Can you be an agile project manager with Jem Jelly

Join Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson as they delve into a comprehensive discussion on agile project management with certified scrum trainer, Jem ‘Jelly’ D’jalel.

In this episode, we’ll explore and challenge:

🔸 Is agile project management truly feasible, or does it contradict the core agile principles?
🔸 The nature of projects – are they innately predictive, siloed, and staged, or can they be adaptable, fluid, and cross-functional?
🔸 The role of project managers – are they inevitably authoritative, or can they embody the spirit of adaptive servant leadership?

Murray shares his perspective on how he successfully implements agile practices and principles in project management, while Shane presents an opposing view arguing their incompatibility.

Join us for this insightful, debate-filled discussion on the multifaceted world of agile project management.

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Podcast Transcript

Read along you will

Murray: In this episode, we discuss agile project management with certified scrum trainer, Jem Jelly. We ask whether agile project management is possible or if it contradicts the principles of agile. We debate whether projects are inherently predictive, siloed, and stagedor whether they can be adaptive fluid and cross-functional. 

And we discuss whether project managers are inevitably authoritarian assholes or if they can be adaptive servant leaders. I explain how I use agile practices and principles in project management. While Shane argues they cant co-exist. Join us for this insightful discussion on agile project management.

Shane: Welcome to the No Nonsense Agile Podcast. I’m Shane Gibson.

Murray: And I’m Murray Robinson.

Jem: And I’m Jem Jelly.

Murray: How are you Jem? Thanks for coming on.

Jem: Thank you very much for having me. 

Murray: So we wanna talk to you today about Agile project management. Is it possible or are all project managers assholes. 

Let’s kick off by getting you to tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you start and how’d you get to where you are now? 

Jem: Yeah, sure. I had a strange start into my career. I never grew up wanting to be a scrum master. I wanted to be a social worker actually. My auntie was a social worker. I was fascinated by the job, altruistic, making an impact in the world. And then I saw how much stress she was under and the money she’d get paid and it didn’t match up. 

Always been around technology. Loved gaming as a kid from the Atari St days with my older brother. So I studied computer science. I took a job as like a junior programmer and a bit of a BA flirted with that and then did some application support, some product development and then moved into an SM role quite early on when I think a lot of people hadn’t even heard of the role, like back in 2005 or six in an investment bank.

I was lucky to be around a couple of people who knew what it was and the rest was history. So I’ve been very nomadic, I’ve had over 40 roles over 20 years. I never planned it that way, but after a couple of perme jobs, I got into contracting in London. And that was it.

The average lifespan could be from three months to nine months. And then I found out if I called myself an agile coach, I could get paid more around 2012. all same, same for me, helping, teams and improve around technology and that was it.

So yeah, lots of roles. Lots of teams. And I’ve ended up becoming a trainer. I met Gabrielle Benfield back in 2013, I went to a course of hers. She said, look, you’ve got a lot to say on this. Would you like to teach? I started co-training with Gabby. Brilliant mentor. And then I flirted with the idea of being a certified scrum trainer. And it took me about six or seven years because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in a field where I train and just do certification.

Cause I like doing the work. And that’s it. I am where I am now, so I’m a certified scrum trainer. I consult part-time and have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the certification world. 

Murray: And you were working with Tobias Mayer for a while. 

Jem: Yeah, Tobias Mayer, he’s a great friend of mine and we did something called the 500 pound agile gorilla? I think that’s what they call it. Yeah. So we, did a little bit of vlog series. Where we’d be talking about some controversial issues, similar type of vibe to the subject today. 

Murray: All right, so onto the topic. Can you be an Agile project manager are those two things contradictory? 

Jem: I think it depends on what part of my career you asked me. If you asked me is there any one way to do Agile? I would’ve said Scrum when I was new at this. And if you asked me if there was such a thing as agile project management, I would’ve asked you to not swear in front of me in 2012. Is this a sign of age whereby I think there is a way to deliver projects in an agile manner, but does the role of a Agile project manager exist? It depends on what we mean by that. Murray, 

Murray: Okay, so Shane, what do you think?

Shane: I think the answer is no. So I agree with you, Jem, that you can do projects using an agile mindset and using agile patterns, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Run a project. Do daily standups, have the team talk to each other on a daily basis, at least. And that’s a good pattern. It has value. but the whole idea of a project is, You’re dumb enough to think there’s a beginning and an end to a piece of work. You’re dumb enough to think that you can fix the time and the scope and the dollars and deliver it. And you’re dumb enough to think you can bring in a bunch of contractors to get it done. And that thing never needs to be maintained and adapted and iterated, and it is just wrong. It’s not the way organizations should work because they’re working on change. They’re working on their ways of working. There’s value in the way they work as much as there is in the thing they build. And so the whole idea of a project is bullshit because it has a beginning and an end.

And I’ve never worked with an organization that invests a large amount of money into something and expects it to stop when that money runs out. So for me, projects are crap. And therefore the term project manager and all the things they do. There is a better way. But I would say if you’re running a project and you’re a project manager, adopt as many as the agile practices and patterns as you can because they have value. 

Murray: I am working as an Agile project manager right now, so I have a different opinion

Shane: There’s a surprise. 

Murray: Actually, I, I’m not engaged as an agile project manager. I’m engaged as a project manager by people who’ve worked with me before in an agile way and wanna work in that way again. Yeah, a project does have a start date and end date. It has a scope, it has a budget. But the reason that we are doing this work now, is because there’s a platform that is burning and we have to get off it onto something else. They gotta make a big change in a short time. We are gonna do that and then it’s gonna go into an application support team who are going to support it and enhance it. 

Shane: That’s not true. They’re gonna throw it over the wall to the maintenance team who are gonna watch it slowly wither and die. And then in 10 years time, they’re gonna do another project to spend even more money doing the work that should have happened over the last 10 years.

Murray: What do you think, Jem? 

