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PMPs versus Agile Project Managers: Clash of the Titans

22 October 2012

Juan Banda

To the foreign eye, a PMP is in one corner, and in the opposite corner we have an Agile project manager. This seems to be so because each advocates a different vision of how to run a project, and even a different conception about what a project really is. The PMBok Guide has been the source for years in project management, but in the last decade Agile has gained more popularity and now seems ready to challenge the champion for the belt.

But is it really true that this two are opposed, or it would be possible to find common ground? Don't miss this fight, which doesn't promise knockouts but instead may go the distance.


Introducing the opponents

For a PMP, a project is basically control and detail planning: "Plan the work and work the plan." Schedule, resources, risks, and other competing constrains are evaluated, measured, and specially controlled. Reactions to risks are not spontaneous but rather come from an already elaborated risk plan. The principle doesn't sound bad and it has worked well in various engineering fields; proof of this are the bridges, pipelines, and refineries built under the wise leadership of notable PMPs.

But — and here is the big but — what happens when you can't plan everything from start, or when the plan is too costly to maintain? Or when you can't know the project's scope in advance? A PMP's simple answer would be, "For that we have rolling-wave planning, and that's Agile enough."

On the other side of the ring we have the Agile prophets who say that they can lead complex projects with values, post-its, and, especially, empowering people. That doesn't sound too bad either, but who would be responsible for hiring, performance evaluations, procurement, contracts, budgets, and other "insignificant" project matters?


Round 1: PMPs attack

Having competing constrains under control and identifying all the risks in a project is definitely not bad; even knowing in advance the scope and freezing it would be a perfect thing in a project. Monitoring a project based on simple indicators that provide solid data is also great. All this is not utopia; it actually happens in many large projects with a large number of resources attached.

Executives making informed decision based on solid data professionally compiled, analyzed, and presented by capable PMPs are also not utopia. For instance, oil and construction companies around the world have reported successful experiences by running projects following the guidelines described on the PMBok framework.

Still, something seems not to be adding up. Oil and construction projects are large and complicated but not necessarily complex in nature. Software development projects, on the other hand, belong to a much more complex knowledge domain.


Round 2: Agile project managers defend and counterattack

PMPs around the world recognize that one key factor in all projects is communication, and here is where Scrum, with its team-centric approach, has something better to offer. Tackling complex problems with empowered teams thinking creatively seems not have a rival in the PMBok process.

Agile project managers do a great job cultivating their teams and fostering communication and Agile values. They play a vital role in helping their teams and organizations transform to Agile. Things become tricky, though, when Agile organizations become bigger and bigger, more projects are added, and team members are counted by the dozens. Project areas such as procurement or staffing, for instance, are not likely to be attended by an empowered developer.

It can be inferred, then, that even though Agile values and principles live in an organization and Scrum has found a home in the heart and soul of team members, someone still needs to take care of some other aspects of the project.


Round 3: Looking for the knockout punch

Successful PMPs with years of experience managing multimillion-dollar projects can go crazy in the ever-changing-requirements environment of an IT project. Of course, a prescriptive approach like creating all the plans that the PMBok recommends can be taken, but this approach is doomed to fail due to the complex nature of software development projects. Adaptability and Agility seem to be the only way to cope with the changing requirements. But is the PMP mind-set ready for this?

By the same token, PMPs tend to look to communication as a process that can be formalized, monitored, and even regulated. In a complex knowledge domain, teams are cultivated and communication occurs spontaneously, with no barriers or hierarchies to prevent it. Still, the knockout punch from this side tries to come from prescription and emphasis in planning, monitoring, and controlling.

In the other corner, Agile project managers believe in values and principles that they help their teams cultivate. These values, in time, help team members interact in such a way that a positive synergy is created. Even so, some important areas of a project run unattended because projects are not only about team members, technology, and client's requirements.

Scrum as a framework had not been thought of as a complete instrument for attending all project aspects. As light a framework as it is, Scrum is not equipped to deal with project aspects that require interfacing with other areas of the organization, client organization, or third-party organizations. Crucial aspects such as watching the budget are things that cannot be ignored for the sake of keeping Scrum pure in its form.

This other side attacks back with a knockout punch that in reality is no punch but the Agility to dodge punches and throw debilitating small punches.


