When adopting Agile, implementing techniques and practices geared toward helping the team solicit feedback and accommodate changes is essential—but not enough. A change in leadership approach by the project manager is also required.

An Agile team is inherently a learning team, and that culture is built from the example of the team leader. In “Leadership Roles Key to Adopting Agile Project Management,” I outlined several leadership roles on an Agile team and described the additional challenges these leaders face in guiding their teams. In this article, I’m going to focus more deeply on the role of the Agile project team leader.

Sense-and-respond leadership

Few modern leaders still follow a strict “command-and-control” approach to managing projects, but many project managers do follow what Michael Hamman, in his book Evolvagility, calls “predict-and-plan” leadership. In this approach, the leader’s job is to get out in front of change, manage risks, and make sure that the team has the needed resources to complete the project.

According to Hamman, Agile team leaders need a different approach—a “sense-and-respond” leadership where the reliability of leaders “comes from our ability to quickly sense what is happening—in all of its unpredictability, in all of its complexity, in all of its ambiguity—and to respond in ways that leave us and others… more congruently aligned with our vision in and for the world.”

A conventional project manager’s role

Traditionally, project managers are responsible for:

  • Timeline & resource planning: Setting deadlines and milestones, as well as securing the right people and SMEs, technical and financial resources, facilities, and other needed resources at the right time
  • Assembling the team: Selecting team members with the right skills, availability, and motivation to get the job done
  • Motivating the team: Guiding the team, celebrating successes, and aligning individual goals with project team goals
  • Managing costs & timeline: Setting a budget and tracking activity against it, and making adjustments to ensure that the project comes in on time and in budget
  • Identifying, managing & mitigating risks: Preparing for possible hiccups to the project plan, managing them when they come, and mitigating the downside risk to the project
  • Monitoring progress & communicating the team’s status: Regularly sending status reports and serving as the team’s representative in other meetings

The Agile role adds responsibilities

The Agile team leader has all of the above responsibilities, plus some additional unique ones:

  • Agile advocate & change agent: While many organizations are still in transition to an Agile approach, particularly in learning and development, Agile project leaders will often find themselves seeking buy-in for this new way of working. Project sponsors, stakeholders, and SMEs—as well as managers of other projects that may need the same resources—may need some convincing.

    I recommend that teams take an Agile approach to implementing Agile: Start with one project that has a willing team and a willing sponsor. You will learn a lot as you and the team learn how to work with Agile techniques and very different mindset. These lessons can be applied to future projects with less-eager sponsors or teams, having made most of your major stumbles with people predisposed to cut you some slack. This means that you will be navigating change on the organizational level at the same time that you’re managing a project that is expecting constant change.

    A recent participant in an Agile Project Management for eLearning workshop at a Learning Solutions Conference used her new visual project management boards to communicate to her manager how she would use Agile on her projects going forward. The visual nature of Agile planning makes for a great artifact to signal and reinforce the change that you’re making.
  • Agile educator: Some teams may leverage the support of a formal Agile coach (think of it as an executive coach but focused on Agile techniques and supporting the whole team), but in most cases the team leader will serve as the primary educator about Agile. In this role, the team leader will make sure that the team has the skills and knowledge to use Agile techniques and will educate the project sponsor, stakeholders, and SMEs about how to work with the team in this new way.

    At TorranceLearning, we often invite our clients to attend one of our LLAMA® workshops so they’re learning about Agile in the same way that our team members do.
  • Data analyst: Since the team will regularly get feedback from learners as they use the training, it’s likely that the team will be using more data than usual. The project lead is in an excellent position to take point on this analysis (for smaller projects) or work with a team member for this.
  • Facilitator: Agile’s emphasis on frequent and face-to-face (or at least synchronous) communication means that the project manager is often facilitating working sessions with a variety of people. The project kickoff session is where the team works with the project sponsor, stakeholders, SMEs, and representatives of the learner population to define scope for the project. This requires excellent facilitation skills to ensure all voices are heard and understood and that the group arrives at the best decisions possible.

    In many cases, the project manager is facilitating participants in the session who are of a higher rank; the political nature of this (in some organizations) cannot be understated.

    During weekly project planning meetings, the Agile project manager engenders the most transparent communications around tasks, estimating, and capabilities to get the work done. Project managers are often also the ones who facilitate Agile retrospectives, or “lessons learned” sessions. And in some projects, the project manager will facilitate learner feedback sessions as well.
  • Emotional supporter: Agile techniques are designed to help a project adapt to constant feedback and change, but human beings aren’t necessarily wired like this. When the inevitable change comes, it might be to something that the team has worked long and hard on, or that the team was doing exactly as asked … and then the ask changed. Or, in the flow of routine iteration testing, the team might find out that the work they’re doing doesn’t actually help learners as intended.

    The team’s emotional response may range from jaded to devastated. As much as I outwardly respond to change with enthusiasm, as a leader, I need to be sensitive to the team’s emotional reaction to the change.

These additional responsibilities of the Agile project leader fall squarely in the realm of “soft skills” or, as I like to call them, “core professional skills.” They’re every bit as important as the tools, techniques, and mindset of Agile in supporting teams to be successful. As with many core professional skills, you can improve your proficiency through formal training, coaching, and reflective experience.

Become an Agile project manager

Eager to learn more? The eLearning Guild’s Agile Project Management Certificate Program will give you the techniques, tools, and mindset needed to adopt Agile methods in your own work. Whether you are a project manager or a designer, developer, or L&D manager who oversees project workflows, you can benefit from adding this skillset to your repertoire. Join Megan Torrance for this comprehensive two-day workshop, October 21–22, 2019. It is co-located with DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo, October 23–25, in Las Vegas.