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Business Agile and the Future of Project Management

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Every year, Agile Alliance puts on one of the most important project management conferences for software developers: Agile2017. The Orlando-based program is host to 2,500 attendees, including project management celebrities such as Lisa Crispin, David Wallace, Jez Humble, Em Campbell-Pretty, and Natalie Warnert‏.

Vanguard theory inspires flurried conversations between developers, QAs, project managers, and other Agile enthusiasts (the bulk of program participants). I listen, hoping to discover theories pushing the industry—and its tools—into its next iteration.

I’m a foreigner in this world, where the men’s line for the bathroom stretches across the conference hall while women bounce in and out of their stalls, where a 20-year-old with aspirations of becoming an astronaut is a keynote speaker, and where visual aids like this make perfect sense to a majority of parties:

Agile oversimplified

Blue represents the “thinking” and “reviewing” part of Agile, whereas red represents “work.” Note that “thinking” is heavily emphasized before “work” begins. For those unfamiliar with Agile, it’s a series of principles that emphasize continuous improvement, people over processes, and adaptive planning, most commonly applied to software development.

As an analyst—not a programmer, project manager, QA, or product owner—I feel the twinge of “otherness.” Not only do I have a different vocation from most attendees, but I’m also short, female, and young—to the point where I am likely one of the youngest people attending this conference. I practice my straight face in the mirror (smiling too much can make you look incompetent), pull my shoulders back to appear a quarter inch taller, and wrap my hair into a tight, no-nonsense bun. My name tag says “Gartner.” I wouldn’t want a moment of my own technical ignorance to detract from the brand.

In full costume and persona, I navigate the conference. While I don’t have a coding background, I’ve spent the past four years writing about the project management industry and project management software. I came here hoping that my lack of experience as a programmer wouldn’t hamstring my ability to pick up on new trends influencing Agile tools.

It doesn’t.

In this piece, I will cover not only how project management tools are changing, but what driving forces are prompting those changes. The biggest driver is “business Agile,” or an application of the project management framework to the whole of a company’s function. The implications are massive and thoroughly explored in this piece.

 

The future of project management software

Project management is going through a metamorphosis, one where code matters less, people matter more, and psychology, ethnography, and philosophy displace management training, formal methodology, and reporting metrics as cornerstones driving the field.

I gleefully hug my liberal arts degree.

Sensitivity to the human condition—to personal fallibility, to the power of communication, to how people understand their place among their peers, coworkers, and competitors—is now the unspoken driving factor in project and product development tools.

There’s a newfound emphasis on stories instead of storyboards, real people over personas, and long-term visions instead of sprints. And as the humanization of project, portfolio, and product management starts burrowing its roots, corresponding software industries (project management software, project portfolio management software, and product management software) all follow suit.

The VersionOne and CollabNet merger personifies many of the industry’s changes

“Our customers were already asking for [the merger] before it happened.”

Robert Holler, VersionOne’s CEO, sits on the conference floor Monday evening; to his right and left, Thomas Hooker and Eric Robertson—both CollabNet senior leaders—nod in agreement. Even though they announced the merger only a few hours prior, Hooker adds that he’s already heard feedback from CollabNet customers. “They’re excited; they see they now have a full solution.”

The merger between VersionOne and CollabNet represents the shift in project management toward fewer silos and greater conglomeration between internal tech teams—not unlike DevOps’ viral growth over the past eight years (can you believe that the process was just founded in 2009)?

What customers were asking for—and are now praising with the merger—is the availability of a true end-to-end software strategy, delivery, and deployment tool—a unified system that provides context to every decision made between ideation and execution.

The “full solution” to which Holler refers is the resultant synchronization between tools.

CollabNet and VersionOne offer complementary features. Together, they offer a holistic software development solution.

I see this merger as a reflection of many trends in the project management software space including amalgamated enterprise tools and increased investment in giving customers choice with their software experience. But none are so pronounced as the Agile mindset permeating into business decisions—and not just in IT departments.

In other words, project management isn’t just trending towards Agile, but the entire business world is.

Agile is the future of business, and Agile means a softer, better business community

To understand the significance represented in the merger, consider the why behind CollabNet and VersionOne’s union.

