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Confusion about Project Management in agile Environments


Do you still need project management? Is a Scrum Master the new project manager? Or how do I integrate agility into a project?

Project management has established itself as an effective method in complex projects. However, this is now being called into question as organizations move towards greater agility.

Read here where and how project management brings added value.

By Peter Roth, June 10, 2021

The world in upheaval

Big changes are pending. Time is ticking faster, the life cycles of products and services are getting shorter and shorter. Among other things, the response in many companies is to be more agile in order to meet the needs of the market and customers. “New Ways of Working” are needed, an agile mindset is formed and agile work is promoted. This also has a direct influence on projects and their implementation. Gone are the long-term development projects where requirements are specified over months and nobody really knows what will actually come out in the end. And when it finally comes, the results are already out of date or do not meet current needs. There are already articles on social media that call for the end of project management because it is being replaced by Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), Lean, Kanban, SAFe and Co.

This is of course exaggerated, but the confusion is already great. Such a blanket statement must be viewed in a differentiated manner. Basically, not every project necessarily needs project management anyway, only when complexity and size increase does it bring real added value and the success rate can be increased significantly. And if the focus is more on efficient implementation instead of development, classic, sequential processes (so-called waterfall methods) with appropriate project management are used.

The cause of the confusion

I see the reason for the confusion in different areas.

  • Terms such as project, product, service, project management (PM), software development, etc. are used and defined differently. Project management is not product development and vice versa, product development does not cover project management. These are two different disciplines with different tasks, roles and goals. This mixing of terms is the starting point of the confusion.
  • There is not just one PM method, there are numerous. All aim at the systematic control of a project with regard to the management of stakeholders, integration, goals and scope, budget and costs, employees, communication, suppliers, and problems and risks.
    • Internationally, IPMA (International Project Management Association), PMBOK Guide and Standard of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and Prince2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) have established themselves.
    • In Switzerland, the Hermes method has also been used in the federal administration since 1975 (!) and the methodology by Bruno Jenni described in the standard work ‘Project Management’, especially in training and further education.
    • In many especially larger companies there are numerous own, adapted internal project or PM methods.
    PM methods differ massively in some cases, for example Prince2 focuses heavily on processes, while IPMA focuses on competencies and PMBOK on so-called knowledge areas. With the exception of Hermes, all PM methods make a strict distinction between project control (project management) and project implementation (product development process).
  • Like products, methods, models and approaches are continuously developed and adapted to the latest circumstances and findings. At the end of the 20th century, PM methods were very sequential and close to product development or even combined with it, but at the turn of the millennium they became independent processes, integrated change management aspects, received a more systemic focus, converted processes into competencies and became more agile. As an example, it should be mentioned that the PMBOK Guide and Standard of the Project Management Institute PMI has been updated every four years since 1996. The seventh edition will be issued in August 2021.

    However, education and training does not always keep pace with this development. Many people do a PM training once, but then no longer adapt their knowledge to the latest versions. That is why some people do not even know the latest editions and approaches and use the older versions with difficulty in everyday life.

    Company-internal PM methods are also mostly based on a certain version of the underlying standard method, but do not or only rarely develop with it, but remain in place and became out-dated.
  • By definition, a project is something unique. However, projects can be divided into project types. These differ greatly due to their characteristics. There are projects for strategy development, service and process modeling, software development, industrial product development, rollout, infrastructure, civil engineering, etc. There are corresponding product development approaches.
    • On the one hand there are implementation projects such as construction projects for tunnels, bridges, airports, shipping ports, water canals, data centers, networks, space travel), which take months or years to implement. A clear, predefined sequence of activities is required in order to achieve the goal as efficiently as possible without deviations.
    • On the other hand, there are development projects that are very open and the result is still very vague, integrate innovation, creativity and learning, and require open spaces, reflection and self-control in order to be successful.
    Accordingly, the right project implementation approach must be found in every project and, where necessary, the project management must be adjusted accordingly. In development projects it can be seen in many areas that the agile concepts are displacing the waterfall models.
  • Finally, a distinction should also be made between function, roles and competencies.
    • According to organizational theory, an (organizational) function is part of the organizational structure and describes the (static) responsibility of a person, a team within the organization.
    • An (organizational) role is part of the process organization and describes the (dynamic) allocation of tasks, competencies and responsibilities within a process.
    • (Personal) competencies of an employee describes the skills that the employee has built up within and outside of their professional life through training and experience. A distinction is made between the four key skills social skills, personality skills, technical skills and methodological skills.
    An employee can accordingly take over one or more functions and one or more roles in an organization or a project.

