Metamorphosis into the Agile Project Manager…becoming the “Passive Conduit”

“It is only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything” – Tyler Durden

This statement (from a popular movie, Fight Club, of all places) has been incredibly valuable in my transition to (and growth as) an Agile project manager, scrum master, and coach over the years.

Successfully moving to Agile is very much about abandoning rules and practices that were made to deal with limitations of the past. In the past, as a project manager on traditional projects, in addition to “management” activities, I had to make decisions- sometimes about technology, or product, or schedule, or other. The burden placed on project managers in many large organizations is tremendous. Ironic that the project manager is often the person in the worst position to make these decisions – usually without reporting authority of her/his teams, without the most domain expertise (when compared to business sponsors, for example) or technical expertise, etc.

Having all this responsibility and accountability made the traditional project manager a very powerful person.

It is difficult to willingly give up power.

“One of the most common and serious mistakes that you can make as a project manager is to compensate for an inadequate sponsor role by making major project decisions such as scope, objectives, risk management, quality expectations, benefits realization plans, and so on by yourself…Simply put, you are the “passive” conduit through which the dreams of the sponsor flow.” – Rob Thomsett, Radical Project Management

Throw it all away and be free

I believe that one of the simplest and most effective things an Agile project manager can do is, ironically, nothing!

Well, not really nothing. But none of the things mentioned above. The Agile PM should be a conduit of information, a “passive conduit” as Thomsett describes nicely in his excellent book. Instead of solving problems, focus on getting problems to the right people. For every challenge, risk and issue arises, spend your time communicating to those who need to know, those who are empowered and able to solve the challenge or issue, or who are affected by the risk.

If every single challenge is moved, through you — suddenly seemingly-powerless PM — to the right people, they will all be handled most effectively, and/or decisions will be made with the best possible information. Almost magically, your project will become far more successful, without you solving a single problem, and without you making a single decision! Your decision not to decide (and to instead facilitate decisions) has resulted in project success. How do you define power? My definition has changed over time.

Handling anything – the same method

Suddenly every issue, risk challenge becomes the same. Project management, something I previously thought incredibly complex and requiring atlas-like efforts of driving people in a direction as well as scrutinizing detail, has instead become a series of appropriate reactions to any change, servitude of the team in its efforts to accomplish its objectives, and (process and other) guidance for those needing help dealing with particular situations. The effect on the organization can be profound- those truly accountable and empowered to deal with things get more experience doing so.

Mind Like Water – a nice description of a way to approach dealing with change and problems.