Jem: I feel a bit torn because if what Shane is saying that the reason it is bullshit is because it’s short-lived some people will say, yeah, but products have a start on an end. Yeah, we know that, but products are longer lived and there’s a life cycle to our product, so that, That’s no rebuttal. The second thing though, is when we’re talking about delivering things short term, in reality, are there situations where we want to deliver things in a short term for clients. In nearly every organization I’ve worked in they want that. They want that ability to assemble a team and react to a client’s response. And of course it comes at a cost. Disbanding teams bringing teams together, their predictability, all of that. Can they be agile about doing that in terms of running the project?

What does that mean? Okay, if we’re talking about agile being something whereby we can validate learning in a short period of time, can you validate your learning in a short period of time using the projects? I think you can, and in fact, when I think about Scrum, there were books, wasn’t there from Schwaber what is it? 

Murray: Agile project management with scrum. 

Jem: It wasn’t a bad read, so I don’t, when you hear that, what do you think then,

Murray: You know, what else has a fixed time, a clear goal and a fixed start and end date. A sprint. 

Jem: Aiih 

Shane: So why wouldn’t they call two week projects then? 

Murray: He did call them that at some point early on. Series of short projects with rapid learning. There’s a lot of similarities between sprints and projects. By your definition Shane. 

Shane: No, there’s not actually. Okay. So show me a team that do a two week iteration, call it a sprint, and then disband the team at the end of those two weeks.

Murray: So it’s disbanding the team that you have a problem with. 

Shane: That’s one of the behaviors of a project, it’s one of the antipatterns of a way of working is disbanding the team. Now, the problem of course, then is we have this idea of self-organizing teams and self-managing teams where actually they can form an un form and reform on their own to get the work done, and then I’m like, okay, so now they’re disbanding and reforming but they’re not a project. When I look at the patterns, I can argue both sides, just like you did, Jem. Now how the hell do I differentiate the difference between a product and a project? Because you’re right, products have, beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a life cycle, like a project does.

Murray: We also know from talking to all the product people that most product development is done in projects.

Jem: Yeah. I think in the guide it does say , something you can think of a sprint with a monthly horizon. So maybe they’re using this language to normalize this word for the newcomers but that’s not meant to be the end. 

It’s also about composition and structure. So when we’re talking about projects the classic way of thinking is you’ve got functional teams and you’ve got silos, and there’s a PM that’s coordinating between those. Whereas say, scrum cross-functional teams, autonomous, and we don’t have the PM because they start becoming a barrier to the people self organizing. So would we say then, if we’re talking about the characteristics of a project, is short-term teams are disbanded and they’re largely functional teams and it takes a long time for them to validate what they’re building. 

Murray: Those are not the essential characteristics of a project.

Jem: Okay. What would you say are? 

Murray: You are talking about the way projects are often done, but not the way projects have to be done. And in fact, in the project management book of knowledge from the pmi, you’ll find that it does talk about self forming teams and adaptive rolling wave planning. So it’s quite friendly towards CanBan and Scrum. But the essential characteristics of a project are that it’s a short term endeavor to achieve a goal. Landing a man on the moon building the Empire State Building that’s a classic project.

Shane: Yeah, but we’ve seen projects go on for three years. How’s that short term? 

Murray: Maybe not short term fixed term, it’d be rare to have a project go longer than 20 years. Maybe building a dam would be the longest thing.

Shane: I’ve never seen an SAP project deliver in the fixed term that it guessed it was going to 

Murray: It doesn’t have to be short term. Depends what you mean by short. 

Shane: So , you’re quite right. The project management books talk a lot in terms of agility, but we don’t often see that. A project manager will typically sit between the team and the stakeholders. They’ll manage the stakeholders interactions and they’ll tell the team what to do, the work that needs to be done and when it needs to be done. That’s a common behavior or characteristic I see of a project manager.

But then you look at a product owner and I’ve seen product owners that behave just that way. Typically ex project managers. They have the same characteristics and for me, they’re not adhering to the idea of agility and what we see from Scrum and what we want. So how do we define what the difference between project and an agile way of working is?

Jem: Yeah. Just wanna take a step back and just explore what you just said, Murray and come back to Shane. 

Okay. So why is then the, a perception that waterfall or project management characteristics, that’s not the aspiration for what the PMI say. I remember when I come out of uni and I was a grand and I was running a project, you get your hands dirty in a bank you try things out, they teach you, they said that you gotta build it on time, you gotta build it with all the scope and you gotta build it within budget. But what they never asked me was this, are we building what the customer wants?

Now I’m wondering then project management has evolved, the literature that I’ve seen in project management over the last three or four years, it looks a lot better than what I saw in Prince two 20 years ago. No doubt about it. So the characteristics for me of not being able to mobilize scope is the standout.

What is one of the standout differences between agility, like an agile approach, adaptive and predictive? Predictive saying we believe that we can figure out the future with enough reductionism and expertise. We can get to the answer, whereas an adaptive way of thinking says, we can’t. So we’re gonna experiment and learn.

Murray, you tell me, see if you’ve seen this in the literature or the aspiration of p m i. Are you or are you not allowed to mobilize scope? Can you change scope. 

Murray: Yes, you can change scope. The PMI has a whole section called Adaptive Project Planning in the pmbok. It’s always been in project management. During wartime they would build, jet planes using project management and they were focused on the outcome. I treat the goal as the scope, and then there’s how much money can we get, how much time can we get, what’s the team we can get? And then I always treat the detailed deliverables and scope as being flexible. But you can’t always do that as a project manager. A lot of project management is driven by procurement contracts. They give you a long list of detailed scope and then they demand that you deliver it. So a lot of this behavior is driven by procurement , where companies are trying to move their risk onto a partner who agrees to deliver a fixed scope for fixed time in a fixed budget, and then they manage everything through change control. So there is a lot of it, but I don’t do that.

Jem: So maybe then, in the last several years, that adaptive approach has appeared in project management. But has it been enough, has it been enough to change the perception of people looking outside in like me or other agilists? Has it been enough for the people in the sport of project management to change their old ways of thinking? So I’m assuming then Murray scope creep doesn’t exist in project management, if it’s adaptive. Is that,

Murray: You don’t have change requests in these sort of variable scope projects? No.

