The Myth of the Agile Project Manager

Between Santa Claus, Big Foot and the Agile Project Manager, which exists? Few people argue for the existence of Big Foot or Santa Claus, though most believe that Agile Project Managers exist.

I would contend that none of them exist, especially the Agile project manager. (BTW we used a photo of Chewbacca the wookie for Big Foot since all the pictures we had of Big Foot were blurry.)

Why do I think that there is no such thing as an Agile Project Manager? I think that putting one person in place to do those “project manager” activities is counterproductive. Plus, many of the activities that a project manager would do are unnecessary in an Agile environment. Here are some specific examples:

  • Intermediary – A project manager in Agile or Scrum would be an unnecessary intermediary between the team doing the work and the customer. In many cases, a key part of the project manager role is focused on asking for status from the team and then reporting that status to the customers. Why? The team doesn’t need someone to report their status or manage expectations, and no one outside the team should be making promised that have to be delivered by the team. Like all other intermediaries in Agile, this is inefficient and at it’s worst, can lead to death march projects.
  • Resource Coordinator – Traditional projects are run by phases with various experts coming on and off the project at different times. Since those “resources” are all committed to multiple projects, it falls to the project manager to be the glue. They scurry around to make sure that the resources are working on their project, rather than one of the other projects. (And BTW, the project managers of those other projects are doing the very same thing.) By contrast, an Agile team is dedicated and self-organizing. No one needs to make sure they are working.
  • The Smart One – Project managers tend to be positioned as above or superior to the team; they speak on behalf of the team, they direct the work and they make sure everything is going according to their plan. Whether or not they have formal position power in the organization, they tend to act as if those people who are “assigned” to their project are beneath them.
  • Document Producer – While some documentation is absolutely necessary, the scope of the documentation on traditional projects often grows like cancer. People tend to err on the side of too much documentation, rather than being compliant with barely sufficient documentation. Most of the effort that goes into preparing, circulating and reviewing, getting signoffs and storing documents is pure waste. Most of that documentation is never read – even by the people who sign off on it.
  • Variance Tracker – Project managers spend a lot of time upfront preparing a detailed plan for the work and then reporting status against that plan. Much of their time is spent tracking the ‘variance’ to their plan and then trying to figure out why things didn’t go according to plan. At it’s worst, this amounts to hours fiddling with an MS Project schedule to get it to reflect the reality of how the work is being done. As we will see below, that type of activity is overhead. In lean terms, this is “waste” which should be eliminated.

The rest of this article will explore how Agile project management activities are handled in Agile and Scrum. We will look at the Agile Values and Principles, and the Scrum Guide.

There is No Project Manager in the Agile Manifesto

The use of the term Agile started in 2001 with the introduction of the Agile Manifesto which includes 4 Agile Values and 12 Agile Principles.

There is no mention of an agile project manager in the Agile Manifesto. The four Agile Values and 12 Agile Principles don’t explicitly say that there is no agile project manager, but they do outline a way of thinking and working that is based on motivated and empowered team members that function as a self-organizing team. This reduces the need for someone outside the team to project manage them.

Here are two specific Agile Principles that speak to empowerment and self-organization:

#5 – Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Most knowledge workers today are self-motivated. This principle says to get those people into an environment where they can do their best work. Those people don’t need a project manager to direct their work, coordinate their tasks or remind them of deadlines.

#11 – The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

This principle says that if we want the best solutions, we need to let teams self-organize. This means we don’t put a person (such as an agile project manager) over the team to tell them how to get the work done. Let the people closest to the work and actually doing the work decide the best way to get it done.

There is no Agile Project Manager in the Scrum Guide

Scrum is the most popular agile framework in use today. And Scrum doesn’t include a role for an agile project manager either. There are only three roles in the Scrum Framework: The Product Owner, the Development Team, and the Scrum Master.

Scrum practitioners don’t buy into the idea that there is one person outside the team who has the role of project manager. The idea of a person who would plan, coordinate the work of others, track variance, produce documents, and manage tasks and report status for the team just doesn’t fit with Scrum. Any necessary project management activities mentioned above are split across the three roles, with the bulk being taken on by the Development Team or the Product Owner.