Remember:

Both products’ customers were already asking for the other’s features.

Businesses are already interested in investing in merging their IT departments. And that’s a key facet that’s driving the DevOps movement. Just as Agile enthusiasts proselytize, getting the right people communicating on the right teams supersedes formal strategic, development, and deployment processes.

Until recently, IT departments were largely siphoned off by internal business goals. However, in a true customer-first Agile business world, the end product should be the focus of the whole team, not just those in charge of deployment.

That means that the silos that exist today are disappearing; VersionOne and CollabNet are simply reacting to those market forces.

And they aren’t the only businesses taking notice.

Similar mergers and acquisitions are happening across the project management software industry

It’s no secret that communication features have attracted end users to project management software. For example, in 2015 (a lifetime ago in this space), 32% of project management software buyers used real-time chat features very frequently. I hypothesize that alongside the meteoric rise of Slack and Slack alternatives, that figure has doubled—likely more—in the past two years.

The leaders behind project management software have taken notice, leading to a flurry of acquisitions. While certainly not a comprehensive list, take a quick glance at some of the deals over the past five years. While market forces certainly played a role in these acquisitions, what’s particularly interesting are the feature sets attracting acquirers—almost all are ones that optimize teamwork and personal productivity.

The trends here don’t just point to the future of project management, but the future of business itself: a business world with consolidated teams, greater internal emphasis on the customer, and competitiveness stemming from agility—even more so than efficiency.

Agile ideas are so infectious that the business world is on the cusp of massive adoption

“Business Agile” is a phrase that has quickly become 2017’s Business Term of the Year (an honor concocted solely for the purpose of this post).

A quick keyword search on sites like The Wall Street Journal, CIO, and Boston Business Journal shows little to no reporting on the term until early 2017. Then, in February, the first-ever Business Agility Conference took place in New York City, and like an office glitter bomb’s remains, “business Agile” started to appear everywhere.

For example, Donna Fitzgerald of Gartner first put “business Agile” on the project and portfolio management Hype Cycle in July 2016, just seven months before the conference.

She noted, “We believe adoption of business Agile should be faster than Agile software development. The business units aren’t locked into any equivalent of a Waterfall framework.”

And fast adoption it was; the latest Gartner project and portfolio management Hype Cycle, released the last week of July 2017, surged “business Agile” from an “emerging” to “adolescent” trend, demarcating that the business impact would be “transformational.”

(Both Hype Cycle articles are only available to Gartner clients.)

Software and cultural trends also contribute to business Agile’s accelerated buildup

Enthusiasm from practitioners is certainly pushing Agile outside the confines of IT, but technological and cultural innovations are also emboldening businesses to take the risk to change their business mindset.

For example, artificial intelligence, while still nascent in its capabilities, is increasingly automating many common coordination tasks. As Anders Wallgren of Electric Cloud tells me, such technology helps project managers move beyond the “glorified secretary” daily humdrums.

That trend—which also extends beyond project management into any area where artificial intelligence is able to play a role—creates the space in business for increased emphasis on nuance and understanding. Interpersonal skills can’t fall victim to automation, making emotional intelligence spike in value as a skillset.

As Agile’s people-first philosophy naturally syncs with “hard” skills’ displacement, influential cultural shifts are also priming the business sector for adoption.

For example, Gallup’s research on Millennials finds that Millennials want consistent feedback for personal development. Gallup’s analysis explains that Millennials, “feel indifferent about their job and company… Many Millennials likely don’t want to switch jobs, but their companies are not giving them compelling reasons to stay.”

Yet for the Millennials who meet with their managers regularly (several times a month), 44% report engagement at work—a huge jump from the 29% general engagement rate among all Millennial workers. Millennials crave iterative personal development and consistent, transparent communication—all Agile values.

Not only that, but several Agile value are driving business literature. For example, a quick glance at the Harvard Business Review’s most popular articles include titles like, “Good Leaders Are Good Learners,” “When to Solve Your Team’s Problems, and When to Let Them Sort It Out,” and “How to Set More Realistic Growth Targets.”

(#NoEstimates, anyone?)

As of now, Agile values are entering the business world on a modular level, with high interest in each of its twelve founding principles. Leaders are already snapping each piece into place. And in carefully considering Agile values—even if they don’t call them that yet—the Agile business paradigm steps forward.