Jem: So for defined scope. It is scope creep, but for variable scope we can be adaptive.

Murray: Yeah. So what I always say to clients we will work together to deliver as much business value as possible within the time and budget available with the team that we have. And I educate them on that. And they love working that way cuz there’s no change requests. And if I’m a vendor, it means I get a guaranteed reasonable profit. And, no change requests. But on the other hand, you can’t come back to me at the end and say, you didn’t deliver this thing that was on page 18 of my tender, cuz we are not working that way. 

Jem: Okay. So shane, , project management has evolved to cater for predictive and adaptive work, is that any different to a scrum team who have got a product backlog where some of the things they lock down because they’re turnkey exercises, like simple and complicated and other things they cater for being adaptive because they’re complex and we welcome healthy variants.

Shane: Look if we talk about pmi, they bought Discipline Agile, they invested in Scott and Mark’s approach which I’m a great fan of. 

Murray: And Al shall away too. 

Shane: Yeah. And then they bought that into their practices, and they’re updating the practices that they’re trained to adopt those adaptive approaches. And that’s great. From that point of view, I think that the project world is constantly adapting as it should and it’s becoming more agile. I think when you hear the word project, that people behave a certain way. And we’ve already had podcasts about is agile dead, it’s become commoditized. It’s all around certification. you don’t need any experience. None of the core patterns and principles are being followed, but we still call it agile. And so we know that happens, if the project world is moving to be more adaptive, great because those 

adaptive practices we’ve seen have value. But I still go back. When you hear the term project manager, there becomes a persona, a behavior, a set of principles in a way of working that goes with that title. And that hasn’t changed in my view.

Murray: if you go to a project management institute conference, you’re gonna find a lot of the old school project managers that you talk about chain. But you don’t have to be like that. 

Shane: I know you don’t have to. 

Murray: Then if you don’t have to be, then you can be an Agile project manager. 

Shane: No, because I think you are mixing two flavors, you’re either vanilla or your chocolate, you put the two together, you get crap. You have to figure out which one you are. I don’t mind if we actually end up with a third title coming up, which is that blend, that person that sits between those two disciplines as those disciplines merge. But what I’m saying is that term project manager and that term project comes with a whole lot of legacy behaviors that are hard to change.

Murray: But it doesn’t have to. It’s more of a cultural thing. So first of all there’s been quite a downturn in agile and scrum master roles. A lot of people have been let go recently. And when I was going and talking to people about agile coaching, They wanted to employ HR people. They didn’t care about, people who have experience in software development teams.

So Agile’s become degraded, at least in my market. But project management, there’s tons of work for project managers. And it’s actually having a revival.

Shane: But you know what that is?

Murray: Because agile coaches don’t deliver anything. 

Shane: No. Cause once you’ve delivered your project, you gotta do that same project three more times. 

Jem: I know we’re saying this as a joke, but agile people don’t deliver anything. This kind thought like 2009 again. People getting fired Jobs were all going. And what jobs were the ones getting let go the touchy feely jobs, the ones where you are coaching and supporting, but you’re not seen accountable for delivery. And when I saw this whole Capital One thing happen, I get it. There’s a recession and the first thing they wanna cut back is anything they see as a luxury and any kind of organizational therapy should go. The product owners can drive the delivery. We’ve got lead devs. Let’s crack on. So one answer to that question is, I think when money is tight, coaching is seen as, an extra, that’s the first thing.

I also think though, that Scrum Masters and Agile coaches have not done themselves any favors over the last decade with the extreme approach that we are taking to coaching. And it’s turned into a lot of powerful questions and as long as I can help lead people to their own answers, I don’t need to have a Scooby do about the domain or the product, and hopefully it’ll work out. It saddens me because it brings down the perception of what we do.

Shane: So to be a scrum master or an agile coach, is it beneficial that you’ve done the work? Is it better for you to have been on the field before you move into a coaching role, or actually you’re good at 

coaching and it doesn’t matter about the domain and expertise in that area. What’s your view? 

Jem: If you work in a kitchen, does it help to know what a frying pan is? Does it help to know if oil gets hot, it can burn you? Yeah. Do you need to be an a la carte chef? No. So technical awareness is different to technical skill, but we shouldn’t bullshit people and say to them, yeah, if you work in a car manufacturing plant, you don’t need to know what a steering wheel is. Having an awareness is, okay, I’m not technical by any means, but have a little understanding of the ideas of what a unit test is, or refactoring, or into automation is, or continuous integration. But why? When the team are talking about the definition of done and quality factors, and they’re making estimates and they’re dropping quality because they’re getting pressured by the PO then how can you be in a position to even have the conversation? I don’t think you need to be a programmer but make the effort to have an awareness.

I always knew I wasn’t gonna be a great developer. I always knew I wasn’t interested enough to get good at it. I enjoy the people leading into our conversations. I’ve coached in sports before, so yes, I saw a crossover, but, I don’t wanna be too binary about this. And I want to emphasize, again, awareness and skill are very different.

Murray: Yeah so I think we probably all agree that a good agile coach is like a sports coach. They’re not a life coach. And if you wanted to engage a coach for your professional sports team, you would wanna engage somebody who’d played before and was quite good on the field at some point. Not the best but had the skills and then had developed more skills in coaching and training because you know what’s important.

Shane: So does a project manager have to have knowledge in the area that they’re managing?

Murray: I think if you’re gonna be a software project manager you have to have quite a bit of experience in software development. If you’re gonna be a house building project manager, you need to have quite a bit of knowledge in house building. But as a software manager, I don’t need to have much knowledge of SAP to run an SAP project.

Jem: Okay let’s just say we’re gonna turn a technical dial all the way down, awareness and skill. Is it possible that you have such great interpersonal skills? Is it possible that you understand the basic concepts of managing the flow of value? You understand how to generate data points to reflect it back to the team? I’m talking about empiricism, can people get by with just that alone? I would say yes. I actually think that they can do that. Would it help you to have an awareness of the domain you’re in?

