How lean practices affect project management

Bringing Lean and Agile practices into project management helps PMs break up monolithic tasks and take a more active role in delivering success, not just reporting milestones and budgets. By helping product owners translate wish lists into stories (bite-sized statements of purpose) and epics (loftier, more ambitious project requirements), PMs protect the scope of a project and the contributors while helping owners better articulate their needs.

And the focus on rapid delivery and re-evaluation of goals gives PMs a closer connection to the final value the project is meant to deliver. “These techniques empower us to build more useful things, and that is a change in role for the better for project managers,” says Johanna Rothman, president of Rothman Consulting Group and an Agile management specialist.

But the transition isn’t always easy. Here are some of the more common ways project managers can be inadvertently tripped up by Lean or Agile practices, and how to compensate.


Understanding the MVP

One of the Lean-inspired practices with the greatest potential to disrupt conventional project management is the minimum viable product (MVP). Simply put, creating MVPs is meant to force product owners to rein in scope while also focusing project teams on tangible results. MVPs early in the process are meant to show owners and managers where there is still room for improvement, for cutting, and even for abandoning the project entirely if the results are disappointing or unviable.

Unfortunately, owners are starting to learn how to co-opt the terminology and are declaring everything they hope and dream for to be a necessary component of an MVP. To rein in the discussion and the scope, project management authority Pawel Brodzinski suggests the minimum indispensable feature set as an alternative term. This technique can take some of the focus off of what the product should look like and place it back on the questions of what problems must it solve.

If the scope of an MVP is still too large, consider breaking it down even further—to a spec sheet or cardboard mockup that could be put in front of a customer (internal or external) in order to spark a discussion. Even that level of “product” can be enough to shake loose the right insights and input about whether the project is genuinely worth continuing, or needs a radical pivot in order to be successful.


Rethinking efficiency

PMs in the Lean/Agile model shouldn’t be looking to soak up every paid hour of time on the docket with tangible work, but rather should look at optimizing the flow of work through the team.

“[tweet_dis]Too many managers are concerned with resource utilization, the two worst words in the English language[/tweet_dis],” she says. “It’s a classic case of trying to optimize the bottom level of an organization.”

Drawing on inspiration from This is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox, Rothman recommends focusing on flow efficiency and throughput, rather than maximizing the billable time of everyone on the payroll. “If you optimize for people, you will always run into delays, you won’t get the features you want, and things will run slowly,” she says. “If you optimize for features and throughput, you still have a lot of work to do, but you can better see the ways that work will flow through the system.”


Coaching the owners

Project managers always commit to manage project risk. But today, one of the biggest ongoing sources of risk is that the product owners won’t stay committed to the process or can’t wrap their heads around their responsibility to be concise and priority-driven.

“There’s a real chance a product owner will throw up their hands and say they don’t have a clue, that they cannot break down their needs into stories or epics, and does not understand what a useful product will look like,” Rothman says.

There’s no magic cure for this requirement. PMs will continue to need a lot of patience, and the ability to exercise the right kind of influence, to talk owners through the need to stay focused and oriented toward short-term completion.

“I like asking for one-day stories. The team sees progress, and we all get to see our product working,” she says.


Knowing when to say when

In the modern era, project managers are actually more important than ever in deciding when a project is complete. One of the consequences of making it easier for owners to see quick wins and iterative progress is that it can create an insatiable appetite for more.

“Product owners can fall in love with backlog. They can see value now, and next month, and a year from now,” she says.

That makes it incumbent on project managers to declare victory—not just in a single milestone release, but to raise the question of whether the broader, capital-P Product can be declared sufficiently complete and ready to move to a maintenance or caretaker mode. It’s just another way the modern PM is more than an intermediary and efficiency expert, but a key contributor to defining success.

Post by James Gardner

is a digital technology strategist. Now working in the pharmaceutical industry, he previously worked at Volume, one of the largest independent B2B digital marketing agencies in the UK. Throughout his career, he has dealt with everything from social media and cloud computing to storage area networks and virtualization, giving him a broad view on the technology issues facing businesses today. In his spare time he can be found making cars out of Legos - with his two kids obviously - or dreaming of a walk-on part in a Romero zombie movie.