Implement agility in projects

The use of established methods, models and techniques bring massive advantages. It increases efficiency and effectiveness and significantly increases the success of the project. However, the approach must also match the problem of the project. If this is not the case, the effect fizzles out and its application even hinders the project. To start a new project, ask yourself the following questions:

  • At what level is the project and the desired change (operational, tactical, strategic) moving?
  • How high is the complexity in the project? The complexity usually increases with the size of a project and can be expressed, for example, in terms of the number of employees, the budget, the duration, scope (one or different topics).
  • How much free space does the project need? If an implementation has to be designed as efficiently as possible, the free space should be kept as small as possible. But if there are a lot of open questions and creativity and innovation are to be promoted, a lot of freedom is required.
  • What type of project is it (e.g. strategy implementation, service development, process modeling, software development, rollout)? The appropriate product development process must be applied accordingly. Different ones can also be used in larger projects or programs.
If one is now clear what the characteristics of a project are, one can turn to the question of project management.

Not every project necessarily needs project management:
  • Small development projects can be handled with Scrum.
  • Several parallel development projects can be handled using Scrum for Scrum or SAFe. Project management brings little additional benefit.
If no project management is used in projects, there are areas not covered by default, such as budget and costs, stakeholders, employees, communication, external suppliers, etc. It should be defined who is responsible and manages it, e.g. the scrum team, the product manager or the line organization.

In all other projects, I recommend using professional project management to better predict projects and increase the likelihood of project success.

A special case applies to organizations that are in the transition from a hierarchical to an agile organization and have already agile teams. But the decision-making authority about budget, employees, products and/or customers and market may still lie in the hierarchy.
  • As long as the project is part of a hierarchically managed organization, project management is recommended for controlling the projects (costs, time, risks, etc.). Project management then also serves as a link between the different forms of organization.
  • In the rare cases of real agile organizations, so-called holacracy or teal organizations, project management may not fit into the environment and brings little added value.
If larger, complex development projects are implemented with agile product development approaches (Scrum, SAFe, etc.), these must be neatly integrated into the project management. A project manager should not be determined for each Scrum team, but rather these should be grouped into meaningful projects. If SAFe is used, a (sub) project can be defined with a project manager for each epic. In project management, there are corresponding adjustments especially for agile approaches, where the methodology is tailored to the problem (e.g. Prince2 Agile).


  • Rather than getting lost in basic discussions on a new project, the project team should determine the best product development approach for that specific project and then, if meaningful and helpful, select the appropriate project management methodology that best suits the problem, the project and the project team.
  • With the further development of project and product development methods and above all with the increase in more agile concepts, complexity does not decrease per se. This means that more agile methods do not necessarily make life easier, but a agile development project becomes more effective and meaningful.
  • The current versions of project management methods effectively support both sequential and agile approaches.
  • Depending on the project types and sizes, there are different recommendations for using project management.
  • A project is unique by definition. Therefore, the chosen development approaches must be carefully integrated into the project management.
  • A 'one-size-fits-all' approach, i.e. one method for everything, does not lead to the desired result. This applies to both product development and project management, and other approaches. Ultimately, the appropriate, optimal methodology for product development and project management must always be found and applied for the current problem.
  • Leading agile projects also requires an agile mindset and, if possible, a modern, supportive management style (servant leadership). It helps significantly if the project manager not only knows the product development approaches, but has years of experience in them and is aware of the specific aspects and properties in each case. This requires even more experience and a broad understanding, and ongoing training in both project management and product development.
  • And to answer the introductory questions...
    • Yes, professional project management is and remains an important, proven and effective tool for complex projects!
    • No, a Scrum Master is not the new project manager. These are different roles with different tasks and intentions. But with the appropriate skills one person can take on both roles.