Yes. So I don’t see this as like a light switch on or off. I see this as like a light dimmer. But we’ve gotta argue the other way as well. Having the skill and the knowledge can sometimes impede on the team’s ability to have the autonomy to own the solutions.

So there is the counter-argument, and we’ve all seen that before, haven’t we? That the scrum master who’s a developer, who infringes on the team and pushes their own solution, but I couldn’t argue it the other way, have I met brilliant developers who are also Scrum masters that have got the skill to stand back and bite their tongue and let the team see it? Yes. 

Murray: if you talk to a good engineering manager, you’ll find that they are constantly asking themselves, should I mentor, coach, or direct? 

Jem: yep. 

Murray: I wanna coach them. I wanna encourage them. I wanna help them learn it, but they’re having trouble. So I better step in and show them some ways of doing it. Oh my God, they’re still having trouble. We’re falling way behind. All right. I’m gonna come in now and start telling ’em what to do. Cause I’ve given them three chances already.

Shane: That’s an interesting example, cause an agile coach or a scrum master , is encouraged to be a servant leader. That daily standup, the coach stands behind the team. We’re not in front of the board. So when you’re a project manager, are you in front of the team or are you behind the team? What are project managers taught? What are they encouraged to do? What’s the behavior that project managers are encouraged or typically ,form?

Murray: it depends a lot on how you come to the role and what your life experience is. With project management, you are not generally responsible for building the capability of the people you are working with on an ongoing basis. Generally you’re not gonna invest that much in training.

You’re trying to get an outcome for the business. What’s the best way to get an outcome? They’ve got their goals, replace a burning platform, increase revenue, things like that. I think agile is a great way to achieve those outcomes. And I think being servant leader is quite an effective way.

But don’t think you can be a project manager if you just stand back and observe and ask, powerful questions. There is work you have to do yourself, your stakeholders expect you to work with them to build a business case for funding. You’ve gotta argue your case to get the money. You’ve gotta recruit people, you’ve gotta review and engage vendors. And when I do it, I’m trying to balance my relationships with people versus trying to get the task done. I’m trying to collaborate and help not dominate or control.

Jem: Someone said to me why would I hire an agile coach or a scrum master when a project manager could be adaptive? They could do all that and they could be accountable. This is much better. 

Here’s a standout thing. When you are a manager, you may understand the philosophy of servant leadership. You may even have the coaching skills and you’ve got the technical knowledge, what’s not to like, however, people can easily get squeezed in politics and bureaucracy in an organization. 

When you come in as an agile coach or a scrum master, if you’re doing the job properly you are able to feel less of that pressure. That kind of moving from asking questions, guiding and then moving to telling you are less likely to fill that squeeze. This is the experience I’ve had because I have not been in a situation where I have to drive the budget. I have to own this. I can own that. So when the delivery manager is under pressure, I act as a person who’s neutralized that and said look, we’ve gotta balance the sustainability of the team. An advantage of a coach or a scrum master, it’s the fact that you are not accountable in that same way and you can have that unpopular opinion to slow down.

Shane: I think about it of who controls the work to be done and who helps the team get the work done. And a project manager were both. They looked after the team and got the team to do the work. And so for me, one of the benefits of Scrum is we split that up with the product owner saying what’s important and the team saying what work needs to be done and the scrum master helping the team be successful. So we’re splitting off that control of the work to be done versus the team enablement, and for me, that’s successful. And so when we see a project manager, we don’t tend to see that. The project manager is responsible for delivery, they’re talking to the stakeholders, They’re managing the team. 

Murray: Yeah, there are a lot of conservative project managers. They’re under a lot of pressure from, senior stakeholders, executives, procurement people and traditional ways of working. And there’s often an acceptance of project managers being controlling and kicking heads in organizations. So a lot of ’em are quite traditional.

Shane: But is that a leadership problem, is it actually the fact that if you are in a leader of an organization and you create a program or a project, you expect the right to set the scope, you set, you expect the right to effectively set the time period and set the budget. and everybody’s gonna curtail to that. If you’re working in an organization that’s adopting an agile way of working, the leaders are typically accepting that they’ll give a goal in the outcome and the team will work towards it, and the scope will be variable over time. Is that actually what it is? It’s the leadership that when they use the term project, they’re bringing in a whole lot of fixed mindset behavior. 

Murray: The leaders don’t care about Agile at all, okay? They do not care about it. What they care about is getting things done, increasing sales, reducing costs, increasing their team capability, the right people on board, relationships that sort of thing. They don’t care about agile. Agile is a means to an end. And if they wanna have a project, they’ll have a project.

Jem: Can ask you this. Imagine you are a delivery manager and you’ve just seen the roadmap from the CEO or whoever, and you’re like, wow, they want a lot of stuff from these technologies. Who should I bring in to make happen?

Should I bring in a scrum master or an agile coach whereby, they can navigate and help the team, they can help us negotiate scope, the more dynamic ways of delivery. Or should I get a project manager, who can kick some ass and get stuff done.

Now I often think the reason they’re in a market for a project manager is because they haven’t got the skill or the knowledge to negotiate with the stakeholders and the CEO of an aggressive roadmap. So then they fall into the trap of bringing somebody that can come in and execute.

Whereas when someone does have more skill and knowledge in how they can mobilize scope and reach outcomes and not just outputs, they might be more likely to go into the market for an agile coach and a scrum master, because this way. We can then explore the different ways of delivering on something.

And let’s be honest, some managers are attracted to bringing in people who can, strong arm teams. Maybe they’ve been burnt in the past. Hey, I brought in a scrum master last time we went with the self-organization thing, but it went tits up and I got it. I was on a receiving end of the abuse and the management and above.

Why did the self-organization fail? Was the goal clear? Yes. Were the people competent? Yes. Did you set boundaries? Well, Not kind of, so these people that do things like this, they’re not bad people, but they lack the skill. Someone I worked with a lot long ago for that self-organization was let everybody do what they want.

