People and Culture

Tech Talks: 7 Lessons I learned working as a Project Manager in a large company

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In the Tech Talks blog series, we tackle emerging trends & topics with style and clarity in an effort to connect the professionals and move the whole industry forward.

What is the future of Project Management in an everchanging business industry? What does a modern PM look like, and what are the main things they need to learn to excel at their work? Pour some coffee, put on some relaxing music and join us in the first episode of Tech Talks where Sofija Doncevski shares valuable lessons and insights she learned working as a Project Manager at Zühlke.

Is the role of the Project Manager becoming obsolete?

In the past, the role of the Project Manager was usually an individual solely responsible for the success of a project. In a traditional system with a linear workflow, known as the Waterfall methodology, the role of a Project Manager ended up being centralized as well. As time went by, however, companies started switching to a newer Agile methodology. And with it, the role of the Project Manager needs to be reinvented.

What I find interesting is that Agile methodology doesn’t actually specify the role of a Project Manager. So I found myself in a situation where I wonder what my role is and how can I develop it further. One of the biggest challenges Project Managers face today is how to fit their role within the team. In traditional methodologies, the role was clearly defined, and suddenly this role is not even mentioned! A good PM should think about and recognize what their role should be and how they can contribute to the project team in an effective way.

What does a modern Project Manager look like?

Within the Agile methodology, responsibility for the project success is distributed collectively within the team, similar to what we can see in the Scrum framework. When organizations start using this framework, the first thing they usually do is to try and map out the role of a Project Manager in one of the three roles within Scrum: 

  1. Product Owner
  2. Scrum Master
  3. Development team

The role of a Project Manager is usually being translated into the role of a Scrum Master. However, if we examine the responsibilities of a Project Manager in a traditional sense, we can see that this is not a simple equation. 

A Project Manager traditionally has these responsibilities: 

  • Scope of Work
  • ROI
  • Budgets
  • Project timeline
  • Risk management
  • Setting the direction for the development team, etc.

As we can see, these are not the responsibilities that a Scrum Master would take; in fact, we can even say this is more in line with the role of a Product Owner. A good Project Manager needs to find those activities not covered by other roles, jump in and support the team.

The client still has the final say, right?

Nobody does things strictly by the book anymore. That doesn’t mean the theory is useless, though. The things we learn in theory work perfectly for some organizations. However, it doesn’t mean they work in all environments. It is up to each organization to recognize what they need and adjust accordingly.  An important thing to mention here is that they are not the only ones who get a say in this - there’s the client too. 

Not all the clients are used to the Agile methodology – a lot of them still use and prefer Waterfall. In these cases, they feel more comfortable having a specified role of a Project Manager in the project team, because they are used to having a centralized person they can communicate with, discuss overall progress or express concerns.  

The solution we’ve come up with is rather simple: we actually write down all the skills we need for successfully run the project and we discuss who feels comfortable and can cover which part. Based on that the tasks get distributed and each member of the team gets their share of duties, as well as the Project Manager. The world is changing, and the work environment is changing too. With it, the role of a Project Manager needs to adapt as well. 

The role of a Project Manager also depends on the team’s maturity. Teams with many senior members or a team that is used to working together generally find it easier to self-organize. They don’t need a lot of support. On the other hand, sometimes we have teams consisting mostly of junior colleagues.  For them everything is new, and they can benefit from additional support - and PM can really help there. 

Who has the responsibility for the project now?

What I like about the Agile methodology is the way the responsibilities are shared within the project team. Take communication with the client for example: both the development team, Scrum Master and the Product Owner can and should communicate directly with different stakeholders from the client-side. What should be kept in mind is that miscommunication can happen easily if there are too many channels of communication, so we need to make sure that the entire team is aligned. 

But what we can see is that not everybody feels comfortable with transferring the responsibility for the project to the entire team - sometimes young members don’t enjoy discussing or working on the parts of the project they don’t know too much about. That is understandable. For them, it is much easier to focus on their functional areas. You can easily recognize this situation in a team when you find user stories representing functional pieces of work (horizontally sliced stories). But we should encourage them to be involved in other areas as well, and to look at the project as a whole – this is a way for them to truly grow and develop. 

We want to encourage our colleagues to take responsibility not just for their individual portion of the work, but for the whole project. This is how we get the most value out of a project team, and everybody can contribute. 

A challenge any good PM should take head on

I tend to say that the most difficult projects for me are the ones where people make it difficult. Easy projects are the ones with people that make the job easier. However, a good PM should be able to adjust to working with different types of people and find just the right way to approach each one of them. 

As a PM, it is our responsibility to make sure the team is happy and motivated, which means you also need to find a way to keep the positive spirit in the team and find out what motivates each member of the team. Sometimes that means finding a higher purpose for them, sometimes it is just helping them solve some operational problem that is bothering them on a daily level.

Even though the PM themselves cannot help in most of the situations, they can notice when someone is struggling and connect them with another team member who can help.

What's the best way to learn more about Project Management?

Two things that have helped me broaden my knowledge and view on Project Management are: 

  • Meetup culture in Serbia - that we started! It’s a useful way for people from the same line of work to exchange experiences. 
  • It is also important to have a good role model or a mentor. This allows you to constantly grow and improve yourself. For me, that is Agile coach Bojan Spasić.

What is the next step for you, as a Project Manager?

Since organizations are now usually mapping these roles to a Scrum Master or a Product Owner, the current Project Manager can go in direction of choosing to take one of these two roles. I am motivated by the idea of taking any of these two. 

I like working along with the team. On the other hand, I am also interested in the process of the development of a business idea, especially in the initial stages. I would like to work on having a larger part in developing the foundation of a business, as well as participating in direct work with the client.

Sofija is a Project Manager at Zühlke Engineering
Contact person for Serbia

Sofija Doncevski

Former Project Manager
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