Authors: Stephan Adler, SPC & Christoph Wolf, PMP


Bye, bye Project Manager - Is Agile Disrupting Project Management?

What happens if the world is changing faster than your project plans, if by then time a product is released, the market has made a 180-degree turn? Make the projects shorter, more releases? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
So we embrace a digital transformation, implement Agile and self-organising teams, fire everyone with the role “Something-manager” and live happily ever after? Well, it turns out it is not quite that simple either.


The reality of many organisations, products and markets is very complex with a multitude of constraints and dependencies. Our experience shows that larger scale developments require a significant amount of coordination, change management, decision making, and other competencies that a project manager usually has - regardless of what type of development approach is. 


Focusing on the people behind the role “project manager”, here are a few insights from our experience.

  • All industries are facing a digital transformation - some earlier and faster (e.g. retail), some later and slower (e.g. construction). With that we mean a shift towards the digitalisation of processes and tools (e.g. online forms and self-service), the shift towards (partly) digital products (e.g. computer guided farming equipment) and lastly a shift in the business models (e.g. monthly subscription to digital books).
    These digital products usually have a much higher pace and complexity, compared to the original product.
    Companies facing such a digital transformation in their industry must be able to continuously develop or deploy products at the pace of the market or face a loss of market share. 
  • Whether you want to adopt an “agile” approach and any of the many frameworks that carry that label is secondary - the key elements that have to be in place to sustain in the evolving market are
    • Functioning fast feedback loops to understand the evolving needs of the customer
    • A high cadence to release products of the appropriate quality that can handle changing priorities
    • A motivated, qualified and empowered workforce to attract the required talent.
  • Usually this leads to a shift from thinking about projects to a focus on continuous product development with decentralised decision making. Smaller projects usually have too much overhead and not enough decentralised decision making and continuity to deliver the same results.


So, what does that mean for project managers?

  • Products of some complexity still require a lot of coordination between modules, hardware and software, vendors, support, … This work is now mostly done as part of a product team, technically inclined project managers usually find their skills in high demand as a member of such a team.
  • Project managers that have a strong focus on the content can move into a product role, focussing only on what is to be developed, not the delivery itself. This role requires a lot of decision-making competencies and the ability to take responsibility.
  • Frameworks such as the Scaled Agile Framework are designed to deliver large scale software with many teams working together. Various roles, such as the Release Train Engineer, focus on the coordination of the setup, rather than the product development.


So, nothing changes, just new roles? No - working in an agile product organisation requires lateral leadership, real delegation of decision making and lateral leadership. This is a major shift compared to the often very centralised power and responsibility in a classic project.

In our talk at the Annual Members Meeting of PMI Switzerland Chapter on 2nd February 2023 we will elaborate on these points and share examples, good practices and pitfalls to avoid.