That’s called a party. That’s not self-organization. Do what I mean? There’s no boundaries. Any work can come into the sprint. Yeah, any reactive work willy-nilly. So I feel like there could be, a competency issue with senior managers that bring in project managers just to get the work done because they don’t have the skill or the knowledge to change the way that they can deliver on an outcome.

And here’s the hard part, push back and negotiate on stakeholders or investors who’ve got an aggressive timeline. So instead they’re bringing someone that can, implement and execute because they dunno how to go back and negotiate. 

Murray: If you’re an executive, you’re saying we want to spend money and get things done. So we’re going to get it done. We’ll have some of our normal team on it, we’ll bring in a service provider and we’ll bring in a whole lot of other people for the next 18 months and we’ll get this stuff done. So if you’re not gonna help me, you can get out. 

Jem: Let’s just unpack that a little bit. Why do we need to get all of this work done in all this period of time? Sometimes the deadlines are completely bollock anyway. There’s genuine cases. I get it. And some of them, they’re just made up. 

The second thing is, because this is what the client wants and we’re gonna make an impact. Yeah, but how do we know it’s what the client wants? Because I’ve masterminded this idea. How many managers have you worked with where they think they’ve got the best idea since slice spread and it goes out and it sinks. So do you really, the deadline set on that date, are you really shooting for an outcome or is it just an output? How do you know it’s a good idea? If you think about it, what I’m really trying to do is de-risk the project. 

And we’ve not even spoken about the secret sauce of your organization. It’s the people, if you can’t bring the people along with you and they can’t do it like they mean it, they’re gonna do it, but what’s your attrition like? How creative are they? How interested are they? do we just care about the execution of the work? 

Murray: Yeah, I just don’t think projects are gonna go away, most of our work is gonna be done in projects. I like the idea of moving towards, long-running teams that look after platforms and services and products like a garden and you look after it continuously. I like that. But there’s not much of that around. Most of our work is done in projects and it’s gonna keep being like that because that’s the way organizations want it. And we have to respond to changes in our environments, in our markets, often quite quickly.

Jem: You say, projects have to be the way that they are and that the reality in quotes is that people want things delivered. Let’s be honest here. It’s very often in my experience that everything’s important . And when direction is weak, we are much more reactive to a request of people, because every time we say yes to something, we say no to something else. So a strong argument against this is product development based firms look further than their nose have a vision, and people get behind that.

Project management based firms, they can still get people behind that, but they’re far more reactive. And with that brings attrition, context changing, and people that feel more like cogs rather than creators. 

Murray: A project is a response to change things in your environment. And we are supposed to believe in responding and learning and changing in agile. The thing is it’s just too long. If it’s 18 months and at the end of it you deliver something and it’s not what anyone wants, that’s bad. But that is not a necessary outcome of a project. 

When I run a project, I’m using my agile coaching skills, to persuade my stakeholders from a position of power and authority that it is a good idea not to define the scope too tightly. Instead, we are going to engage people on a fixed team for a fixed time, for a fixed budget cause it’s gotta be a fixed budget. To achieve the goal with a flexible scope. And people will buy into it if I say it from that position. And I can write contracts with vendors to say that. And I can engage my team that way. And then what we can do is we can work iterably and incrementally and have a real product manager who’s constantly prioritizing things in the roadmap, based on what we’ve learnt so far. And we can de-risk by bringing all the risky things to the front and doing proof of concepts and so on. 

Jem: I applaud that. And I actually think we need more of that changing our lexicon to fit the client and the audience. There’s no doubt by talking about being adaptive and talking about risk and time to market. I’m not against the changing of the lexicon. I think one thing that I’ve unpacked as we’ve been talking in my mind and listening to you both as well, 

is I. Maybe one of the biggest problems when we’re talking about project management is that as, and you started off with this, I think Shane, the nature of a project is short-term.

Why are they short-term? Is it because organizations aren’t looking further than their nose? Are we doing companies a disservice when we are teaching them to think that agile is actually being reactive? Yep. So we’re all for agility, but why is your company made up of pure projects and there’s no product development?

Why is there no roadmap in that respect? , maybe you’re gonna argue because our company make money from projects. Okay, fine. Maybe it’s a service led type of organization. But why should we allow that to turn into product development, agile coaches, scrum masters, they suck. We need to be more realistic and just deliver on projects. Do you see what I’m saying? Like maybe it’s the other way. Maybe we need to challenge the short term thinking of these organizations who dunno where they’re going.

Murray: Service providers have a project approach because people are buying projects from them, but companies who make their money from customers don’t need to work that way, and most of their business isn’t done like that, but they do it that way because somebody has made a decision in the past that has unintended consequences, and then it’s taken a number of years of building up the willpower and political capital to get a change made. They’re slow to recognize that they made a mistake. They took all of the money that they should have invested in looking after a platform because they wanted to achieve some short term profit goals, and now the platform’s fallen apart and they need to invest a lot of money in fixing it up so they can stay in business. That’s a pretty common scenario.

Jem: What I’m hearing is, depending on the business model and the mess that a company did or didn’t get themselves into there’s going to be a reality to projects. I’m not against it, but I’m just saying I think going to one of, one of ever extremes is a problem that everything has to be product development or that everything has to be project development or delivery rather.

Murray: I think as a project manager, you can be a servant leader. You can have flexible scope, you can be iterative and incremental. You can have hypotheses and test them. Agile’s fantastic for de-risking projects.

But I do wanna say though, there’s an awful lot of fake agile out there. Most projects these days use sprints and they talk about epics and stories, but it’s just terrible agile. It’s, water scrum fall and people now think that’s what agile is.

Jem: So , you’ve got all of the mechanics of scrum, you’re doing a daily scrum, the review, the planning, the retro, but at the end of the sprint you’re only delivering a component. Nothing, which is usable. You can’t create a valuable unit of work. You can say though, maybe that scrumerfall or what did you call it? 

Murray: Water scrum, fall.

