Author: Paul Oppong

Paul Oppong is a management, strategy, and business transformation consultant, specializing in digital transformation and program management. He helps clients navigate the ever-changing landscape of business Technology, using his expertise to deliver evidence-based solutions that exceed their performance expectations. Paul Oppong has a global outlook and has assisted organizations in both the public and private sectors, including some of Africa’s largest financial institutions and Australian government agencies, in realizing the benefits of their transformational investments through project and portfolio management. For more information visit www.pauloppong.com

The Project Manager is not a Scrum Master

A common question that arises is whether the Project Manager should be a Scrum Master.

Project Managers are sometimes expected to simply take up the role of Scrum Master when their organisation moves to taking an agile approach. This may well occur without the Project Manager being provided any training to take on this new, and quite distinct role. However, a recent survey by Scrum.org found that fewer than one third of organisations (31%) assign the role of Scrum Master to a Project Manager, and there are very good reasons for this. There are a wide variety of different people that could potentially take the role of Scrum Master, depending on the organisation, and it does not have to sit with the Project Manager role. Rather, the Scrum Master title should sit with the person who can do the best job of it. The following explains why the Project Manager is typically not a Scrum Master.

Different Skillsets and Activities

By the nature of the work that Project Managers and Scrum Masters do, the two are not particularly closely aligned, even if it seems at first glance that they are. Managing a project is not the same as being a Scrum Master. Scrum Masters have the role of mentoring, teaching, coaching and facilitating, while the role of the Project Manager is to ensure that the project runs to time and budget. This means that the Scrum Master relies on more of the so-called “soft skills” involved with helping people to move forward, while the Project Manager takes a more methodical, and arguably more of a “hard skills” approach. While both roles have an interest in ensuring a high level of team performance and driving efficiency within the team, the ways in which they go about this are very different. The Scrum Master facilitates and coaches, while the Project Manager assesses risk and manages issues and conflicts. 
Looking closer at what Project Managers and Scrum Masters do in terms of activities, differences can be seen here too. Project Managers manage projects, while the role of the Scrum Master is to is to make sure the rules of the Scrum are followed and that the Scrum Framework is adhered to. Project Managers work across all areas of the project spectrum, while Scrum Masters will largely only focus on the three areas of scope management, quality management and resource management. The Project Manager can commonly be responsible for a very large team, while Scrum Masters work within scrum teams which can be quite a lot smaller. Project Managers also plan regular project meetings as needed, but the Scrum Master will hold a meeting every day for the scrum. Even the emphasis of the work is different, since Project Managers schedule and plan, and narrow in on costs, while Scrum Masters are concerned with the value of the product. Importantly, Project Managers can serve in any industry, delivering projects. However, Scrum Masters only work in the IT industry, or similar related field. As can be seen therefore, there are both subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the skills and activities of Project Managers and Scrum Masters. 

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The Issue of Control

Ultimately, the Project Manager has a role that is focused on control. Project Managers are responsible for project costs, time spent, scope, quality of the end result, stakeholder management, risk and more. If the Project Manager is unsuccessful, they are accountable for this, and they will usually be blamed for issues. This means that the role of the Project Manager has to be based on control. This is achieved through each of the different stages of the project, such as its initiation, planning, design, running, monitoring, change control and even the final evaluation. On the other hand, the Scrum Master does not have an emphasis on control at all. Their role is ensuring everyone understands what their role is in the Scrum, getting rid of impediments, coaching people and ensuring that Scrum events occur. Importantly, they encourage the team to self-organise. This is not the same at all as the level of control that is involved with ensuring that project is managed effectively. 
As a Project Manager, being controlling is a good thing. It means that projects get delivered to time and to budget. But being controlling by nature is hard to change, and Scrum Masters are not controlling. It is very difficult for a person that is used to leading in a command and control style to adopt the very different, softer leadership style of the Scrum Master. 

What I still want my Project Manager to be the Scrum Master?

If, having considered the evidence above, you still believe that your Project Manager is the right person to be the Scrum Master, then there are some important steps you should take. You should review the experience they have working in the Scrum, and additionally provide some Scrum training. Perhaps most critical of all, you should determine if your Project Manager has energy, enthusiasm and interest for putting the Scrum in place. If they do not, then the initiative will be likely to fail, because any effective Scrum needs a great Scrum Master who is interested in and committed to making it work. The good news is, it is possible to learn how to be a great Scrum Master, but you must ensure that the passion to do so is there in the first place for this to succeed.

