Staying Agile in the Evolving Project Management Profession

Person doing parkour leaping over chasm

The project management profession has changed ever since lean manufacturing became popular in 1950s. Lean manufacturing introduced simple ideas and new ways of thinking for managing the flow of production, such as: just-in-time, small batches, flow, and the power of individual skill and teamwork. By the mid-1980s, an article on the rugby approach advanced concepts for self-organizing teams as part of a new, new product development approach. 

These ideas in lean manufacturing and new product development began to transfer the project manager’s functions of control and decision-making down to what now has become high-performance teams in lean-agile environments. What started in manufacturing and new product development has now spread over other industries such as government, pharmaceuticals, marketing, electronics, banking, telecommunication, etc.

A Shift in the Project Manager Role

In addition to the control function change in the project management profession, we continue to see changes in the role that a project manager plays, particularly in adaptive projects where changing conditions and feedback require teams to adapt constantly. In some cases, and due to the paradigm shift in use of agile methods and frameworks for project management, we hear that there is no room for a project manager role. For example, in the Scrum approach, there are only three roles for a high-performance, self-organizing team: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development Team. 

But, the fact is that the role of the project manager is still needed. It is simply taking other forms. 

For example, some project managers currently perform the role of a coach or a leader in an adaptive environment and as usual, it depends on the situation. What I mean is that if an organization is going through a transformation (changing from traditional project management to a lean-agile project management approach), the project manager is likely to lead people into action (coaching) and he/she is still needed to lead, coordinate, plan, and orchestrate the transformation.

The role of the project manager is also needed at higher levels of the organization as leaders, where the program and portfolio management functions continue to grow in demand. While self-organizing teams continue to have control of what they commit to produce at the team level, project managers are still needed as servant leaders to the teams and the organization.

Staying Agile and Adopting New Approaches

There are several things that one can do to adapt to the changes in the project management profession. Project management practitioners familiar with modern project-management approaches suggest adopting a new mindset and new skills that embrace Agile values and Lean-Agile principles. But, these are not enough. 

There are five aspects of oneself that must be changed to align with new modern project-management approaches: (1) mindset, (2) skill set, (3) leadership styles, (4) culture, and (5) learning. 

In addition to adopting a new mindset and a new set of skills to manage projects with an adaptive or hybrid approach, practitioners need to adopt new leadership styles that are appropriate to operate in a dynamic environment. These include: 

  • Servant leadership—to support teams and organization leaders
  • Inspirational leadership—to motivate people to reach their potential
  • Transformational leadership—to lead people through organizational changes leading to high-performance and effectiveness
  • Ethical leadership—to lead people with honesty, humility, and fairness

With regards to culture, we also need to adopt changes in our own behavior, beliefs, and traditions; without these, a new mindset with new skills is difficult to exhibit in practice. Similarly, learning has to become an integral part of oneself so that we must become lifelong learners as approaches and practices evolve. This sounds a lot easier than it actually is. It takes time to change oneself, right? But, it’s never too late to start learning. Learning never gets old—we do. 

Besides having the motivation for changing oneself, to become part of the modern project management profession, I believe it is the humble spirit in us that drives our inner-self to the real change. A humble spirit influences driving the change; and without it, change is almost impossible to achieve. 

Learn more