Jem: Water-scrum-fall can be the gateway drug for scrum. This week, several pieces of work, were all analysis next week it’s got analysis and a bit of design and a bit of build.

Murray: It could be. If you have good people who want to do that, then it could be. But what you’ve got is a lot of people selling agile projects who don’t really have a clue what they’re doing and they’re just going through their ceremonies. It’s just sprints. We plan a hundred points of things in this sprint. Cause the customer’s demanding it. We finish 10 of them and we push 90 to the next sprint and then we put another a hundred in and then we do it over and over again and we don’t do any testing till the end because, we are phased and gated. That’s what people are doing and calling it scrum.

Jem: In the project that you work in, then. Are you working with cross-functional teams or are you working with component teams? For the most part, like siloed off. 

Murray: I’ve come in towards the end of the planning phase of a large project, and I am trying to use agile approaches to de-risk it and make it more successful. So I will be forming cross-functional teams and I will be encouraging them to go through the life cycle as much as possible within a sprint. 

But I have to use a development partner because the company doesn’t feel that they have the software development skills in-house. And is that development partner going to do good agile practices. It’s hard to say. They all say they do, sometimes they sound like they do and then you find it, it’s complete garbage once you work with them. So I hope we can pick a vendor who’s good at this stuff, but that’s cause I’m mature and experienced. I know this stuff is important. Other people in my position would say, do why are you even worrying about that? That’s not important.

Jem: Shane you’ve got your own startup.

Shane: Yep. 

Jem: And if I was going to build a company for the long term, would I want to build up the capability of, software craftsmen or craft people rather than outsource it? 

Shane: It depends on your context, the way I think about it is mercenary and missionaries. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of creating missionaries in your company and you have to use mercenaries and you just gotta behave in a different way when you do that.

And again, we’ve had this theme on the podcast , over a long time, that actually new companies are inherently growth-minded, they are inherently agile because that’s how most people starting new companies behave. Companies started before 2000, are Fixed mindset companies, they’re based on hierarchies. They’re based on taylorism, and that’s hard to change those. And so that makes me question actually is the conversation about project versus agile only a conversation when we have talking about organizations that are pre 2000. and actually when you talk to the growth startups, they don’t use scrum as, such. They form a team who have a goal, who are experts and get better at what they do every day.

Murray: They do a lot of projects, Shane. Spotify does projects, A lot of them do projects. 

Shane: So how do you define a project then? 

Murray: You’re getting people together to achieve a goal for a limited time and budget, that’s basically what a project is.

Jem: Alright, so let’s just entertain this a bit more then. That’s no different to a product backlog, isn’t it? A product backlog has to entertain the cone of uncertainty, the further you look at the more wrong you could be. Fine. Why is there any different to a project? 

Because a project, if it’s over a monthly time horizon, just go with that. You want to give x amount of money, you wanna reach a certain outcome. Why is there any different. Maybe product development is a collection of projects that we deliver, but the difference is that teams , are disbanded. is that any different?

Murray: No, I worked for a jobs board startup, which has been very successful. And they did their work in projects with internal teams. It was a way of focusing people on achieving an outcome, a goal, it was a way of saying, we are all gonna go in this direction. You’ve got a hundred people, 20 of you are gonna go in this direction and take that hill and the other 20 are gonna go in the other direction. Take that other hill, and then we’re gonna stand on the hill and look where the next opportunity is and then we’ll get the next 40 people to go to the next one. That’s the way it works. And then if they disband, that’s fine. They can go and work on another project.

Jem: So is that any different then to four or five Scrum teams working on one product vision? At the multi-level? We’re all executing our part, making our increments. We’ve got a single source of truth, which could be the program and who are the projects. But the distinguishing differences, whether they’re disbanded or not.

I actually like the power of a project. It creates a focus. we lock ourselves away in a room, we do it. We get it done. My only concern is that sometimes projects can attract a certain type of personality in terms of project managers, and it can feel like we have to execute on the scope, and all we want is the output as opposed to the outcome.

But as you’ve said already in the last several years in the PMI world, they distinguish the difference between, or discern a difference between fixed scope or adaptive? And if that’s the case, what’s the problem? I have met project managers who have been brilliant servant leaders, empirical adaptive as you like, and I’ve met some Scrum masters who have been old school command and control and don’t know how to mobilize the scope. 

Can you be an Agile project manager? I think yes you can, if you are using adaptive thinking and you’re a servant leader, Then you are exhibiting the characteristics of agility.

Murray: Yep. See, so I was right, Shane?

Shane: No, you’re still wrong. Cause basically all you’ve done is taken every pattern from agile and said you can be a project manager and adopt those patterns, which is true, but most people don’t. It waddles like a duck mate. It quacks like a duck. It smells like a duck. It shits like a duck. It’s a freaking duck. I could call it an elephant all you want, it’s still a duck.

Jem: Can I ask you a question though? So is it harmful that there is roles that are called agile project manager, and if so, how? If they are exhibiting these characteristics, then why does it matter? 

Shane: it is harmful because it’s lip service. You go onto any of those job boards, and you go and look at the Agile project manager title, and you look at the job description and you see command and control,

And Murray’s a bit of an oxymoron as always, and he reminds me of the argument we had with Michael about safe, Where Michael had to try and argue with us that safe was a good thing, and he used this argument the same that Murray’s using right now, which is Michael goes into an organization that’s doing safe and then he helps him adopt agility, and be successful. And what Murray in my head is saying is he goes into organizations doing a project and then he brings us agile ways of working to do a good outcome,

Yep. But that’s not what happens in most of the other world. That term project manager comes with a whole lot of antipas, a whole lot of expectations, a whole lot of behaviors, and sticking the word agile in front of it doesn’t change that. So just don’t do it. Use a different word. I don’t care if you don’t use the word agile anymore and you don’t use the word project manager and you come up with snorkel, let’s all become snorkelists or whatever the new word is. With people like PMI picking up dad, we’re seeing adaptive behavior going into that practice, and that’s a great thing. 

