We need Project Management in Agile, but not schedule forecasting.

Great sound-bite… but dangerous without the context. The most important word in my quote, “WE”. Because what-ever your experience with PMs and PMOs, the problem is organizational, not personal.

As a Project Manager wondering how your job will be affected by an impending Agile Transformation. I submit the following context for my comment.

1. The Best PM I ever worked with

Ann was a revelation to what a PM could be. Her meetings never felt like work, they flowed smoothly. Shit got done. People took responsibility; owned up to competing priorities; and made decisions. Pure Magic.

Eventually I started simply watching how she worked. The masterful nudges she’d use to get people moving. She never took sides, invested any of her own ego into how the project would get closed. It was all about the data, what did the business need to have done, and could the team at hand get it done now?

Things I learned watching her.

Delegate decisions/tasks/research to the fewest number of people and no fewer.

Most often she identified 2 people to resolve any open tasks that needed completing or decisions that needed making. The 2 people closest to the the problem at hand. The important thing that I learned was that 2 was an optimal minimum and 3 was an preferred maximum.

Just enough people to cross-check that the work or decision was cross-checked but not so many that communication would be an issue. We didn’t solution in her meetings, we go in, we got a plan and we got to work. She never asked us to explain our results, if both of us were in agreement with the result, it was settled.

There is only one top priority

Like I said, Ann never felt it was her job to squeeze more effort out of us, or challenge us to work-harder. If we simply couldn’t find time to schedule the work that needed doing, we only had to list out the other projects we were on. Ann did all the leg work from there to get the right projects stopped, regardless of the political backing of the project of least priority.

2. Scheduling: First Things First from Algorithims to Live By

PMs have been given an intractable problem to solve: managing the schedule. 84% of scheduling problems have been shown to be -Intractable- meaning that while we can imagine algorithms to calculate an optimal schedule, in reality even a small amount of complexity or uncertainty means that none of these solutions can provide an answer in a human amount of time.

Basically, your gut is right. The time will take to figure out the schedule is simply going to take longer than doing the work in the first place. But still, PMs are judged on how well they managed the resources and time. Now, I do credit human intuition with a capacity to quickly solve problems that AI finds difficult, however taking the theory at face value certainly fits mine (and others) experience better.

3. The trap of Cognitive Closure

Sadly, IT has made gathering and visualizing time and schedules so easy, we’ve triggered a key weakness in human psychology. We gravitate to any promise, even a false one, of certainty in an uncertain world. The process of making a decision triggers our reward system, so much so that we often forgo asking the value of the decision. We lock into the easiest decision first.

4. Re-defining the PM role

What is a project?

Horstsman’s Law of Project Management

all projects are simply tasks, done by people, within certain time frames. Despite all protestations to the contrary, no matter how complex the project, they all boil down to who is responsible for doing something, what they’re responsible for, and when they have to have it done by. Complex tools can be helpful, but only on really large projects (and almost nobody looks at them anyway ;-) ).

What is Management?

“It’s all about the people” Horstman’s Laws

This is actually a hard-nosed, scientific and financial reality. Any hour you spend on people is a better investment than an hour spent on systems, processes, or policies. Great people can overcome average systems; average people won’t live up to great systems.

Final Thoughts

As a Project Manager wondering how your job will be affected by an impending Agile Transformation. What if your role changed from team nag to team coach, idea broker, customer champion?

Time Matters

Despite what some may tell you, time does matter in agile projects. But rather than effort trying to solve the intractable problem of optimal schedule agile takes advantage of a much simpler approximation, most valuable job first.

The effort goes into figuring out what needs to be done right NOW.

Determining Value is Hard

  • Can this be done right now, or does something need to be done first?
  • Does this lose value over time, that is, what is the cost of delay?
  • Who else is impacted by delay?
  • What does DONE really look like? How do we know we’ve reached DONE?

These are not easy questions, and subject to politics and other conflicts of perspective. So having a skilled mediator to keep the process flowing is invaluable if any project will deliver.

We need Project Management in Agile, but not schedule forecasting.

Written on May 13, 2018