Many people confuse and conflate the Scrum Master role with the project manager role. Leadership teams often stare at me in disbelief when I tell them that there is no project manager. Ken Schwaber, co-creator of Scrum, may have inadvertently added to the confusion when he titled his second Scrum book, Agile Project Management with Scrum.

Ken was more careful when he co-authored the Scrum Guide, the definitive guide to Scrum. He and co-author Jeff Sutherland made sure that project manager is conspicuously absent from the Scrum Guide.

Why Some People Struggle with the Idea of No Project Manager in Agile

Some people really struggle with the idea that there would be no project manager in Agile. The idea of a team without a project manager doesn’t fit with their hierarchical worldview. They see the world as a pyramid.

This hierarchical worldview keeps things simple. It makes it easy to see who to blame when things go wrong. There is one clear single throat to choke in this environment.

Those who have the hierarchical worldview can’t (or won’t?) get their head around this Scrum Master role. They continuously ask me, “What does the Scrum Master do” and even after I explain it, most erroneously assume that the Scrum Master is a project manager.

They want a single throat to choke. “We need accountability” they exclaim, “If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible”. (See my related article on this: The Single Throat to Choke in Agile)

Advice to Project Managers: Don’t Fight the System

If you are a project manager, I encourage you to accept the inevitable. Don’t fight for the importance of a project management role in agile organizations. Rather, understand Agile and play a role that adds the most value.

Project managers can be a Product Owner or Dev Team member on a Scrum Team. They will need to adopt an agile mindset to maximize the value that they bring to an Agile team.

This can be a challenge for project managers. Most project manager’s experience and individual skills are out of alignment with the style of servant leadership needed for Agile teams. And most project managers are not interested (or able) to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the valuable work that is needed on the team.

Agile is not anti-project management at all. It is just that Agile assumes you are working with motivated knowledge workers who are capable of self-organizing. This reduces management overhead, and it puts the accountability for results on those individuals who are in a position to impact those results.

PMI is gradually exploring the role of the PM in Agile projects. I don’t think they’ve got it sorted yet, but the recently published Agile Practice Guide may be a start. Thankfully, even the Project Management Institute did not include the term “Agile Project Manager” in the new Agile Practice Guide. [See my review of the PMI Agile Practice Guide here.]

And please don’t send me hate mail justifying your value as a project manager, or telling me that every project needs a project manager to be that single point of accountability.

Good News – Companies are Still Trying to Hire Agile Project Managers

There is some good news for project managers who want to work in an Agile environment. Hiring managers, recruiters, and HR departments seem to be mostly unaware that Agile project managers don’t exist. In fact, there is quite a bit of confusion in the market as revealed by these typical job postings:

  • Scrum Project Manager
  • Project Manager / Scrum Master
  • Agile PM/Scrum Master
  • Senior Agile Project Manager
  • Project Manager Agile

More Good News – Agile Project Management Exists

If there are no Agile Project Managers, can there be Agile Project Management? I would argue that yes perhaps there is Agile Project Management. I don’t believe that the scope of the activities is the same as traditionally understood, or that we dedicate one person outside the team to be the agile project manager for these activities.

I also don’t think we should force all new product development work into the project paradigm. (You can read this article to learn about how a ‘project mindset’ hinders project managers.)

Others seem to agree that Agile Project Management exists. Sanjiv Augustine, the author of Managing Agile Projects, defines Agile Project Management as:

“…the work of energizing, empowering, and enabling project teams to rapidly and reliably deliver business value by engaging customers and continuously learning and adapting to their changing needs and environments.”
—Sanjiv Augustine, Managing Agile Projects

Wikipedia lists Agile Project Management:

“…Agile project management is an iterative and incremental method of managing the design and build activities for engineering, information technology, and new product or service development projects in a highly flexible and interactive manner, for example Agile software development.”


I characterize Agile Project Management as a way of thinking and organizing ourselves to deliver using Agile Values and Principles. I’ve written about that extensively in my book which I titled, quite ironically: Agile Project Management; Your Nuts and Bolts Guide to Success

What are your thoughts? Does your organization have Agile Project Managers? Do they conflate the Scrum Master and Project Manager role?

This article originally appeared here and has been republished with permission