Murray: Why don’t we make it our mission to reeducate all the project managers and, help them become really agile and adaptive servant leaders? Why do we have to say they’re all assholes and need to be first against the war when the revolution comes? 

Shane: Because it doesn’t work. So, they’re not all assholes. But they’ve been trained for 20 or 30 years to work in a certain way, and it’s very very difficult to change the way you work.

Jem: And some people may say, hence why Scrum Master, is a great title cuz it’s ridiculous. In other words, if you hire a scrum master you’re not getting a project manager, which is something completely different. And I can take a step back, Shane and I can empathize as and actually identify a bit better what you’re saying. My views on safe are not a secret. And ironically, I like all the principles in safe. But the same problem that I see as safe is what I think you see of project management, which is, it comes with a philosophy and it’s, starting point puts you on the back foot because of the anti patterns. And it’s very easy for a person when their title is X or the philosophy is Y for you to start fulfilling that aspiration even though you are well intended. So from that point of view, I can see it. 

I can also see it this way with what Murray’s saying, there are old behaviors that we can’t change, certain generations gonna be really hard to change, but for the newcomers, for the newcomers that come in I teach a lot of certified Scrum Masterclass and I meet loads of new project managers and I say, Hey, why are you here? Well, Cuz I’d love to add the framework of Scrum to my boat.

And that’s an opportunity, that is an opportunity. So I can see what you mean by the harm in that it’s got a different aspiration, it’s a different view of the world. But that shouldn’t stop us from, educating and bringing people along that wanna come with us. And in fact, is it disciplined Agile? You said Scott, is it Scott’s work?

Shane: and Mark Lyons 

Jem: scott’s work is brilliant. What’s not to like. If we also argue another way, I remember there was a less transformation. I think it was JP Morgan. I read a case study years ago and overnight they got rid of a huge amount of project managers and then three months later they tried to hire all the project managers back because things went so bad. So I’m just mindful of demonizing the role and, discouraging people from adding more adaptive ways of working cuz it can only help us. But I’m also cognizant of the idea that agile project manager sounds like carnivore, vegan. So it felt a bit unfair, but maybe there’s a bit of truth to it. I’m just of flirting between the two.

Should I try a project management role and try and do what Murray’s seeing? Should I do a safe role. Am I being too reasonable?

Murray: Yeah I think that in the current market, people who are agile coaches should look at project management. I think a lot of ’em would make very good project managers. They’ll have a lot more influence. You are taken seriously when you are a project manager.

When you are an agile coach, you are not. Agile Coaches are seen as some sort of fluffy HR training person who is, the equivalent of a team lead. None of the executives are gonna take you seriously at all. But as a project manager, yeah, people take you very seriously. You work with general managers and executives all the time cause you are delivering an outcome that’s important to them and they’re counting on you.

Shane: So I’m not gonna agree with you. I’m never gonna agree with you on this one, but why don’t we do this? Why don’t we get rid of the title Agile Coach? Why don’t we get rid of the title of Product Owner? Why don’t we get rid of the title of Project Manager? And why don’t we just call them product managers? Responsible for an outcome to the organization, have some control over delivery, have some control over the work to be done. We still need coaches because we still need the team to be able to iterate the way they work. I think that’s a different skill and a different outcome.

It’s about making the team better versus the team actually delivering something. I think that’s as valuable as anything else. Just like I believe that pastoral care is the thing that we miss in Agile, that people that look after the team and the health of the team’s personal growth. When they have personal problems, they need somebody to help them. And that’s something that we’re missing. But yeah, why don’t we actually just move back to the product world because I see a project manager, a product manager adopting some of the good behaviors from a project manager and some of the good behaviors from a product owner.

Murray: I call myself a transformational program manager because I can do product management or project management, but whatever I’m doing, I’m gonna help the organization transform. I’m gonna help them build capability, transform the ways of working and get the outcome that they want. So that’s where I’ve settled on, cuz it’s somewhere that could be project or product. It’s a kind of crossover. 

Jem: A consultant can do all of these things.

Murray: Yeah. You could call yourself a consultant too.

Jem: Some people call themselves an agile coach after a couple of weeks, after an ICF coach qualification. Some people do the same thing with consulting. But a real consultant. I feel like that’s the end game for any developer or coach or engineering manager. Consulting captures all of this.

Murray: Yeah, esther Derby has a great model on this. Basically, a consultant can be responsible for outcomes and responsible for growth of capability. It includes coaching, teaching, mentoring, training, reviewing, being a hands-on expert and being a partner who actually delivers stuff. It’s a good model and that’s the consulting model that you can do all of those things depending on what people want. 

Jem: Yeah I I think that’s really cool. I’m just thinking here. Why would Murray call himself a, would you say

Murray: A transformational program manager. 

Jem: Yeah. Why would you call yourself that rather than a product manager? When people hear about program management and transformation, they think of someone owning capabilities, understands the agile stuff. 

If I was to sell myself as a consultant in a market, it certainly comes across as more short term than it would as an SM or a coach. So consultants enablers, aren’t they? You’re not there to necessarily stay there to do the work you enable you go. 

Shane: The other way to look at it is a consultant, somebody to ask you how the job should be done, writes it down, and then sells it to your boss. Any of those terms can be abused, we can see bad behavior, anti patterns come out. 

Jem: There’s a theme here? There’s a lot of terrible X out there. It’s not the title. I don’t think it’s the role necessarily. I get the aspiration and the philosophy and the perception it creates. But I think a really good agile coach and a really good project manager and a really good consultant can turn their hand to projects and products. It’s always way more about the practitioner than it is about the philosophy.

Murray: People and interactions over processes and tools. perhaps. We should probably go to summaries. 

Jem: Yeah. 

Murray: Shane, what a ya got?

Shane: For me, terminology is really important because it shows intent, it comes of a whole lot of behaviors and it’s very hard to change. So for me we can’t define what a project is versus what an agile iteration is, with any clarity, we never have been able to. I love the comment from, Products have a life cycle. They have a start, beginning, and the end. So they’re a project, and it’s damn, no, they’re not, but damn.

