22 Nov 2021Blog

The Project Manager is dead. Long live the Project Manager!

Projektipäällikkö johtaa asiakasarvoa

Some companies operate entirely without managers, Project Managers included. Scrum doesn’t even acknowledge the role of a Project Manager. It’s true we should move on from the ancient, though prevailing, concept of a Project Manager. Even so, I claim that a Project Manager can still produce significant customer value by leading both business value and people and teams.

Project Manager – the least useful person in the company?

Ah, projects and managers. Such quaint concepts. Obviously, we don’t need managers. In the most modern businesses, there are no bosses, but leadership emerges horizontally within and across teams, as Frederic Laloux shows in his marvellous book Reinventing Organisations.

And what about projects? Agile methodologies have, especially in IT, rendered the idea of a project if not completely obsolete, at least quite an ambiguous concept. During the lifetime of nearly all IT systems’ lifetimes more functional development happens after the initial project than during it.

There’s no way around it. Hierarchies are getting more flat and projects more agile. Anyone can see real-time reporting of a project’s status on the screen. The Project Managers’ traditional field of timelines, budgets, reports, and other papers to be pushed is dying out.

I’ll happily admit that I’ve been pondering whether I’m just another useless boss getting in the way of the honest work of our good people. Through that search, I’ve come to rediscover my role as a Project Manager.

Focus on customer value

Viewing the world through a lean lens, my focus is strictly on customer value. So, my question is: what can a Project Manager do in a project in order to provide real value to the customer? Or if in fact there is such a thing?

Obviously, the Project Manager helps the customer to navigate the rough waters of the vendor’s organisation, but that’s just a waste. I’ve yet to meet a customer who would be willing to pay for the vendor’s awkward processes!

In my work as a Project Manager, I’ve identified two ways in which a Project Manager can truly produce value for the customer: leading, first, business value, and second, people and teams. The value of each becomes especially clear in the long run.

Eyes on the horizon

Years ago, I had my first experience as an Assistant Project Manager. With the deadline closing, we naturally had more to do than time to do it. Over the final weeks of the project, we were working literally day and night, and in the end, we got it done. A bit late, but nevertheless, live we went.

It wasn’t quite ready, though. Three years later I was working with the same customer when we finally moved the last item on the project scope to Done. Of course, we didn’t only do project debt during those years, but you get the point.

At a first glance, you might think the project was a failure. Which it would’ve been, if we had only looked at the project metrics: we spent more time and money but didn’t even complete all tasks. Yet the customer was delighted with us.

I spent quite some time thinking about what had happened until I realised the problem wasn’t with our performance. It was with the concept of a project. We shouldn’t be leading projects, but products, as Mik Kersten puts it in his book Project to Product. A product, in this sense, means anything we are creating to provide value.

The project, you see, was a failure, because we decided to switch priorities. As a result, we couldn’t meet the budget or the schedule. From an agile perspective, there’s nothing to think of as a failure. We just learned new things as we went on, so the priorities had to change as well.

But what does this have to do with the Project Manager?

The Project Manager or the Value Leader

The first valuable job of the new Project Manager is to lead customer value. The old Project Manager had to be careful with project measures such as budget and schedule.

The new Project Manager cannot hide behind pre-defined budgets or schedules but instead strives to boldly lead customer value. The Project Manager seeks value incessantly and helps the customer by defining it continuously.

To follow Kersten’s reasoning: the project must not be seen as a cost centre that has to be dealt with economically. Instead, a project is a part of a product that will produce value for the company for years to come. Kersten recognises this as the main reason why IT companies realise the value of their IT investments – and also why most traditional companies fail to do so.

The hunt for value is especially important after the initial project. At Solita, the work of a Project Manager doesn’t end with the go-live but rather goes on for years beyond the project’s end date. During this time we don’t simply maintain the product. Instead, we continuously develop the product to generate even more real business value for the customer. In this role, the Project Manager needs to have real business acumen.

Let’s take another look at the previously mentioned project. Would I have been more successful as a Project Manager if I had been stricter about the project’s pre-defined aspects? After all, we might have finished the project on time and on budget. However, the customer would have received less value from the project. I don’t know how it could be seen as a success.

The paper pusher

Self-direction has been a big buzzword for years. I once managed a project where the team directed itself at a very high level. My role was basically to sit around at meetings and acknowledge that everything was going fine. The customer was also very pleased because, again, everything was going fine.

In retrospect, the customer might have been even more pleased if I wouldn’t have spent my time and their money sitting there doing absolutely nothing. I sure am glad I didn’t have to explain my role in the project to the Bobs from Office Space.

That leads us to the second valuable job of the Project Manager.

From manager to servant leader

The Project Manager’s traditional people responsibilities have been mostly resourcing and directing work. The Project Manager has simply made sure that there are the right amount of people to get the work done. Then, the Project Manager simply told everyone what to do. The rest is not their responsibility, so the Team Manager can figure out what to do with the project trauma and the heaps of flextime.

Joe Iarocci describes three priorities for a servant leader: to develop people, to build a trusting team, and to achieve results. Over a short period of time, there are many ways to get to the third. In the long run, however, the first two are the key to results as well. Like leading value, this becomes even more important when we look past the project’s horizon toward the total lifecycle value of the product.

The Project Manager is not needed to direct work. They point to a direction, showing the team the way to customer value. This frees up the Project Manager to develop the well-being and the competence of the people and the team. The customer value is obvious: well-being and development are clearly linked to much higher productivity and the overall growth of the business.

Not useless after all?

I believe that projects can be successful even without a Project Manager, for instance with Scrum. I’m also a believer in teal organisations described by Laloux, and I also think teal values and practices could and should be implemented even in more traditional organisations. In all, it’s time to let go of the traditional ideas about project management.

Instead, I don’t see myself, as a Project Manager, being above the team, but as a member of it. Whereas a Developer is an expert in software development, my job as a Project Manager is to be the team’s expert in customer value, and people and team leadership.

As we need a new value-centred product paradigm for projects, we also need to view the Project Manager differently. As with projects, project management is not a necessary evil, but when done well, can drive very real customer value.

A side note: but what about scrum?

Great that you asked. The two tasks mentioned in the text are largely unknown to Scrum. There is no generic People Leader in Scrum. The Scrum Master’s responsibilities relate to Scrum, not to overall people leadership.

In principle, the product owner is responsible for leading the value. They’re excellently positioned when development is done in-house. However, when working with a consultancy like Solita, the customer’s PO can rarely achieve the same level of value leadership. I’ve only ever seen one example of such a case, and there the customer’s PO had a background in consulting the system which was being developed.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, I can thoroughly recommend Mik Kersten’s visionary book Project to Product. The point made in the book I’m referring to here is: Scrum is very powerful in terms of delivery, but it doesn’t solve the issue for the whole value chain.

Interested to join Solita?

We are looking for a new IT Project Manager for our Data area in Sweden. The application period is open in April 2022.