Business Agile: a theory ripe for proper execution

Seeking to find what others had to say about the future of project management and business Agility, I speak with a host of people at Agile2017. The majority of responses are agreeable to the idea that business Agile will likely redefine the project manager role—most pointed to a role transformation to product owner.

But some see the bigger picture: how businesses can thrive with an Agile mentality.

Dave West, the CEO of Scrum.org, and I eagerly exchange ideas about business Agile and the future of project managers. (Scrum is an Agile method—a process derived from Agile’s ideals.) We touch on higher philosophical ideals like “just enough” freedom, safety in the American workplace, and throwing the middle finger to terms like “resource management.”

“They’re people!” West exclaims.

When asked why Scrum doesn’t work for some businesses, West’s giant frame sinks into his chair. “I’m disappointed every day.”

Frustration gives his voice an edge: “Scrum is special because of its empiricism and its values. [But] businesses are implementing Scrum’s mechanics, but not its philosophy.”

To West, Scrum is such a malleable method that the concrete “how-tos” of implementation are far less notable than the method’s grounding ideals. He continues, ”We added values last year [to Scrum, namely courage, focus, commitment, respect, and openness], because businesses that adopt Scrum values are far more successful.”

West sits up, emphasizing, “They create better code. The methodology is able to follow through. The values make [Scrum] methods more tangible—they provide a [needed] social setting.”

Courtesy of Scrum.org

That “social setting” to which West is referring is foundational. He’s not talking about IT departments or Scrum masters, but of businesses as a unit, as a community.

He points to teams as overlooked heroes in this story. He adds, “When you’re working in complicated situations, getting the right people is the most important thing. We’ve learned this lesson again and again—whether it’s with Toyota, SAS, or the Marines. And then you walk into a bank. You see the ‘Rockefeller effect,’ where one person holds all the power.”

Far from the utopia of transformative business, he sees one person, ”the guy with the gold,” making independent business decisions, a could-be cooperative broken by greed and power.

He pauses, then interrupts himself, offering hope: “There are exceptions though, even in the enterprise. Just look at CapitalOne.” (CapitalOne notoriously went Agile in 2012 and reduced delivery time by three to six months.)

I nod in agreement, lamenting the power and possibility of true business Agile, interrupted on the executive level. Similar conversations play out across the conference—how do we really convince executives that Agile business practices are worth investing in? Trite answers tend to follow: “emphasize the benefits of interpersonal understanding,” some say, or, “appeal to executive competitiveness!”

But biases toward being right, and avoidance of testing and failing, still holds back even some at attendance to Agile2017—and those biases are subtle until highlighted. Many people and businesses may have Agile methods and principles memorized like you would a phone password, but entirely miss the “why” behind it.

And some have an entirely different view of business Agile all together.

Business Agile, ROI, and corporate competitiveness

I meet with Laureen Knudsen and Leslie Marcotte from CA Technologies, a company best known for software development tool CA Agile Central, formerly known as Rally. I’m already amicable to a number of their products (often used as a VersionOne or Atlassian alternative).

Our conversation follows my interview with Dave West, and I can’t help but note the contrast. West was in jeans, whereas Knudsen and Marcotte dress in suits; West is comfortable and informal, while CA Technologies’ reps sit straight, polished and polite. I repuff my chest and sit up myself, once again keenly aware of my age and title.

The Agile software development company recently released a report called, “The State of Business Agility 2017.” The biggest takeaway? “Only 12% of organizations can claim that their whole organization is on the path to business Agility,” even while most respondents agreed that Agile business practices improve productivity and customer satisfaction.

For Knudsen, business Agile is about outcomes, outcomes, outcomes. Communication and transparency anchor Agile teams, and nothing emboldens leadership to make the best business decisions like internal big data.

She explains,  “Business Agility provides consistent practices and data—detailed data, so they know where the money is going.”

She adds that businesses are using “fake” data  for decision making (essentially estimates, and estimates are not hard data). She rightly points out that relying on “fake” data makes executives miss out on the real status of their company. She concludes, “Having that level of data”—essentially internal big data—“enables leaders to make better decisions.”