I think when we see the word project and we see the word project manager, it is typically bound by a whole bunch of antipatterns that don’t align with an agile way of working. And so we will see short-term behavior, short-term delivery focus, short-term cycles and that is an anti-pattern. We will see teams being formed to deliver that piece of work and then disbanded and don’t go onto any other bit to work with in that organization. And that is an anti-pattern. 

I think we’re seeing it changing. PMI have, acquired DAD and they’re starting to talk about adaptive projects and bringing that in, and I think that’s great. I think if they hadn’t done that before the manifesto came out, then actually we’d still be talking about projects.

So the adaption and iteration and changing the way they work is brilliant. Murray talked about, often in a project you are procuring an outcome from a vendor. You trying to move the risk from you to them. And we know that never works. You always still wear the risk. So again, that project behavior is an anti-pattern. Where do we deal with uncertainty, in a project, we find the uncertainty at the end and agile, we tend to deal with the uncertainty in the beginning.

I love the term that if you’re in a kitchen, you probably should know what a frying pattern is. You should probably have learned that hot oil will burn you, but you don’t have to be a master chef, so being on the field and having some knowledge. A coach should have knowledge of the domain because there is value in that they may not have intense skill or expertise in doing the work.

Agile, we tend to stand behind as leaders. Projects I tend to see people stand in front, again, an anti-pattern. The one Murray raised that we didn’t go onto was in a project you typically talk about doing a business case to get funding for the work. Whereas in an agile way of working, we have a permanent team and they just work on the next valuable thing. So a typical patent anti-pattern behavior there. 

But as always, it’s a robust discussion, and we can always take the Michael and safe approach, which is, safe’s a great way to help an organization change their way of the work. We go in there and we stop using safe. And I remember one of the first teams I worked with I went in to help them. And the owner the person that sponsored me in there, she said to me you can’t call it agile. And I’m like, why not? She said, we’ve tried Agile, it failed. So call this iterative. And I was like, yeah, it’s right. , I can live with that. If she would’ve said, call us a project back then, I would’ve said, yeah, okay, now I won’t.

I typically will not go and work for an organization that’s talking about projects and programs anymore. There’s a whole mindset and behavior and antipas that come with that term. And I’d rather just work with organizations that don’t use those terms and have those behaviors because I have more chance of helping that team be successful. 

So that’s my personal opinion. Murray, what do you got?

Murray: So this discussion wasn’t about are projects Agile. This discussion is about can you be an agile project manager? Not are all project managers agile, but can you be an agile project manager? And I think obviously you can be, cause I am one and I am very experienced as an agile coach and a project manager.

You can bring all of the agile practices and philosophies and values into project management, and they’re very helpful. Being a servant leader is an excellent way to get on well with people and get your team working really well together and producing great value for the organization.

And there’s a lot of things as a project manager you can do to help people. You can get them resources. You can help them resolve problems with other parts of the organization. So in some ways a project manager can be like a scrum master. 

But there are a lot of project managers who are not agile in any shape or form, including plenty who call themselves agile. There is a lot of really rubbish agile water scrum fall out there. Practically every company you go to now says, oh yeah, we do agile. What do you mean by that? Oh after we’ve gone through the planning stage and the design stage, when we’re in the build phase, we do build sprints before we go into the testing phase. That’s agile. We’ve got some scrum masters and we talk about epics and user stories, but it’s just not agile at all.

But on the other hand, you can apply the agile values and principles and frameworks without using the word agile at all. And it’s gonna seriously de-risk your project. Because you ask your team what are the biggest risks, let’s get them together on a risk backlog and make them part of our project. And we’ll do proof of concepts to resolve them early. We’ll learn from those and then we’ll change what we’re doing in our project. In our project, we’re gonna set it up, with the stakeholders from the beginning to be delivering on a goal, not delivering on a hundred page spec. 

That’s how I do it. So I’m saying you can do it and it’s very valuable, but I would say, there’s not many people like me, but I think there could be. There could be. I think a lot of agile coaches would be good project managers, and I think more of them should go into it instead of turning up their nose and saying they’re all bastards. 

Do you want to say anything Jem to close out?

Jem: Yeah. For the individual out there who’s gotta do what they gotta do in a tough market to pay the bills and figure it out. I think, you should be able to call yourself a roast potato if it gets you the job. I’ve got a hustlers mentality. I’m not judging the individual. I also don’t wanna make us feel comfortable as a community and an industry to start with an aspiration which already works against us. 

So can a project manager be agile and do those things? Absolutely. We’re seeing it with Murray, we’re seeing it. But do I want to go around and say it’s a bonafide term. No, because if we do that, I worry that we aren’t challenging the status quo and we’re not causing the healthy or useful disruption that we need to be able to create adaptive organizations.

So there is space for predictive and adaptive work. I get that, but I’m saying at two levels, do what you gotta do. Even if you’ve gotta take the project manager, scrum master role and you’ve gotta coach from the inside, figure it out and make it happen. But just know this, there should be an aspiration to call the things what they were intended to bring the philosophy to life. I’m not gonna make you feel bad about trying to, get in there and make an impact. I don’t think that’s fair, but as a community, I’m also not gonna make you feel comfortable.

Murray: Yep. All right, Jem where can people see you? 

Jem: You can find me on LinkedIn. I’ve also got a little forum called the agile I’ve got a YouTube as well. 

Murray: And people can hire you to do coaching and training. 

Jem: Yeah, I do fractional work, like coaching. I do consulting. Actually not coaching. I wanna make that clear. Coaching, scrum mastering. I teach for the Scrum Alliance. you could reach out and if I can be of any help to you. Just nothing safe. I like to live on the edge. 

Murray: All right, Jem. Thanks for coming on. We appreciate it.

Jem: Thank you. Great chat. 

Murray: That was the No Nonsense Agile Podcast from Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson. If you’d like help to create high value digital products and services, contact That’s evolve with a zero. Thanks for listening.