Summary

As has been seen, despite common misconceptions, the Project Manager is not the Scrum Master. The roles are different and require skillsets and activities that might be considered conflicting in nature. This is perhaps why less than a third of organisations assign the Project Manager to be Scrum Master. This is not to say that your Project Manager cannot be Scrum Master under any circumstances – they can – but the circumstances and level of interest have to be just right to get it to work. 

The Agile Executive – Marriage Made in Heaven Or Just Staying For The Kids?

Being an agile executive is not as easy as it might look at first to some.

Working in an agile environment challenges some leaders immensely, as the way of operating is quite different than may have been experienced in the past. Some executives relish in it; others find it harder. This means that in some cases for the agile executive it can be a marriage made in heaven, while in other cases it can feel like “just staying for the kids”. However, agile is the way forward for many organisations, and the agile executive is an essential component of the overall agile team, so it is best to work towards making this a marriage that everyone wants to be in. Let us have a look at the difficulties that new agile executives have in adjusting, and the value that they can add if they approach agile effectively.

When the Executive is an Impediment to Agile

When I have visited organisations to consult on agile, I have observed that the agile executive may often feel that he/she does not have much of a role to play in agile. This is inaccurate, and the agile executive most certainly should be involved. Just because people are empowered within teams does not mean that the executive can sit back and put their feet up. Stepping back too much can mean that the project does not have the support it needs throughout the organisation. It can also mean that the culture of the company is not properly adjusted in the way that it needs to be for agile to work effectively.

Another challenge with some executives is not adjusting well to feedback. An important aspect of agile, is the sharing of feedback, which team members and managers need to feel able to do. This sometimes means that people will “manage upward”, providing feedback to executives. For some, this may feel rather uncomfortable. However, if others are fearful of the repercussions of offering feedback, or feel that there is no point because it simply will not be heard, this is a problem. The agile executive needs to be able to open up and let that feedback in.

For a newbie agile executive who is used to a command and control management style, learning the new ways of agile is likely to pose some challenges. It will may feel like a considerable adjustment, to move away from the old ways of doing things. Traditional managers may find themselves wanting to step in too much, or to try and swing project management back to more of a waterfall approach where they felt more in control of what was going on. For these managers, agile may feel as if the marriage is “just staying for the kids”. Yet there are plenty of opportunities to make this a marriage made in heaven, by changing how things are done, and this may lead to the executive enjoying a more rewarding role overall.


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When is the Agile Executive Adding Value?

Agile executives have a critical role to play in the agile environment. First and foremost they need to drive transformational change throughout the organisation, so that everyone adapts to the new “way we do things around here.” There has to be cultural change to achieve this, and it must start at the top, with the executive. If the agile executive talks the talk but does not walk the walk, problems will ensue, because people tend to follow what others do rather than what they say. Saying what needs to be done and acting in the same way is essential. Importantly, transparency has a core role to play within this, and executives need to embrace this with their own behaviour. Sharing an inspirational vision and setting stretching but achievable goals are also important in this context, so that expectations are clearly set, and people know what they need to work towards.

Building the right culture within the organisation needs to focus on the behaviours that will build software (or other products/services) that will work, rather than having too much bureaucracy around project management. There needs to be less of a focus on the rigid following of processes, and rather, an emphasis on delivering a product that the customer can look at and feedback on as soon as possible. This gives the organisation the best chance of delivering satisfaction to the customer in the longer run, and less chance of the product not working in the way the customer intended at a stage that is very late in the development process.

The agile leader also has a key role in sponsorship of the agile activities. This should not be underestimated as it provides support for the agile project within the organisation. The agile executive can be a facilitator in ensuring that teams work together effectively, for example. By focusing on the big picture rather than the minute details, the executive can help to ensure that high level obstacles to the project are broken down. Another key activity is making sure that resources can be made available as needed so the project does not get impeded. These kinds of activities can smooth the project along its way. There is also an element of coaching involved to help the team members and leaders achieve their goals on the agile project. These are all important ways in which the agile executive could and should work to ensure they drive a marriage made in heaven.

