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Putting Project Management in its Place: the Business Agile Perspective

by Donna Fitzgerald  |  September 21, 2016  |  13 Comments

For the last 20 years certain professional societies have stressed the importance of every organization understanding the value of project management.  Apparently the theory was that organizations needed to already believe in the value project management before a PM could actually deliver value.  The concept of believe first, see value later is coming under attack in IT. Many organizations are embracing the notion that a scrum master can provide all of the value of a PM with virtually none of the paperwork.  Of course this isn’t true but if we aren’t careful about how we as PM professionals respond to this challenge there is a real possibility of the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater if we aren’t careful.

With this situation in mind I’d like to suggest that there are two things we as a global community need to start doing immediately.

The first is to reject the myth that organizations need to embrace the value of project management for its own sake.  All organizations already embrace the concept of leadership in achieving results. For whatever reason we seemed to have missed the power of this assumption. I was once speaking with a CEO about why he might want to invest in hiring some PMs since by doing so they could provide him with real time decision making in order to get things done. Upon hearing this he excitedly turned to the CIO and said “Now that’s the kind of person I do want you to hire, not whatever else you were talking about.”

I freely admit I’ve never understood the need to sell PM.  It’s a disciplined approach to getting complex and risky work done.  There are lots of group processes to ensure that everyone is marching in the same direction and there are real time practices that deal with when to apply “control” to keep things going along a planned course of action and when to embrace “change” and tack the sales to keep the project on course.  The value of project management is measured by results.  The practices of project management either helps the team and the stakeholders achieve those results or they are just bureaucratic wastes of time.

The second is to practice the discipline of project management quietly.  Our “back office” practices should stay in the back office.  Either a schedule is necessary or it’s not.  Either a definition of scope is necessary or it’s not.  If we, individually, can’t discuss with clarity the reason why collectively thinking through how we are going to manage an important piece of work that will cost a lot of money – then maybe we’re the wrong person to lead the team.  The paperwork and the process has never been the focus of real project management.  To be blunt 90% of it is CYA and bureaucracy, and neither of those practices are capable of moving at digital speed.

If anything I’ve written here sounds difficult to do or harsh in its tone given your current circumstance then please don’t take it as criticism.  Take it instead as a warning that things are changing and consider what you can do to get ahead of the curve.

One concrete thing you can do immediately is go listen to Mike Hanford’s webinar on “Where Your PPM Career Won’t Be in 2020”.  A second concrete step is plan on joining us in Orlando or London for the 2017 PPM Summit.   While we are still finalizing the agenda for next year we anticipate the focus will be on the evolution of PPM in the digital age.

In the meantime I invite you to participate in the dialogue by leaving a comment.

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Category: agile  business-agile  pmo  

Donna Fitzgerald
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Donna Fitzgerald focuses her research on strategies and approaches for using program and portfolio management as a way to create unique business value. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Putting Project Management in its Place: the Business Agile Perspective

  1. Sara Nunez says:

    Great article. Agility starts with a culture that allow team empowerment and situational leadership. The people factor is in the center of the approach you take. ;).

  2. Donna Fitzgerald says:

    Great point Sara and very much at the heart of what I’m talking about. The shift in the PMI talent triangle really begins to acknowledge that the “technical” stuff is insufficient by itself.

  3. Donna Fitzgerald says:


    I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for being a speaker at last year’s summit. I’m glad you could share your experience.

  4. The semi – permanent nature of transformation efforts, over the next several years, will make intuition, flexibility and responsiveness more important qualities for project managers than a “certification”, or owning a trunk-full of past work-breakdown-structures.

  5. Barry Ryan says:

    A very interesting article.

  6. Matt Ipri says:

    So much of it comes from the baggage that comes alongside the terms themselves, which seems pretty unwarranted sometimes. The negative connotations of “PM”, “PMO”, and “project manager” are vast and often lead to the automatic dismissal of the big, strategic benefits they can deliver. We all need to work together to re-focus the story on the strategy execution and decision making power these disciplines and people make possible!

  7. Donna Fitzgerald says:

    You are so right. One organization I know of has a large strategic portfolio of work. They know they need to manage their efforts but they are so focused on following the project playbook — that the actual desired business outcomes are getting somewhat lost in the shuffle. Most organizations can partially execute but closing the strategy execution gap requires different thinking.

  8. Robert Wood says:

    Interesting idea. Well worth a discussion. Perhaps we should be promoting ourselves as Project Leaders, and considering Project Management as a set of tools that we use to achieve results.

  9. Absolutely! If an organization’s managers don’t get the idea that when it invests money in initiatives it expects to get what it paid for, when it expected to have it, or at least know in advance what was happening, then there is little hope for the organization. Eventually it will run out of money (unless it’s taxpayer-funded).

  10. Bill Duncan says:

    PMI shouldn’t get too much credit for their Talent Triangle: it’s basically an adaptation of IPMA’s Individual Competence Baseline which has been around since the early 1990s.

  11. Donna Fitzgerald says:

    I hope I didn’t sound too negative. When I speak with clients, organizations are making headway on their strategic projects BUT to some extent it’s despite their project governance efforts. I think it’s important to differentiate what any given PM can and would do to deliver their project and what the governance and “must comply with audit” overhead does to drive them into what we are now saying is dysfunctional behavior. As I said things are improving — it will just be a little bumpy during the transition.

  12. Great project managers are worth their weight in gold but the issue is driven mainly by certification (revenues). These revenues have triggered an explosion of add-on aspects to bloat a subject from its sound fundamentals to the state we sadly see today.

  13. Donna Fitzgerald says:


    The PMBoK Guide has grown with every version since the version that Bill Duncan and his co-authors wrote in 96. In theory every version has been an “improvement” and an attempt to be more prescriptive about what a PM should do. This approach runs counter to the fact that what we need, as you pointed out, are the individuals who are talented enough to take the general principles and apply them, as required, to a unique undertaking (i.e. project). Luckily, as the need for PMs in IT begins to go down because of agile and other changes – I think the quality of the PMs remaining in the field will begin to go up.

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