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January – June 2018

Adaptation is required as project managers find themselves between a rock and a hard place

Project Managers
  • Songezo Nkukwana and Dr Nicky Terblanche
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching
13 minutes to read


Article written by Songezo Nkukwana and Dr Nicky Terblanche

Information system development projects have a reputation for failing to stick to the budget, to meet deadlines and to fulfil expectations.  Only 29% of worldwide information system projects achieve project management success, according to The Standish Group International. This failure rate is high in comparison with other high-tech projects, and this is a reason for concern because information systems are increasingly seen as a critical strategic and operational tool in organisations. Furthermore, within the knowledge economy, software is a source of knowledge and information systems development a source of knowledge creation. By creating knowledge, organisations create the opportunities to gain and sustain competitive advantages.

‘Information system development projects have a reputation for failing to stick to the budget’


In an attempt to address the failure of traditional approaches to information systems delivery, organisations are turning to agile methodologies. Agile software development differs from the traditional waterfall approach where a formal, sequential process of planning, analysing, designing, implementing and maintenance is followed. Opting for agility, on the contrary, is characterised by fast and flexible results based on iterative delivery, frequent feedback loops and the constant involvement of the customer.  The widespread adoption of agile implementation methodologies is attributed to their ability to respond to fast-changing business requirements, market conditions and technology innovation.

From a project management perspective, the move to agile implementation has brought about a number of challenges. Project managers can no longer be concerned only with planning, organising and controlling.  They must also be sufficiently skilled to facilitate and coach to encourage collaboration between team members in line with the agile model. Project managers must furthermore play an active role in project knowledge management which contributes to successful projects.  

A further complication is that agile software development encourages autonomous, self-organising teams who are meant to share project management tasks and responsibilities such as estimation, planning and progress tracking. This new focus encroaches on project managers’ territory and raises questions about their roles.  To complicate matters even more, many (especially large) organisations struggle to make the transition from traditional to agile information systems implementation methodologies. In fact, it is more likely that large organisations will employ both traditional and agile information systems implementation practices in what is termed an ambidextrous approach.  This duality presents additional and complex challenges to the project manager’s role.

Given these team-related and organisational challenges faced by project managers, the question arises: How should project managers adapt to fit into an agile implementation environment within large corporates? This research explores the question from the perspectives of two important project stakeholders:  the management team and the implementation team.

Answers were needed for these research questions:

  • How do these two teams view the role of a project manager in an agile environment?
  • What do the teams require from a project manager to complete information systems implementation projects successfully?
  • Should project managers adapt their strategy to strike a balance between the old (traditional waterfall approach) and the new (agile approach) way of working?
  • Are project managers still relevant in agile delivery environments?
  • Should project managers adapt to remain relevant?

‘Only 29% of worldwide information system projects achieve project management success.’


Information system implementation and project management challenges go hand in hand

The global business landscape has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Access to data, disruptive technological advances and the speed of innovation are some of the key drivers fuelling this revolution.

Information systems development forms a crucial part of technology innovation, and businesses have become even more aware and critical about the success of their information systems projects.  Information systems are crucial strategic and operational pillars – institutions want to see a return on their investment in information systems and they have become more mature in their understanding of the nature of information systems and related projects.

Over the past few years, a significant amount of effort has gone into making sure that information systems implementation meets customers’ value expectations. Yet, many software projects still fail to deliver value. More resources than originally planned are being used, less functionality at a lower quality than expected gets delivered, and the completion of projects takes longer than anticipated.  

Some reasons for these failures include badly defined requirements, unrealistic expectations from businesses, poor reporting on the project status and poor management of risks.  Risks can only be managed if knowledge is managed, and project knowledge is considered as one of the most powerful tools in managing risk. Project management can play a significant role in knowledge management and therefore naturally in risk management as well.

Most information systems professionals believe that using information systems project methodologies will improve the project management success rate. However, project managers face various challenges that limit their success:

  • Unrealistic project deadlines
  • Handling multiple projects simultaneously
  • Ineffective use of project management software and a lack of knowledge about project management methodologies.

The nature of information systems projects has also changed in recent years with an increase in technical complexity, rate of technology change, importance of security, business changes involved in projects, prevalence of virtual teaming, organisational instability and interdependence between organisations. As a result, these factors contribute to information systems project management becoming increasingly challenging.

‘Organisations are moving towards agile project implementation methodologies’


Looking at perceptions and experience

This research followed a qualitative case study approach. The design was chosen to extract descriptions of phenomena (perceptions held by management and implementation teams) within the relevant context described by the participants (based on their experiences).

Purposive sampling was used to identify 13 participants working within the information systems department of a business unit in a large insurance company in South Africa. Five of the participants belonged to the management team while the remaining eight were part of the information systems implementation team. Members of these teams had been part of both successful and failed agile projects within the organisation.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with all participants to elicit deep reflection about their experience during information systems implementation projects. This approach allowed participants to share their understanding of the challenges they faced and specifically the role that project managers played.

‘Are project managers still relevant in agile delivery environments?’


The lessons learned

With the disappointing track record of information systems implementation projects, organisations are moving towards agile project implementation methodologies, where reduced formality and increased individual autonomy and self-organising teams get preference. This shift encroaches on the territory of the traditional project manager’s role and raises questions about how project managers should adapt to remain relevant.

This case study provided insights into the desired behaviours of an agile project manager by exploring the different needs of the management and implementation teams. It looks as if project managers are stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to fulfilling management and implementation teams’ expectations. On the one hand, they are required to fulfil the traditional project manager’s role: both the management and implementation teams require project managers to adhere to traditional project management governance functions such as project delivery, risk management, reporting and budgeting. On the other hand, when it comes to the management of the implementation team, the management team preferred a more traditional command and control style project manager. However, the implementation teams preferred a more agile approach expecting a project manager to earn their trust, refrain from micromanagement, allow the team to self-organise, and act as coach and facilitator.

The conclusion is that project managers will remain relevant if they move towards a more agile information systems implementation environment.  They must be aware of the different expectations from various stakeholders and adapt their behaviour accordingly. They have to engage openly with their stakeholders to understand their needs, acquire new skills (such as coaching and facilitation) in the agile environment and strike a balance between employing traditional and agile project management skills depending on the agile maturity of the organisation.

  • Original article: Nkukwana, S. & Terblanche, H.D. 2017. Between a rock and a hard place: Management and implementation teams’ expectations of project managers in an agile information systems delivery environment. South African Journal of Information Management, 19(1), a806.
  • Link to original article:


Songezo Nkukwana is a former MBA student of the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

Dr Nicky Terblanche is a senior lecturer in Coaching at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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