Summary

Executives have an essential role to play in agile, which is often underestimated. They need to be transparent and champion the agile cause. They also have to support the agile team and managers so that the project can be executed successfully. Relying on a traditional command and control style will not work in the agile environment, and nor will doing nothing. Executives that want a smoother transformation to agile will step up and lead the way by example, showing employees what they expect of them through their own behaviour. This type of leadership will help ensure the agile transformation the greatest possible chance of success.

Beyond the Resume – 5 Tips to Hire the Right Project Manager

The right project manager can be the real difference between success and failure of your project despite the governance structures.

Unfortunately, even the most experienced managers often make blunders when hiring. The wrong PM will drain your time, money, and resources. Even with the best intentions in the world, hiring managers still miss out way too many things during the hiring process. Look beyond the resume and use these five tips to hire the right candidate;

#1 – Recognize the Critical Behavioural Traits

The existing education system and an indifferent interviewing process make it a little challenging to find the right kind of person for the job. There’s a chance a candidate might check all the boxes from their resume, but is unable to gel with team members. Other than the essential skills and the requisite experience, there are other important factors like the “right behavioral traits” that need to be considered when looking for a new project manager. Most job listings only talk about certain objectives that have almost become redundant. Words like adaptable, positive, passionate, proactive have become useless with no real meaning left.

It’s vital to ensure that organizations create a list of behavioral traits that are required for the specific position. For instance, some posts might require someone passionate and a go-getter, whereas other positions might require a person with a high degree of patience. Do some homework and figure out what is essential for the job. Speak to a former colleague or employer of theirs. Don’t hire a generic “misfit” PM who is not suited and unable to earn respect from clients and other team members. It would be a disaster.

#2 – Choose Relevant Experience Over Degrees and Certifications

If you happen to find a candidate that seems suitable for the job, try and think beyond the need for redundant industry certifications. In my experience, there have been many great PMs who’ve got the most suited experience without any proper industry certification. Even the most certified PMs cannot guarantee 100% efficiency on a project. There is a possibility that some of these most “certified” project managers have never delivered a quality project. Look beyond just the badges and numbers. However, before you’re about to finalize the candidate for a position, spend enough time carefully verifying their credentials, especially experience and the working style.


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#3 – Look for Enthusiasm and Passion in The Interview

At the risk of sounding like every other article available on the Internet, this is still a relevant pointer. The role of a project manager can be overwhelming. To perform, a project manager must be focused and deeply vested in the daily drills. They must love what they do. While interviewing a candidate, make sure that you’re able to gauge the requisite passion needed for the profession in general. Any candidate that showcases laziness, tiredness, and even excessive nervousness should be dealt with extreme caution. Be careful. Be aware. If they’re not able to bring out the passion for the job in an interview, you should probably move on to the next candidate. Project Managers need a high degree of energy and enthusiasm to stay driven to serve their clients best. Look for the intrinsic fire in their belly that allows them to stay inspired and focused.

#4 – Articulate Specific Methodology Required

With competition and even recession in some industries, hiring managers often try and choose a generalist who can be expanded into multiple roles. This is usually done to save costs. However, the half-hearted approach of hiring a person who is the jack of all trades and master of none can backfire if you need a specific methodology in your organization. Rather than asking a candidate about every project management methodology they know about, ask them about the specific methods you want them to use. It’s good practice to mention the same methodology in the job listing as well. This can help reduce the number of applicants and make the hiring process more efficient. Don’t try and find a person that you expect to “adjust” when the time arises. Ask what you need at the time of the interview, to avoid problems down the line.

#5 – Create The Right Job Listing

Putting the right job listing out is something that most organizations struggle with. You need to be extremely original in your listing. This effectively means that the listing needs to be informational, to the point, and highly specific to your needs. You can also use Google forms in the listing to ask some specific questions that will make it easier to sort through the applications. Always stay away from those template job descriptions that sound like a copy-paste act that doesn’t inspire trust among the most qualified candidates. In a nutshell, get specific!

Summary

People generally don’t work the same job for 30 years the way they use to. This means that while you can expect a Project Manager to stick around for a long time, you can’t realistically expect someone to be around for decades. You might have to go through this roller coaster of hiring, retaining, or even firing in some rare instances. If you keep these five pointers in mind and hire a project manager who is suited to your organization, you’ll see less attrition and more productivity.

Stay clear about what you need from the beginning. Highlight the precise goals that your organization is planning to achieve by the end of a defined period. Give them a plan of action and the right opportunity to rise to the challenge in their role. The process might seem like an overkill in the beginning, but you’ll fall in love with it in due time. Is this a fool proof plan for hiring a Rockstar? Certainly not. The best you can do is to put a process in place to get the most suited person for the job.

