn’t have many things in common with the old one.

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