I realize that my definition of “business Agile” differs from theirs. She talks exclusively about better decision-making on the executive level—certainly important, and certainly emboldened by big data and tools offered through CA Technologies—but never touches on the driving Agile philosophy itself as a variable in the business environment. Her take on business Agile is big picture, not from a business culture perspective, but from a product and profits value driver.

That division leads to very different business decisions. CA Technologies is a $13-billion dollar company with an incredible acquisitions strategy to respond to market changes—in the past five years, they acquired Layer 7 Technologies, Nolio, Rally, Xceedium, Grid Tools Ltd, IdMLogic, Automic, and Veracode—and those are just the big buys. The business is unrelenting in its drive to provide customers with the latest processes, professional services, and user-focused tools. The result?

Marketing with verbiage like “enterprise at startup speed,” “software that helps businesses compete,” and “the modern software factory.”

Business Agile and CA Technologies: The Modern Software Factory

They basically dare their competitors to take them on

Of course, this mentality seeps into the business’s foundational philosophy as well—a cutthroat version of business Agile. When asked about the growth of ad-hoc communication tools like Slack, Marcotte explains, “Developers want informality, but executives can’t lose track of the fact that they’re trying to run a business.”

She underscores the importance of internal data—and how informal tools can’t provide those insights to a company’s leadership. If tools such as Slack don’t help outputs, CA Technologies’s lean mindset sees little value in it.

Their interpretation of business Agile sharply juxtaposes Dave West’s conclusions, especially his justification of why business Agile is just now picking up: “It’s a problem of the industrialization of work,” he says. “Methodologies don’t work, but frameworks [like Agile] do. You can’t buy [business Agility]. You have to go through it. You have to learn it. Learn and fail continuously—be open.”  

In other words, failure due to implementing rote Agile methods, without the underlying Agile mindset and beliefs, will continue to hamstring businesses from reaching their potential.

West and Marcotte would likely roll their eyes at each other, but really they form the yin and yang of what business Agile will likely end up looking like across industries. Like both soft and hard skills are essential to successful business practices, so too will hard (CA Technologies) and soft (Dave West) Agile drive corporate ideology and methodology in the upcoming corporate paradigm shift. No business will be an absolutist version of hard or soft Agile (and CA Technologies and Dave West certainly aren’t absolutists, either), but they will exist on a spectrum between.

The future of business Agile and project management

I believe the time for business Agile to emerge is now peaking over the horizon—Agile has existed as a framework since 2001, giving IT leaders over fifteen years to learn and understand its foundational concepts. I’ve seen an increased interest from institutions such as Berkeley, nonprofits like The SD Learning Consortium, and small consulting businesses like Agile Business Management.

The shift to business Agile will force products over projects, people over resources, and customer needs over internal benchmarks. Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are the ideal breeding ground for Agile ideals, infused with fewer complexities and plenty of room to grow. While enterprise companies like Barclays, Ericcson, and Riot Games may set the tone, SMBs will quickly be able to outpace them in business Agile adoption.

Consider these changes that I forecast will start to play a role at SMBs in the next three years:

The result? The project management role, as we know it today, will sunset in the next few years.

The final chapter for project management professionals, and where PMs are headed next

That’s not to say that Scrum Masters, PMPs, and Six Sigma Black Belts should start scrambling to find another profession—remember, Agile is at the core of transformational change in the business world. And some industries, such as construction, regulation, and manufacturing, won’t be able to fully embrace Agile, especially in product execution (though there is emerging literature on Agile practices for each of those industries).

Instead, project managers will increasingly take on program management roles. Often thought of as the “next step” for a project manager’s career (and there is certainly an element of truth in that), program management tends to work with a large set of risky projects—which makes sense, since low-risk projects can increasingly be left to automation.

Those projects tend to be interdependent and involve multiple groups of people from both inside and outside the organization. Interpersonal skills are a must, as program managers are also often responsible for their team’s professional development.

