Managing project managers when adopting Scrum

For the past few years, I’ve being working with a great group of people to implement an Agile project in a non-Agile organization. After much struggle, we secured the sponsorship needed to work as an Agile team that follows the Scrum framework. It is a fantastic journey, full of challenges, victories, and defeats. And it is all worth it.

As a Certified ScrumMaster®, I’ve worked with:

  • Product owners to adapt the stakeholders’ needs into a product backlog
  • Stakeholders to help them understand why we want to work in an Agile way and why it is best for everyone
  • Developers and testers to work as an Agile team

When I realized that the Agile team was working and evolving, I wanted to do something to help other teams in my organization follow a similar path. Then I set my first challenge: How can I help a defined, hierarchical, command-and-control organization become Agile?

Project manager in a Scrum role

I soon found out that project managers are a tricky group to manage. I’m talking about the traditional project managers who manage what a team should do and how to do it. What can be done to transform the hierarchical project managers on an Agile team network? Primarily, should we find a Scrum role for the project manager so that this person can stick with the team?

Let’s examine these questions further.

  • Can a project manager be a ScrumMaster? A project manager can be a ScrumMaster, but first this individual must fully understand the role. To be a ScrumMaster, the person can no longer be a manager; he or she must focus on the product owner (PO) and the team and its needs, all the while ensuring that the Scrum values and principles are followed.
  • Can a project manager be a product owner? The project manager can be a PO, but the individual must act like one, know the role, and understand its boundaries. To be a PO, the person is no longer the project manager and must focus on the product and its needs.
  • Does an Agile project need managing? By one manager? I don’t think so. A Scrum Team should be self-managed. But the organization may need project managers to connect to the teams, and teams may need these managers to help remove organizational impediments. So project managers can do the work that the organization needs. They also work with the Scrum Teams to bridge the gap between the Agile team’s work and the organization’s needs (normally, bureaucracy).
In my experience, the organization tends to put a project manager in a Scrum role, either as a PO or ScrumMaster, and that manager must keep doing what traditional project managers do — manage the project and its people. This is not how it should be and can even be dangerous. The team doesn’t understand the Scrum roles and tend to be confused.
If the organization wants to be Agile, it must understand how to transform its project managers without compromising the Agile principles. Identify who wants to work with the team, coaching them to be more and more Agile and allowing the team to define what must be done. Those who are more of a product person should manage the stakeholders’ needs. The others are more likely to keep doing all the other things that are not so important for the teams to build great products, but are still relevant to the organization.

A project manager who also assumes a Scrum role is a strange thing. It’s not Agile, and some of the typical project manager tasks conflict with Scrum, especially with the command-and-control stuff, so these roles must be split apart.


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