Going the distance

Good project managers on both sides need to recognize that the selected framework is just the vehicle for the ultimate goal of having a successful project at four levels: commercial, financial, technical, and personal.

Frequently enough, PMPs fail to understand that Scrum as a framework is not about process and mechanics but about values and mind-set. This failure in understanding usually causes dysfunction and suboptimal results, if not complete failure, in the attempt to adopt Scrum. The problem again seems to be in the oversimplified vision of a project that can be conceived only as a collection of processes and plans. Planning is indeed an important aspect of Scrum, but inspection and adaption, transparency, values, and especially people are considered more important.

Agile project managers should also consider that somehow they still need to manage portions of the projects that aren't people but processes, processes that are necessary to keep the project running. Not minding anything but the team and Agile principles can create a bubble that could burst at any moment.

PMPs can become Agile project managers, but this is not a matter of changing titles: A deeper transformation is required. If this transformation occurs, no one says that a PMP needs to forget about the processes required to support the project, it's only that their mind-set needs to be open enough to find the right balance. Needless to say, the command-and-control approach has to be replaced for openness and a trust-the-team kind of mentality. That said, a PMP's other skills can find their place in supporting projects so that they effectively interface between teams and with the bigger organization.

Agile project managers, meanwhile, can take the time and energy to learn about PMBok. There's Agility there if we look carefully and with a receptive mind.

A Japanese proverb says that "there is no small opponent, only small thinking." Small thinking is what might lead us to believe that either PMPs or Agile project managers have discovered a silver-bullet approach to project management. In fact, both approaches have something to contribute if the rivals are ready to listen to each other and add the other's lessons to their own tool kits.

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.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.8 (22 ratings)


Kim Poo Gan, CSM, 10/25/2012 4:05:46 AM
Good article, especially for PMP Project Manager to see both side of world.
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 10/27/2012 3:09:39 AM
Thanks for reading it Kim, hope this helps to find a common ground and awareness about both roles.
Joshua Partogi, CSM, 10/28/2012 11:10:52 AM
Is there any such thing as "Agile Project Manager"?
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 10/29/2012 7:45:05 AM
Hi Joshua,

