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What Can We Do About (Or Perhaps Better, For) Our Managers?

1 May 2011

I owe the title of this piece to Alistair Cockburn, who several years ago wrote a favorite article of mine for Cutter IT Journal entitled “What Can We Do About Our Project Managers?”# I think it remains a relevant read today. In it, Alistair argues that “PMs are simply not learning the best practices of modern project management. They don’t search them out on their own...” After using Scrum for over seven years in a very large (Fortune 50) company and having also spoken to many other people from various countries in the world who have used Scrum and have also worked in large organizations over the years, I sense that broader management seems to suffer from the same malady: holding on to traditional (aka Frederick Taylor-based) management practices, beliefs and styles that simply don’t work well in the knowledge worker world.

Many of us understand and appreciate that Scrum deliberately avoids the role of manager in its framework. There is little doubt that this was intentional. Managers (at least dysfunctional or poorly acting ones), especially project managers, were thought to often be primary impediments to effective work and even key causes of IT project failure. The Scrum founders (and certainly other thought leaders in the broader agile community) believed that the people doing the work should be in control of the work. A manager’s job, then, is to serve those people through responsible, effective leadership that helps them be more productive through constant improvements to processes and practices. In short, the notion was that companies and managers ought to adopt Deming’s 14 principles of organizational transformation.#

The perpetuation of these management attitudes and practices is deeply entrenched in many corporate cultures and their continuation arises from decades of demanded conformity and reinforcement from the top down. The new buzz words in the framework are now “employee engagement” and “results orientation”, among others. I would suspect that in a fair number of companies, management is the level that suffers the most disengagement and a lack of appreciation and understanding of frontline work. I have heard people say, “My management asks what she can do to help me and when I start listing things, her eyes just sort of glaze over. She responds with ‘I’ll see what I can do about it’ and nothing ever seems to get done or improve.” My experience has been that managers are often more concerned about “covering their behinds,” maintaining a good standing in the “manager country club” and assuring through their conformed behavior that they will continue to be “asked back to the party” (or even better, invited to a more exclusive party through promotion.) A large part of this maintenance is making sure that none of your subordinates put you in jeopardy as a manager, thus protecting you from real or perceived dangers.

So, why hasn’t the adoption of Deming management principles occurred widely, especially in the United States, given his profound and widely recognized achievements and influence in the areas of productivity and quality? I’m not certain, but I suspect the root causes are quite complex and would require significant academic study. Anecdotally speaking, one of the biggest obstacles getting to the other side of the “agile mountain” for many of us in large companies is the continuous obstacles caused by traditional management behaviors and practices. These include everything from adherence to the troubling and ineffective performance management system (a practice that Deming strongly insisted should be discontinued) to refusal to abandon or forego the perks that are rooted in an entitlement mentality (e.g. the “reserved parking” space, the big office, the exclusive administrative assistant, etc. that I so deservedly earned!) Definitely one major reason for the failure to transform the workplace to what I would call a “modern management environment” is the cultural allegiance to traditional management. There is comfort in the familiarity and security of traditional management practices. There is also a sense (illusion) of “control” and this keeps the fear level high; this fear isn’t always overt and is sometimes imperceptible, but it surely lurks about, even obscurely.

What are we to do about this conundrum of an entrenched, largely ineffective management style? In some instances, it is too quixotic to think it can simply be readily usurped and easily replaced with the more modern, knowledge word oriented approach. In some number of situations, the resolution may simply be a matter of waiting for a “changing of the old management guard,” (how many companies and their people can afford to wait long?) In the short–term, we have to put faith in the hope that more and more people will ascend into the technical management ranks who have read and appreciated the works of modern leadership thinking such as Edwards Deming, Kimball Fisher, Gerry Weinberg, Jurgen Appello, Johanna Rothman, and others.

We might hope that fewer of the aspiring manager wannabes go after their MBAs and instead pursue more relevant advanced humanistic oriented degrees such as psychology or philosophy (they will be better equipped to handle the realities of the world than the MBA lot, I think#). But, in the end, it will take the steady persistence and armor chinking of a growing cadre of idealists who are convinced that they can really change management for the better. I’m grateful to be in that cadre.



1. Cockburn, A (2008). What can we do about our project managers? Next Practices In Modern Project Management: Supporting Communication, Collaboration, and Collective Intelligence. Cutter Consortium

2. Deming, W. E. (1982) Out of the chaos. Cambridge, MA. Mass Institute of Technology

3. Culbert, S. A. Get rid of the performance review! Wall Street Journal. Retrieve from:

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Murty R Hotha, CSM, 5/27/2011 10:43:42 AM
With 28 years of IT industry experience I can with high degree of certainty say IT Project Managers are really the number one drag on the project success. The very role is redundant and should be eliminated. All they stand for is entitlement and privileges and embark on managing something they have no clue.

It is time to welcome servant-leadership into every fabric of the organization if we want results.
Robert Zullo, CSM, 6/9/2011 11:24:57 AM
Great article that truly captures the essence of "turning the ship"
Ed Lance, CSM, 7/7/2011 8:36:26 AM
I have a blended experience of over 20 years of management, small business ownership and IT. Good article but it stops a little short. The REAL issue, in my opinion, is that IT Project Managers don't know how to design and build software. Even servant-leaders have to have some idea of what the hell they're doing :-)
Glen Wang, CSM, 7/30/2013 11:53:36 PM
Envy your 3 pretty girls! Seems many CSTs have 3 children.
And I love phylosophy.

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