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Letting Go of the Concrete Life Raft

12/29/2010 by Dave Prior

On my first day of work on a job where my very official job title was listed as "Project Manager", a stressed out, old, bearded guy took me and the other newly minted PM into a room to teach us how to do our job. The first thing he said was, "When I am done with you, everything you do will be a project. You'll be unable to look at the world any other way." Truer words were never spoken. Looking at the world as a series of smaller tasks, with dependencies, a baseline, and a critical path invaded every corner of my brain. I stopped brushing my teeth and started executing a series of steps, which had dental hygiene as a measure of success. A few years later, after months of study, I passed the PMP exam and began trying to impose my "enlightened" approach on the rest of the world with results that were occasionally successful, but mostly, not so much.

To be fair, at the time all this was taking place the recognized statistical norm for success was 20%. By that metric, I was about on par with the rest of the world. There was never a shortage of good reasons for things not working, and since I was following the same process that had been in play for far longer than I had been alive, my assumption was that the "bag of oranges" days were just part of the gig.

Along the way I had the opportunity to work on two Extreme Programming projects. Unfortunately, the implementation of XP on these projects and the resulting behaviors were not given to success.  I walked away with the impression that even though my traditional approach rarely worked, it did not result in me sitting in a dimly lit room dripping water over my bald head muttering "The Horror! The Horror!"

What I have found since then is that for most Project Managers (my former mindset included), shifting away from the traditional approach is a complex thing. I've yet to find a PM who will standup and argue for waterfall as a successful way to manage work. At the same time, for most PMs, it is all they know. It's like they are in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of rescue, holding on to a concrete life raft. They may be aware of the fact that concrete is not an ideal flotation device, but they are in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue, and it is the only thing they have to hold on to.

It wasn't until I was in Mike Cohn's CSM class and made a comment about being responsible for "fixing" the estimates I got from developers (for which I was soundly and rightfully booed by the 40 game developers in the room) that I started to really question my approach. What I had been taught was that projects, in general, were giant, screaming, uncontrolled chaos driven to ruin by the sales people who set them up, and the misguided folks who were going to ignore whatever requirements they had. I had been taught that it was only by the grace of THE PROJECT MANAGER that the world could be held together.  At the time I took Mike's class, I had been "doing scrum" (including my 45 minute sit down, stand up status meetings) for about a year. When I asked Mike why my approach wasn't working, he was kind enough to ask me a few questions and then explain to me that I wasn't doing Scrum at all. I was just applying my traditional approach to a set of half adopted practices. At his suggestion, I went back and started again, refocused on a more disciplined approach.

All of this had a dramatic impact on how I viewed Agile. Where I once saw it as an excuse to get around process, I became aware of how much more discipline it actually required. My initial discomfort at letting go of "control" was more than offset by my amazement at seeing a team really come together and benefit from self-organization and transparency.  All of this presented me with a new set of problems. I had invested a lot of time in shrugging off Agile and the people who practiced it. I was also painfully aware of how the Agile folk seemed to feel about me and my kind. During the time that all of this was hitting me in the head like an anvil, I was stepping into the role of Chair of PMI's IT&T SIG, so I reached out to the Scrum Alliance. I sent an email explaining that I wanted to do something about helping PMs become more aware of the benefits of Agile and also, to whatever extent possible, I wanted to try and get the Agile folks to loath us PMs just a little less. The Scrum Alliance was kind enough to invite me to the Scrum Gathering in Chicago that year and I was lucky enough to meet Jim Cundiff and some other folks who shared my interest in building a bridge between the communities. We started out with some webinars and podcasts to introduce the ideas and concepts to PMI members. Around the same time Michele Sliger and Stacia Viscardi's The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility was published, and Jesse Fewell was in the process of getting PMI's support for what would become the PMI Agile Community of Practice. A lot more has happened since then, and things are definitely getting better; but I believe the mission of building a bridge between the two communities will be an ongoing one which will benefit both sides.

At the end of the day, I am a Project Manager because of how I learned to look at problems, but each new project is another opportunity to practice becoming more Agile and keep prying my fingers loose from the concrete life raft.