PM / IM combos – 2 for the price of 1?

22 April

I’ve recently followed an online discussion about whether or not a Project Manager (PM) should apply for a Scrum Master (SM) role or vice versa and have been surprised to see that the overwhelming response from the Agile community was along the lines of “sure, go ahead”.

Having come from a PM background myself I took up an Iteration Manager’s (IM) role in the company I worked for several years ago when we decided to “go Scrum”. This transition wasn’t entirely voluntary – as our management believed that “we don’t need PMs in Scrum”, the entire PM team was “retrained” to become Scrum Masters. Unsurprisingly, our new “Scrum Master” role turned out to be surprisingly similar to the previous “Project Manager” role (guess even the Managing Director realised pretty quickly that resource scheduling and budget management didn’t happen on its own in an Agile project) but now we had to sit with the team (who didn’t find our jokes funny and thought our main responsibility was to buy doughnuts) and cut out lots of “task cards” on top of it. To warrant the much grander title, we were now also being shouted at by clients an awful lot more given that we really didn’t know what we were doing and seemed to have gained the incredible ability to not make sense to anybody (including ourselves). So in a nutshell, I found out the hard way that being a PM is a very different role to being an IM, requiring a different skill set and a thoroughly different mindset.

Many businesses decide to “retrain” their PMs to be Iteration Managers (IM) as part of their Agile transformation – this may have to do with a lack of awareness of a PMs role in an Agile project or financially motivated, but regardless of the reasons, I would argue that the economy here is a false one. Apart from my personal hardship, there are actually quite a few (and quite a few better) reasons why doing a combined PM / IM role may not be a good idea.


Conflict of interest

I strongly believe that at times, the PM and IM will have conflicting points of view and conflicting interests. I know this is controversial in the “we’re all friends” movement in the Agile community but I strongly believe that if a PM and an IM agree at all times, one of them isn’t doing their job right. In my opinion, it is the PMs role to represent the business interests, to ensure the project is valuable (and this may well mean “profitable”!) and to manage stakeholders and the inevitably arising politics that come with having more than 1 person with an opinion. The IMs role, on the other hand, is to represent the interests of the team – sustainable pace, the right tools to do a good job, the right environment, etc. And at times, these two job descriptions will be at odds – I’ve seen PM/ IM scrap retrospectives because they were “too costly” and others who ran seemingly endless ceremonies because “the team needed to learn the value of them”. In either case, I felt that having a separate IM/ PM would have contributed to establishing a “balance” by being the “hang on just a second” person.



Here’s an opinion that upsets a lot of Project Managers – I firmly believe that all of us are biased based on our jobs. That said, I don’t think that this is a negative thing that could (or should) be avoided – there are expectations that come with every role that need to be fulfilled if we want to be successful in the workplace and the more we work within these parameters, the more they become “second nature” within our work environment.

Yet while this behaviour might be the key to success in the role we have chosen, it may make us less than ideal for a new role until we have “unlearnt” our behavioural patterns. I am reminded of this every time I refer to team members as “resources”, especially since I’ve been told that most people really prefer to being referred to as “people” rather than something synonymous with desks, chairs and computer screens. Yet as a Project Manager, this is the “lingo” we’re trained on and use in our daily lives so no wonder it’s difficult to get rid of old habits.

And I don’t’ think I’m alone in this – we all have behavioural patterns which work well in our current role that don’t translate well into another role and the behaviours required of PMs hugely vary to those of IMs as they are roles with very different purposes. Changing these patterns is possible but not easy and by no means instantaneous – trying to switch between them “at-will” in a combined role is even harder and requires a lot of experience and discipline.


The value of “hard conversations”

Now I confess that I do talk to myself on occasion and aside from being therapeutic, it has the undisputed advantage that I’m always right. Unfortunately, it also means that these conversations are always limited to my own point of view and influenced by my own experiences, knowledge and understanding of my environment. Having to speak to others, by contrast, can be an awful lot more tiring and infuriating (and I don’t always win!) but I might just gain a new perspective on an issue I previously thought I understood in its entirety. For the combined PM / IM the disadvantage is that there is no different point of view to discuss and no new perspective to be gained (for either role!) and nobody to have those “hard” (but oh-so-educational) conversations with.


It’s a lot of work!

Finally – even if you manage to successfully overcome your natural bias and switch between behaviours at will, even if you are fully balanced in skills, knowledge and viewpoint and you have found a way to have hard conversations with yourself without being institutionalised by your colleagues – it’s a lot of work! Project Management is a lot more than “just doing some reports” and being a valuable IM consists of more than drawing swim lanes on whiteboards and organising index cards. Each role is valuable in itself and Project Management is a full-time role in most organisations these days (whether or not the IM role should be a full-time role or not is material for another blog post) – by combining these roles, individuals are robbed of the opportunity to do either role justice and are often forced into mediocrity due to lack of time (on top of the general workload, the impact of “context switching” shouldn’t be underestimated – there’s an interesting article on it on ).

Now I agree that in a perfectly Agile organisation, where everybody from the CEO to the cleaners have subscribed to the Agile values and principles and we’ve only hired highly skilled, experienced and balanced individuals who are also working great as part of a team, none of the above would make any sense and a combined PM / IM role would be a godsend.

Being the biased and pessimistic individual that I am, however, I believe these organisations don’t really exist – but if they do I shall stand corrected and revisit my opinions while riding my unicorn to the end of the rainbow.

Thank you!

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