limitation of scrum

There is something I’d like to get off my chest. There is this notion in Agile that project management is no longer needed. Some even think that the role of a project manager will soon be extinct. Before we chase away project managers with pitch forks, lets back up a bit. I’m 100% on board with Agile and with Scrum, but I disagree that the need for project management is going away. The reason is that Scrum has a limitation. It is not designed to deliver large scale projects, at least not without help. The complexities of large scale projects demand the need for project management. This may change at some point, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. And, I’m not sure it should.

I can envision the Agile purists as they read this. Project managers needed in Agile? Scrum has limitations? Blasphemy! Hear me out.

When I refer to large scale projects, I mean projects that could have anywhere between 5-30 changed systems. These types of projects usually include complex system dependencies and a lot of coordination. The systems need to integrate and plan their production releases based on their dependencies. Someone needs to oversee that it comes together, and that someone is a project manager.

On Scrum teams, no, there is no need for a project manager. There are only three defined team roles in Scrum. They are Product Owner, Scrum Master, and the Development Team. Scrum is perfect for teams that focus only on one product or component. As an example, a Scrum team may focus on the search feature of a website.

The need for a project manager shows itself when you have large-scale initiatives. When you have a large project that impacts many Scrum teams, someone must coordinate all the dependencies between the teams. Without a project manager, who will do this? I posed this question in a recent advanced Scrum training course. I then proceeded to watch the instructor twist into a pretzel struggling to answer it. I was then referred to a course offered on Scrum@Scale.

Scrum@Scale, along with LeSS, and SAFe are the popular scaled Agile frameworks. While each of these have their benefits, they also have limitations when it comes to large scale projects. The problem is not scaling more Scrum teams, although that poses a different set of challenges. The problem is managing large scale projects.

In a recent HBR article, Agile at Scale, Jeff Sutherland and other experts discussed large scale Agile projects. They said you can establish a “team of teams” (or Scrum of Scrums), and issues that can’t be resolved can be escalated up to leaders. I’m all for that, but it still doesn’t answer the question of who is coordinating the work of all the teams? They go on in the article to reference Saab’s aeronautics business. “Aeronautics also coordinates its teams through a common rhythm of three-week sprints, a project master plan that is treated as a living document”.

I found it interesting that they referenced a company that uses a project plan in an article on scaled Scrum. This further indicates to me that we need to pause on the idea of abandoning project management.

Scrum@Scale is the model Jeff Sutherland advocates for scaling. In Scrum@Scale, there is a Chief Product Owner (CPO) and a Scrum of Scrums Master (SoSM). They are like the team level Scrum Master or Product Owner roles, but at scale. These roles sound like they will help address the challenge of managing large-scale projects, but there is still a gap. While a SoSM focuses on removing impediments and the CPO on prioritization, you still need someone to look at the project from a holistic view. Someone must coordinate team dependencies, not to mention manage risk, schedule and budget. In short, you need a project manager.

The need for project managers on large scale Agile projects has fueled the rise of SAFe. If you’ve read my post on the problem with SAFe, you know that I’m not a huge fan. But, at least SAFe acknowledges that someone needs to coordinate the work of self-organizing teams on large scale projects. They refer to the role as a Release Train Engineer (RTE), but it sounds a lot like a project manager to me.

Why do Agilest cringe when they hear the words project manager, or for that matter, the word project? When I say there is a need for project management in Agile, I am not saying that projects need to move in sequence from phase to phase like waterfall. I’m not referring to a command and control tyrant who manages Gantt charts with an iron first. Project managers today can lead large initiatives and still follow Agile principles. Projects can still use an iterative experimental process.

You may argue that by creating an architecture where each Scrum team works on an autonomous application, you end the need for a project manager. Spotify is a good example. Lightweight autonomous applications are the way to go, but you still can’t get away from dependencies on large scale projects. In most large fortune 500 organizations, legacy applications are dependent on other systems.

In summary, Scrum has a limitation when it comes to large scale projects. Project managers are not needed on Scrum teams, but they are still needed in Agile for large scale projects. What is changing is not that the Project manager role is going away. It is the role itself that is changing to align with Agile values and principles. The Scrum organizations seem to be working hard to address this limitation through their scaled frameworks, but they have a long way to go.

If you have experienced large scale Agile projects where there was no need for a project manager, I would love to hear about it. I’ve worked for many organizations that have adopted Agile and I’ve yet to come across one that had no need for project management.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the owner and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an Agile Delivery Consultant and IT Project/Program Manager. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.