Are you practicing Agile or mini-waterfalls?

When I go into organisations that claim they are using agile, I sometimes see mini waterfalls instead.

This is not altogether surprising when you consider that almost 90% of organisations report that their company works on projects in an agile manner – there are bound to be some misinterpretations. However, agile is a very specific approach to project management, and one that mini waterfalls cannot form a part of. Let us look at the differences between the waterfall and the agile approach, and warning signs of mini waterfalls developing, to understand what can be done to rectify this problem.

What is Waterfall?

The waterfall approach is named as such, because the project management process represents the flow of a waterfall through the various stages of activities. At the top of the waterfall is the requirements gathering stage, followed by design, development, integration, then testing, training and roll out. The approach is considered highly structured and managed, and it does work well for certain types of projects – in particular those that are unlikely to have evolving requirements and where there is certainty about the end goal.

In a waterfall development approach, all of the analysis and requirement building is done up front. This is followed by a stage where all the design is done. Then the development is all done in one go. Later on there is a stage when all of the testing is done.

What is Agile?

Agile differs significantly from the waterfall approach to project management. It evolved in the face of continuous business change. It is helpful for when there are fewer certainties and when business requirements may adapt over time, or may not be well known, or both. When projects are run in an agile manner, they are iterative. Each stage is run incrementally and there is a lot of collaboration between people in varied teams.

When project work is operating in an agile manner, all the different work streams happen at the same time and they all conclude at the same time. Analysis, design, coding and testing all operate concurrently, and they all finish together at the end of the sprint. This is quite distinct from taking a waterfall type of solution to project management. Another important difference is that in agile, teams are self-organising. This does not occur in the waterfall project management approach.


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Mini Waterfall Red Flags

It is all too common an error that agile teams start operating in the manner of mini waterfalls and continue calling it “agile”. Fortunately, there are warning signs that teams can look out for to avoid this scenario happening. One trap that teams may often fall into is having the team work in silos. This is advantageous from the perspective of some developers as they have much more control over what they are doing). However, it does lead to mini waterfalls. This is because while it may seem efficient, it results in a longer wait for testing results because testing starts happening after development.

Another key warning sign is when small aspects of the project (user stories) start becoming more than just short placeholders. When user stories start having their own specification documents, this is not agile. Everything starts getting documented out for the user story, and the development is no longer iterative. Again, the testers then start working one stage behind the developers and not in the same iteration. What happens is, an iterative waterfall approach starts to build up – with each user story becoming a mini waterfall project in its own right. However, this is not what it means to be agile.

Other mini waterfall warning signs include the situation where only certain parts of agile seem to actually be going on in the project. An example scenario might be that the team is self-organising and collaborating across disciplines, but that design has evolved to start happening at the beginning of the sprint and testing at the end. The fact that the team is self-organising and collaborative may throw people off realising that this is a mini waterfall in disguise, but that is what it is.

While mini waterfalls may feel comfortable for those working within them, the main problem with them is that the user will not get what they want. Not only that, but the timeline for project delivery starts to drag out. This will be dissatisfying for the customer.

True Agile Project Management

True agile project management is a way of operating that is embraced throughout the organisation. Simply telling teams they are going to start working in an agile way, but not having leadership on board with this, will not lead to agile working. Traditional project management needs to be set aside, and the scrum must be used.

In true agile project management, planning does not occur upfront the way it does in a waterfall system. As soon as planning and design starts happening at the outset again, the team are working in a waterfall, albeit often a mini one. Tight and short feedback loops are required for agile to be effective. This helps the project team to actually build a product that will meet what the user/customer actually wanted, because users can give their thoughts much earlier during user stories. It is this process of continuous feedback that helps the project more quickly evolve into an end product that will meet the user/customer’s needs.

To move back from mini waterfalls to agile development, stop looking at the development in phases of requirement production, design, development and test. Instead, go back to considering one aspect of what the user wants, developing a small part of this and checking in to see if it is right or how it could be better, and then continue building iteratively until the user is satisfied.

Summary

Where agile is not fully embraced through the organisation, it is possible for so-called “agile” teams to revert to the old ways and start developing mini waterfalls within sprints. This is detrimental to the project because it not only extends project timelines, but it means that user feedback is gathered later on, leading to more work to produce something they actually wanted. True agile occurs when all aspects of the project happen at the same time including analysis, design, coding and testing. Ultimately, the aim is to deliver value to the customer as often as possible.

