The Case against Project Managers
Many organizations, including ours, have found that self-organizing teams that are aligned on a common goal and push towards that together, are more efficient and productive than the ones with classic, top-down management. In this article, we explore the reasons behind that believe and the negative impacts that a classic project manager role can have on productivity, quality, and morale.
anchorThe Communication Conundrum
One of the main problem with dedicated project manager roles is they can hinder direct communication between project stakeholders (typically product, design, engineering). In some cases, project managers would even deliberately block direct interaction in an attempt to "protect" team members from external influences in order to allow them to focus better (as in, “developers should stay in the flow and write code – talking to a product manager will only interrupt them”). That lack of direct communication necessarily leads to important details getting lost in translation.
anchorThe Disproportionate Influence of Stakeholders
No direct communication happening between the stakeholders also makes it hard if not impossible to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives. Without that though, teams won’t be aligned on a common goal typically and won’t be able to move towards a goal collectively. In project teams, just like in real life, everyone gets a little and needs to give a little. If people don’t appreciate each other’s points of view though, they typically are less willing to make sacrifices as they can’t see the need for things other stakeholders are asking for. That almost always ends up with project teams where all stakeholder groups work against each other, each one trying to get as much as possible while giving as little as they can.
In many such cases, one stakeholder group ends up being the most powerful, and getting the most for themselves – that stakeholder ends up dominating the project direction and disregards the motivations and goals of the other stakeholders. As a result, project outcomes may only meet the needs of some stakeholders but not those of the others, ultimately leading to project failure.
The strongest stakeholder group is often product management. They have an interest in shipping features obviously and that group dominating the product leads to the needs of designers and engineers receiving less attention. In many cases that can lead to projects that build up significant technical debt as the engineers aren’t heard with their needs for too long – eventually that will slow down productivity and in the worst case stall all progress. If all stakeholders receive equal attention from the beginning, these situations can typically be avoided.
anchorRethinking the Role of the Project Manager
Rather than abolishing project management in general, we advocate a revised approach. We see project management as a facilitating role that acts as a moderator or communications coach, thus focuses on facilitating collaboration and fostering a productive team environment. This may include moderating meetings, introducing workshop techniques, and promoting effective communication – all that to enable smoother and more efficient direct communication between the project stakeholders.
anchorRedefining Iteration Leadership
We further promote the concept of an "iteration lead" role. For each development iteration (or “sprint” if you will), one team member assumes this role and is responsible for sourcing and planning the work for the iteration, as well as ensuring smooth execution. The iteration lead's duties rotate among all team members unless they choose to opt out. All team members from all stakeholder groups assuming the iteration lead role regularly ensures that no single stakeholder group will end up outweighing the others and ensures everyone communicates with all of the other stakeholders regularly.
anchorImproved Productivity and Morale
We have seen this evolution of project leadership leading to improved productivity in many different projects. At the same time, it leads to improved morale and a less confrontational work environment and overall atmosphere in project teams.
If you’re interested in establishing the “iteration lead” approach in your own team, check out our Playbook or reach out and we’ll be happy to talk.
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