03 Sep

I believe that organisations who want to reap the benefits of Agile Software Development should look seriously at building Agile Coaching capability as a long term replacement for Program, Portfolio and Project Managers.

I do not believe they should sack their existing PM’s. Organisations are often far too quick to take the restructure/redundancy route. Instead, if they are serious about improving, they should identify their existing talent and leverage it to their advantage.

Far from preparing redundancy packages, I would be asking the PM’s to start building the Agile capability across the portfolio, helping the organisation move toward a more agile structure and culture. Some can operate as Scrum Masters (SM’s) in the teams, while others can operate more at the portfolio level.

From Projects to Products

Organisations are increasingly moving away from a project and program paradigm to a product-centric model of managing software development. The basic premise is that teams are set up to continuously deliver incremental value to customers rather than forming and disbanding around big, risky, time-consuming, fixed scope changes within the project construct.

At a single team level, what was once deemed Project Manager responsibilities are shared between (in Scrum parlance) a Product Owner (PO) and SM. For pieces of work requiring multiple teams (i.e. “at scale”), it is important to find a way to keep the benefits of small, self-organising agile teams, working together to deliver on organisational goals that are deemed too large or complex for one cross-functional team of 5–9 people.

The key piece for me culturally is promoting the idea of “whole team ownership”. By taking away Project/Program Management, you are sending a clear message that you want to move away from the project/program paradigm as an organisation. You are also sending the message that you trust the teams to deliver products and capabilities without the need for someone to “manage” or “coordinate” them.

Agile Coaches can help software development teams fill the gaps that PM’s would otherwise fill, and then step away. This shows deliberate intent to move toward truly self-organising teams.

What does an Agile Coach do?

  • Support, coach and train the product development teams and the wider business in the principles and practices of Agile Software Development
  • Coach Agile, Lean, Kanban, XP and Scrum principles, and help people at all level of the business to thrive in an agile organisation
  • Work with other Agile Coaches, Managers and Leaders to increase the effectiveness of product development via
  • Focus on early and frequent delivery of customer value and outcomes
  • Identify impediments for removal
  • Coach the ruthless slicing and prioritisation of work
  • Improve cross-functional/team/department collaboration
  • Reduce Lead Time (improve time-to-market) by identifying opportunities to reduce hand-offs, match demand with capacity, eliminate waste, etc.
  • Help people fulfil their potential to do their best work
  • Help create an open, authentic, supportive, collaborative and transparent environment in which goals are clear, as is the progress toward them
  • Facilitate and/or coach effective product development workshops and meetings such as Inceptions, Story Mapping, Customer Journey, Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Backlog Grooming, Retrospectives, etc.
  • Influence a continuous improvement and experimentation culture for both product and process across the business

How would things work?

The model I’m proposing simply scales up the ownership of “program governance” (in old speak) for cross-team initiatives to the teams themselves, who should be (in essence) operating as one team toward a common goal.

There are some key points to recognise around roles and responsibilities that differs from the model many “agile” organisations use:

  • There is a PO for each single development team (5–9 people, cross-functional)
  • There is a “Chief” Product Owner (CPO) who sits across cross-team initiatives, steering the delivery of the initiative (as opposed to a Program Manager)
  • Each PO fully manages the goals and priorities of their own “patch” at a frequent and regular cadence (e.g. 2 weeks), optimising the customer value of the product/service/capabilities being delivered — in short, the PO steers the product delivery (as opposed to a Project Manager)
  • The CPO manages high level strategic goals and priorities for the initiative at a longer cadence (e.g. 1–3 months), providing stability for teams to work on achieving something substantial while optimising the business value of what is being delivered
  • The PO’s and CPO form a “Product Ownership group” to ensure the teams’ Product Backlogs are in alignment (ordered by value), and assessing the progress toward the broader goals of the initiative by looking at what has already been delivered vs what is remaining (i.e. empirical process control)
  • The SM’s ensure that the teams are collaborating effectively, planning and reviewing together at frequent and regular intervals, keeping stakeholders up-to-date (radical transparency and visibility) and providing frequent feedback opportunities
  • Agile Coaches help PO’s and teams with empirical product development, delivering frequent value and providing transparency of progress
  • Agile Coaches work across the product development teams, as opposed to the SM’s who are embedded in Scrum teams


Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

~ Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

  • Sends a message to employees that the company is taking Agile seriously, trusts its people and has a genuine intent to try something different
  • Promotes whole team ownership, accountability and transparency
  • Opportunity for many talented people in the organisation to reinvigorate their careers
  • Improves perception of the organisation for potential employees as a modern, progressive company
  • Scalable — Add teams to initiatives without the cost and time delay for hiring a project/program manager
  • Agile Coaches are given specific capacity to improve the overall system of work and unleash the potential of individuals and teams without the burden of delivery accountability

Have you considered the importance of the roles you don’t have, as well as the roles you do?

Have you considered how Agile Coaching capability might help you realise the benefits of Agile?

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