Five Smart Interview Questions When Hiring A Project Manager

With so many expectations, a project manager is such a prominent position.

The never-ending demands and grind make it a critical designation that not everyone is cut out for. It requires preparedness, execution, accountability, and leadership ability.
That’s why choosing the right candidate for the job is an inherently complex task with no easy solutions. Even an hour-long screening interview can prove redundant if there is no surprise factor and candidates feed canned answers to your repetitive questions. They need to be challenged. In an ideal world, you would love to observe how each of these candidates perform in the workplace in the face of a tough situation. Regretfully we don’t have that option, but you can resort to something that seems to work well in most situations.

You need to ask hard interview questions to identify the right professional for your next project. Questions that help you draw their personalities out – while you carefully listen to what they have to say, and how they say it. Questions they can’t rehearse for – thereby making the entire process challenging, rather than just another box-ticking exercise. With that in mind, here is a list of five smart interview questions that will help you select the best candidate for the position of a project manager. Some of these questions are sure to trip people up.

Question #1: If we provide you with a new project, what will be your approach to manage it, and how would you present results?

On the surface, it seems like a simple question. However, what works here is this – It’s a process-based question. So as an interviewer, you get to venture inside their brain, giving you a quick peek into the kind of work culture they’ve experienced in the past. This is probably the best way to understand the blueprint of their ideal approach, which can help you assess whether they would blend with your organization.
The second part of the question referring to the “presentation of results,” helps you understand how they would handle a standard project delivery. You also get to know about their presentation style and the perceived involvement of different team members in the process. In a nutshell, this is the perfect open-ended question to understand a candidate’s personality, work style, team management attributes, and their most typical approach to fresh challenges.

Question #2 – What if we assign you a complex project that is already running behind schedule? How would you manage it and bring it back on track?

This question tests their creativity and how well they can formulate a hypothesis. Just try and understand how they plan to maintain the level of quality without creating any undue pressure on other team members. Notice whether the candidate is willing to negotiate for more time or resources with the upper management.
Not all PMs are created equal. So, if you don’t like one specific approach or the way someone handled this imaginary problem, you are welcome to move on.


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Question #3 – What’s the nature of the communication style with your team members?

Here’s a cold hard fact. PM’s that communicate well with their team members achieve far more than the rest. The nature of this question would help you understand whether they are aware of the importance of communication mechanisms and how that affects their team members. This is a prime indicator of how they would be able to manage the difficult conversations as and when the situation arises. If you don’t get a satisfying response, it’s quite likely that candidate would fail to deliver in the real world as well.

Question #4 – Share your experience of when you were responsible for training others on any one aspect of project management.

They say great leaders and great trainers have a lot in common with each other. That’s not entirely difficult to understand since good project managers are also known to be the big picture thinkers that influence major decisions in an organization. Holding such an influential position, most PMs become great communicators. That’s why the art of training, coaching, or mentoring should come naturally to them. If the candidates share an experience where they were in the position to coach one of their team members, take it as a positive signal. This means they’re good at guiding other team members to success (as compared to a one-dimensional PM, known for giving orders.)

Question #5 – If you’re allowed to design a dream job, what would you choose as general metrics to determine if a project is on track?

We know that managing a project involves far too many moving parts and variables. This question allows you to listen to how they would design the ideal metrics and judge their ability to delegate, organize, and manage assets in a hypothetical situation. This is an excellent way to judge one’s domain knowledge and skills, as well. Don’t forget to analyse whether their answer is based on the in-depth understanding of the domain and what metrics they choose to ignore because that will reveal their experience and knowledge of the industry.

Summary

Given that hiring, training, and coaching employees are such a time-consuming process, asking these carefully devised questions can help you decide the best fit for your organization. Obviously, there is no right, wrong, or inappropriate answer to these questions. However, it gives you a fair idea of what a candidate wants from the position.

Here’s a bonus tip. Don’t forget to reverse the table and allow time in the end for candidates to ask you questions. This is a great way to understand what matters to them. Their own words will also help you decipher whether they have the correct mindset to succeed as a project manager in your organization. The basic idea is to create a challenging interview environment where candidates can showcase their business acumen along with the soft skills needed for the job.