Old-Style Project Management Is Broken — Here’s How to Fix It

This article was originally published on Switch and Shift, and is also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

In fast-moving industries, innovation hinges on a company’s ability to move quickly on new ideas, meaning hierarchical corporate structure is on the road to extinction. Project managers are in the passenger’s seat, traveling on the endangered list.

Businesses typically organize themselves into siloed departments responsible for executing specific, repeatable tasks, but when the business needs to undertake a change or improvement, it creates a project. The project manager gathers a temporary team with members from different departments who work together to successfully deliver the project.

These specialists are already assigned to multiple projects, so department heads are reluctant to assign these scarce resources to yet another. Time is micromanaged in order to maximize productivity. The result is a project that mostly consists of coordinating and waiting for specialists to align. This confusion can lead to a slow, bloated mess.

When ING Bank started its transition toward agile management, it used a small project of only 1,500 man-days to baseline its performance. In all, the undertaking lasted 11 months, and no fewer than 47 employees across 25 departments were involved. Delivery planning was seen as unreliable, while expertise, infrastructure, and specialization were all perceived as fractured. The cost of delivery of even something small turned out to be highly uncompetitive.

This example painfully illustrates that the old model of project management, still prevalent in many large organizations, is broken. Agile organizations use a different model that renders project managers obsolete.

The Project Management Revolution

Digital-born companies in Silicon Valley such as Facebook, Spotify, and Airbnb don’t employ project managers. Why? Because they understand change is continuous, and they have built it into their DNA.

Instead of assigning specialists to time slots and batches of work, these corporations rely on self-organizing teams composed of people with multiple disciplines. Rather than move people to work, they let work flow to fixed teams.

Without irrelevant deadlines and sprawling oversight, the teams are free to innovate and collaborate. This not only gives the company stability rarely seen in more structured organizations, but it also empowers employees and conveys trust in their abilities.

As opposed to temporary project teams in which members tag in and out, stable agile teams can mature through continuous improvement to unlock the group’s full potential. Strong teams can attack any problem. While Twitter’s senior vice president of engineering, Chris Fry put it this way: “Build strong teams first; assign them problems later.”

Moving Away from Project Management

So what does this concept look like in action? Do you just put current project managers out to pasture? Not necessarily. Former project managers can take on several new roles, including:

  • Scrum master/agile coach: The scrum approach favors collaboration and self-organization over traditional project hierarchy. The scrum master facilitates the team in its agile way of working and focuses on improving collaboration.
  • Product owner: The product owner keeps his or her team focused on the overall vision and is responsible for guiding the team in the right direction, toward building the right product with the right features.
  • Manager: Self-organizing teams plan their own work, manage their stakeholders, and optimize their workflows based on need. Units don’t need someone watching over their shoulder to make sure they’re working correctly. Therefore, in an agile context, the manager mainly takes a hands-off human resources role.

He or she uses a coaching leadership style to develop and retain the team’s talent and craftsmanship. As opposed to traditional companies, agile companies require their managers to have hands-on experience with the specialism they’re managing. Airbnb even goes so far to require newly hired managers to contribute code for six months before they can start on their managerial roles.

Many people think companies with self-organizing teams don’t need managers anymore, but that’s a misconception. Managers at Spotify, known as chapter or tribe leads, have no more than five direct reports. They see their people as top athletes, and to best aid their development, each coach can focus on only five athletes at a time.

Making the Transition

Of course, not everyone will be pleased with an organizational shift. Middle managers who built their careers by solving problems through micromanagement will struggle especially.

In “Coaching Agile Teams,” author Lyssa Adkins writes that managers must learn to let go of “command-and-controlism.” This “deprogramming” of the mind is tough, just like any behavior change.

But the advantages of transitioning to agile management far outweigh employees’ growing pains. The focus on craftsmanship and mastery will spur professional growth and fulfillment, and employees will take ownership of their work. Moving up the hierarchy should no longer be the preferred path because agile companies have created alternative ways to define career growth.

Agile companies are organized to minimize projects, but sometimes a project is unavoidable when an endeavor requires coordination effort across the organization. Project management skills are still needed, but their days as a full-time role are numbered.

According to Adkins, leaders need to change our fundamental beliefs about projects because we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Age of Complexity. Planning the work and working the plan doesn’t work anymore. We need instead to embrace complexity by accepting that plans become accurate over time through constant revision.

Delivering on time, within budget, and on scope no longer equals success. Instead, the only measure is clients receiving the business value they need. Throw out the old project management system, and embrace the era of agility.