Gartner emphasizes that “soft skills” (skills difficult to quantify) must be at the core of a program manager’s skillset. In Critical Soft Skills Required to Be a Successful Program Manager (article is proprietary to Gartner clients), analysts Mbula Schoen and Jack Santos determined the four traits that can predict a favorable program management career:

There are a few major takeaways from this transformation from project to program management:

  • Project managers won’t have to deal with common manual tasks. Artificial intelligence will be able to pick up on metrics like LOE (level of effort), serve as a knowledge management resource, and correct initial estimates as more data becomes available.
  • Program managers will have a massive role in the organization. Think closer to C-Suite than developer.
  • Breaking into program management will become more difficult. Certification may demonstrate practical knowledge, but professional experience in failing, learning, iterating, and growing as a decision maker will be far more valuable to hiring managers.
  • They’ll need to specialize in change management. Change management is crucial to a constantly evolving Agile business. As a lynchpin in the organization, program managers will need to facilitate buy-in from intern to executive.

What are my next steps as a business leader or project manager? Where can I learn more?

  1. If you aren’t familiar with Agile, start with the Agile Manifesto. While the document itself was largely written for software developers, its lessons can easily apply to business.
  2. Be bold. Don’t shy away from testing out new ideas and new processes. Create a safe environment for your team members to do the same.
  3. Keep looking for technology changes. Software and humans already work side-by-side, but the growth of artificial intelligence will supercharge a person’s ability to get work done on time, on budget, and with quality. Look for innovations in project management technology that are introducing these ideas. I, personally, have my eyes on tools like AgileCraft (their newest release focuses on end-to-end, cross-departmental product management), Behave Pro by Hindsight Software (a Jira plugin rooted in behavior-driven development), and ClickUp (a slick new project management tool investing in artificial intelligence research).
  4. Encourage your business leaders to go Agile. I predict that articles forecasting the rise of business Agile—and detailing how to do it—will explode later this year and into 2018. Hop on the innovation bullet train before other businesses leave yours stuck in 2015.

“Project management tools add complexity.”

Dave West has questioned the very foundation of my profession as a software analyst. The whole purpose of applying project management tools is to improve communication and productivity within business processes, and West is claiming that the very premise of its purpose is a bad assumption.

We rise together and walk to the exhibit hall—he’s headed to his booth, I’m headed to get lunch— continuing our conversation. He adds, “Tools don’t respect that people are people, not resources. They can’t respect continuous planning. They have a place in projects like construction, but the premise of traditional project management tools is fundamentally flawed.”

He elaborates, adding that project tools often create barriers between team members and add an extra step to get things done.

“They simply don’t support the social context of work,” he concludes.

They don’t support business Agility either.

We shake hands and part ways.

A representative from a project management software company spots “Gartner” on my nametag and tries to wave me to his booth.

I ignore him, already familiar with the tool and fresh with the insight that it will be obsolete by next year.

Let’s continue the discussion

The ideas presented here have major implications, and not all of them will be right. I’m curious to know how project, program, and business managers react to these ideas.

Has your IT department adopted an Agile method? What about an Agile mindset? What about your business as a whole?

Do you think that project management will evolve into program management? Have you noticed the conglomeration of tools and features?

Where am I wrong? Where am I right?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments below, and feel free to tweet at me at @RachelBurgerPM.

More thought leadership on project management?

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About the Author

Rachel Burger

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Rachel is a content manager for Capterra, a free online resource that quickly matches businesses to their software needs. She specializes in project management tips, tools, and tricks . She also runs her own blog on content marketing. On the rare occasion Rachel isn't writing, she's reading, hiking, jogging, or spending time with her friends and family.

Comments

Thanks Rachel. Great article and I think your on the money! In all my clients I work with I try to convince them to change their role titles from ‘Project Managers’ to ‘Project Leaders’. I think this one 1 word change is huge ‘Manager’ to ‘Leader’ as immediately the number 1 focus becomes the people (as it should) be and I too HATE the term Resource Management!!! I strongly believe traditional PM’s are going to struggle (in the not too distant future) to find work unless they embrace Agile ways of working. To me it’s a no brainer we all have to (and should want to) go down this path.

Here are some good Agile project management tools and their use cases:
VersionOne – for enterprise
Jira – for software teams
Ravetree – for whole company Agile

Rachel
I believe it has already started!
As a project manager with 23 years expirence I feel completely out of my depth with dealing with Agile concepts. I would genuinely value your input as to how to further my career for at least a few years yet

Regards

James

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