“Let’s organize this thing and take all the fun out of it” — Ashleigh Brilliant
I’m aware that some folk think I like to dismiss project/program managers as unnecessary overhead in organizations, so I’ll start by saying I know some wonderful people who work under these titles. This post is not about people, it is about roles. I strongly believe the PM/PgM role is a cop out. It is an excuse for poor collaboration, and a necessary role only as long as developers and customers refuse to talk to one another in healthy, collaborative ways.*
XP refers to customers, development teams and coaches. Scrum refers to product owners, teams and scrum masters. Neither recognizes a PM role. And yet all these organizations currently “going agile” seem unable to let go of this role—and worse, many add whole Agile PMO (sic) offices to manage their agile transformations. If we could stop managing things, and simply let the people who do the work actually do the work we may find that Agile emerges naturally, that people become engaged, and that products get created that people care about and want to use.
We don’t make projects or programs, we make products and services. The terms project and program are used as wrappers around groups of products (or services), usually for the purpose of “sharing resources”. The argument goes something like this: we have people with specialized skills, so we need to assign them to the right work at the right time in order to maximize their value. If we don’t do this they will have idle time, and this is waste.
We can pick this argument apart, not by offering a counter-argument, but by asking a few questions, e.g. why do we (only) have specialists? Would these specialists like to learn new skills? Why do intelligent people need to be assigned work, is vision and purpose being withheld from these experts, if so, why? Is idle time necessarily bad… what might a skilled specialist do with such time? And so on. My point being that we can justify any routine behavior on the grounds that “it is just what we do”. It does not move us forward though. True, good project managers reflect (hold post mortems) and plan improvements. This is classic single loop learning where we simply keep doing the wrong thing righter. Few ask the deeper questions, few address the systemic problems that cause this thinking in the first place.
A second argument in favor of program management is: Someone has to ensure the deadlines, manage the dependencies, track the work, create reports for executives, and so on. Why have developers waste time with this work?
Again, good justification within the current paradigm. But perhaps if we stopped committing to date and scope, and focused on frequent delivery of high value, there would be no need for death markers. Perhaps if developers and product managers worked more collaboratively we could reduce—even eliminate—dependencies. Perhaps if all those doing the work cared about what they were doing, and always did their best tracking would become unnecessary. And perhaps executives could have conversations with workers—learn the truth firsthand and engage in solutions, rather than being blinded by statistics, and patronized by red/yellow/green stripes and smily/sad faces.
Our businesses need to lead with purpose. Purpose will foster engagement, and engagement will lead to joy. The more layers of management we insert, the more workers become disconnected from purpose, and disengaged. Disengagement leads to sadness, and a sense of futility, usually requiring the company to hire consultants, coaches and trainers who offer (God help us!) team building workshops. It’s a positive feedback loop resulting in a high-pitched scream of despair. We need less, not more organization. We need collaborative conversation, not excuses for our silo’d silence.
Wonderful as some of my project manager friends are, I feel sad for them, being stuck in an excuse instead of excelling in the greatness many are capable of. I’d go as far as saying that making someone a project manager is a form of corporate abuse. It needs to stop, for the sake of humanity, for the sake of sanity.
* I use the term “refuse” very deliberately, as it is absolutely a choice to remain silent, giving all your power to someone else. True, this is part of the epidemic of fear and compliance raging through the corporate world, but even in such a climate a cure is available, and we can seek to heal.