Questions from the Field

by Kent McDonald

Because I often find myself introducing agile principles to project managers and business analysts, I was recently asked to facilitate a couple of roundtable discussions surrounding the idea of Agile Project Leadership for the local PMI chapter. As part of those discussions I asked the participants to indicate things that still puzzled them; generally these were concepts and questions we couldn't get to during the roundtable. In this column, I will go through the list generated by this Q&A and attempt to address the questions now. I figure that if one person out of 20 has that question, others probably do as well. By providing answers to common questions about project leadership, I hope to demonstrate how agile principles and practices can be applied in organizations.

"Do you need different Project Management skills for agile projects?"

Before answering this question, it may be helpful to briefly discuss the difference between traditional projects and agile projects.

Predict and ControlAnticipate and Adapt
Work organized by taskWork organized by feature
Phases with only one type of activity, with an end result being a handoff to a different functionIterations, with the end result being running tested features
Project Plan with equal level of detail throughout the projectHigh level release plan with detailed iteration plan
Work assigned by project managerWork selected by team members
Team members provide status to project managerTeam members provide status to each other
Project plan assumed correct, so whenever reality differs from the plan, corrective action is taken to get back to match the planIteration plan created or revised at the beginning of each iteration, based on reflection and adaptation.
Success measured in terms of On Time, On Budget, with defined ScopeSuccess measured in terms of business value delivered
Vision supplied from leadershipShared vision established by entire team
Teams of any size from one to hundredsSmall teams between 1 and 10.

As you can see, there are several differences between Traditional projects and true Agile projects that—from a project management perspective—can best be summed up by the concept of self organization. In traditional projects, the project manager not only provides the vision of the team, but also directs and manages the team on the more detailed daily tasks by maintaining an up to date project plan. This usually results in a leadership style perhaps best described as "command and control."

Agile projects on the other hand, still include the concepts of planning, managing the work, and providing status, but these activities are addressed collectively by the team, because at the end of the day they are the ones most familiar with what actually needs to happen to accomplish the project's goals. In this case, the Project Leader is in more of a support and facilitation role, similar in concept to Robert Greenleaf's idea of the Servant Leader. As Mike Cohn puts it in his Certified Scrum Master Class, the Project Leader's primary responsibilities are to "move boulders and carry water"—in other words, remove obstacles that prevent the team from providing business value, and make sure the team has the environment they need to succeed.

One model often used to describe the leadership style needed on agile projects is the Collaborative Leadership model suggested by Pollyanna Pixton:

  • Make sure you have the right people on the project team. The right people are defined as those individuals who have passion about the goal of the project, have the ability to do the project, and are provided with the proper capacity, or time to work on the project.
  • Trust First, rather than waiting for people to prove their trustworthiness.
  • Let the team members propose the approach to make the project a success. After all, they are the ones who best know how to do the work.
  • Stand back and let the team members do their work without hovering over them continuously asking for status or trying to direct their activities, and provide support along the way to make sure nothing gets in the way of their success.

So to get back to the original question, do you need different project management skills for agile projects? My answer is, (and you can tell I am a consultant) "it depends." Project Leaders on agile projects rely more on facilitation, problem solving, coaching, and collaboration skills and less on planning, scheduling, and directing skills because those responsibilities are shared by the team. From the perspective of which skills are used more frequently on an agile project versus a traditional project there are definitely differences.

However I am convinced that you can successfully use a servant leadership or collaborative leadership approach even in a situation where you cannot use a full blown agile approach. Even when the project work is organized in phases based on activity, the project lead can still create an agile-like environment. This is the type of environment where the team determines what they need to do in order to successfully complete the project, with the project leader focused on fostering the appropriate environment and removing roadblocks.

I am currently working on a very large business application development project that is decidedly not agile, as a requirement lead for one small portion of the project. While most of the project is organized in a very command and control, entirely task focused planning manner; our team has taken a very collaborative approach. Our team works together to determine what subject areas or requirements each individual will focus on, agree on an approach that we will follow to complete the work, and share status with each other (versus sending status reports to the lead). Aside from working on some of the subject areas myself, my responsibilities are to clear any obstacles that prevent the team members from being productive and block distractions from the team wherever possible.

This approach has provided the most benefit through our ability to adapt to the very fluid environment on the project in terms of scope and focus of efforts. Because we are not tied to performing specific tasks on specific dates, we are able to quickly respond when we find a better way to do our work, or issues come up that need to be addressed. Meanwhile, other groups on the project spend a great deal of time trying to fit their work into tasks that were determined by people who are not doing the actual work.

So to sum up, the general set of skills used to lead projects is pretty much the same regardless of whether the project is traditional or agile in nature. Where the difference lies is in the frequency that particular skills and tools are used, which should be based on the characteristics of the particular project, the project team, and the project environment. Agile approaches have reinforced the idea that the more collaborative, results-oriented approach will generally lead to more successful, effective project teams. In the end, which tools and practices are used comes down to the leadership style of the Project Leader and the demands of the project environment.

If you have project leadership questions that you would like to see addressed from an agile-influenced perspective, I encourage you to send me an email at

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