I think that any PM that fights back the command&control mentality deeply embedded in him/her and actively support an Agile team can fall into this category. After all why leave PMs outside of the fun that Agile teams have.
Eber Pinto, CSM,CSPO, 10/29/2012 10:14:20 AM
Good Article Juan, as a PMP for more then 6 years, I've got tell ya, Its not that easy to really change your whole concept at first time. The idea of empowerment sounds crazy at first, but as you said the best is to find the right balance to achieve the four levels commercial, financial, thecnical, and personal.
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 10/30/2012 5:12:38 PM
Thanks Eber. I also found difficult to cross the chasm and became more Agile, but looking backwards it was the best thing that happened to me. Again mind needs to be open and receptive.
Kedar Joshi, CSM, 11/2/2012 10:52:06 AM
Pragmatic thoughts there Juan. I was glad to see something other than the usual one upmanship between PMP & Scrum fans. Reality is that a project manager should be flexible enough to adopt a mix of these principles to maximise the chances of success - the end ultimately justifies the means, you see!
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 11/3/2012 8:53:58 AM
Thanks for your comments Kedar. It's good to remember that Scrum soul is pragmatic and not dogmatic. Scrum in its purest form needs a pure environment to flourish, transforming the environment can be done but there is always practices that you can keep and mix with Scrum. Mixing styles always foster more innovation, the only caveat thought is that the Spirit of Scrum should remain present.
Tamara Newman, CSM, 11/16/2012 7:18:26 PM
You had me at "But is it really true that this two are opposed, or it would be possible to find common ground?" I enjoyed reading the article and your viewpoints. I believe that the two are not diabolically opposed, but quite complementary. You don't leave the core principles of project management behind, you just do them in a different way.
Niyas Ahamed Mohamed Noohu, CSM, 11/17/2012 12:09:00 AM
excellent put the thinking caps for PMPs to change sides / accommodate agile for future success of dynamic project management
Howard Chalmers, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 11/29/2012 7:40:15 PM
Great points, Juan. As a manager who started in the PMBOK world but never got certified, I readily accepted the *values* and mind-set of agile and have not had to struggle much overlaying the core principles of each framework. I've been a Product Owner for a couple of years now, but I just (finally) took a CSPO class. I also took a PMP exam prep course with a group of about 10 folks. Throughout both classes, I was able to use examples from the "other side" to dig deeper into the concepts we were discussing. For example, when discussing work breakdown structures in the PMP class, it wasn't a stretch to talk about breaking stories down into sprint backlog items in order to plan them for a sprint. Tamara nailed it above: these two frameworks are quite complementary.
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 12/3/2012 2:25:42 PM
Thanks for your comments, I guess that I'm not alone in thinking that is possible -and actually productive- to try to find a common ground for both visions.
Agile is about values and adaptation,why not adapt then to work with other professionals with a more structure vision like PMPs?
PMPs ultimate goal is to make a project a success, so why not use whatever tool that take us there without loosing our teams?
Tom Mellor, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 12/6/2012 8:19:37 PM
I harken back to the fundamentals of Scrum: there is no project manager in Scrum. Period. The discussion about project managers continues to resurface like some kind of Freddie Krueger character. The story of PMI coming to the Scrum Alliance seeking association is more of a reticent memory for me. But, I will share that when the then PMI CEO, Greg Balestrero and others from PMI, approached some of us on the SA Board of Directors in 2009 and asked why we had not sought out support and association with PMI, he was completely flabbergasted when I informed him that he was asking the wrong question; he should have asked why we hadn't approached them. Further discussion revealed that the Scrum community and the broader agile community had no desire to contact PMI. Frankly, we viewed their philosophies, principles and practices as not only contrary to agile but a risk to it. I wrote in another article comment tonight: "The biggest misbehaviors occur prominently in one particular role in my opinion and experiences: the project manager. Removing the project manager from Scrum was intentional and aimed at mitigating the various wicked tricks used by them (e.g. death marches, overtime, cajoling, demands, threats, etc.) to coerce and bully people into 'doing more with less.'" IΓÇÖm not interested in the fight discussed in the article. My preference is to simply keep the project manager of the work. That keeps the fight from happening at all.
Sheik Javith Shajahan, CSP,CSM, 12/26/2012 3:42:19 AM
Really a nice article. Both Agile and traditional project management styles are required and being applied based on the projects. But need to have right mindset to understand and applying it in our real time projects.
Aashish Agarwal, CSM, 4/10/2013 12:51:17 AM
Quite useful.
Seema Sonkiya, CSM, 5/24/2013 4:07:03 AM
Good Article
Raju Joshi, CSM, 11/5/2014 10:28:49 AM
Very good article...Thanks for your efforts in putting this good article...
Bhanu Chander Golconda, CSM, 5/18/2015 5:05:51 AM
No wonder this article got so many good comments. A very nice and detailed explanation covering PMP and agile worlds.
Piyush Dhangar, CSM, 7/1/2015 5:13:48 AM
Very good article, as we all know there is nothing called a Project Manager in Scrum as in Scrum its the Team that does all the management, we can have a Line Manager working with Scrum Master to do take care of the Project Management tasks that Scrum does not address.
Piyush Dhangar, CSM, 7/1/2015 5:13:50 AM
Very good article, as we all know there is nothing called a Project Manager in Scrum as in Scrum its the Team that does all the management, we can have a Line Manager working with Scrum Master to do take care of the Project Management tasks that Scrum does not address.
David Fouch, CSM, 1/4/2016 1:41:06 PM
As both a CSM and PMP, I can tell you there is no such thing as an Agile Project Manager. Agile is a Program Management methodology, not Project Management. There are Scrum practitioners and Iteration Managers.
Joshwa Marcalle Fariña, CSM, 7/2/2016 12:51:52 PM
I will get in the ring. I have to disagree with the article and with nearly all the comments here.

While it is true that Scrum and PMP are competing methodologies, it is not realistic to expect most companies to simply dump traditional project management practices for the promise of Scrum.

Scrum does not cover all of the project needs.

My argument is that both can be used in the same context without breaking too many rules.

Both add great value to the managing of a project or projects.

I explain more here:!SCRUM-Traditional-Project-Management-Chaos-in-IT-Industry/uiho7/577428320cf2e26a9986aa33

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