The New Frozen Middle

We did not communicate well enough to get those people, as I say, to let go of that rock and swim across the river of change with us.

Roger Smith, General Motors CEO, 1987

I just renewed my Project Management Professional (PMP) credential for another three years. I’ve been a PMP since 2006. Long before I became an Agile Coach. As an Agile Coach, the need for an active PMP credential is unnecessary. In many ways, Agile and PMP are like oil and water. They don’t mix well and often go their separate ways, agreeing to disagree. Their approaches to managing work and people and are often in conflict and at odds with each other. Many are the stories I’ve heard regarding the adversarial and fractious relationships between Agile teams and the Project Management Office (PMO).

So, why have I continued to renew?

I do it, not because “I have to”, rather because “I want to”. I want to hold on to the PMP perspective so that as an Agile Coach, I can broker alignment and a lasting peace between Agile teams and the PMO. Kinda like the Vikings trying to live harmoniously amongst the Anglo-Saxons in Netflix’s The Last Kingdom (which by the way, is a great binge-worthy series!)

The Frozen Middle” is a term used to describe the middle layer of people managers in organizations who resist or block change initiated from above them or below them. The reasons for their resistance include:

  • No Why: No compelling reason to change.
  • No WIIFM: “What’s in it for me?”No personal incentive or benefit for change.
  • Complacency: Comfort with the status quo.

Did you ever wonder where the term “Frozen Middle” came from?

Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors (GM) in the 1980s, coined the term frozen middle to describe the tens of thousands of middle managers at GM made complacent by GM’s past glories, unable to see the need for scrapping old ways and responding to new challenges.

When it comes to Agile ways of working, are we starting to see a thaw of the frozen middle? Are mid-level people leaders starting to finally appreciate an Agile mindset? Are they starting to walk the talk, model the way and shift the culture?

Agile ways of working are most effective when accompanied by a shift in mindset and culture. Leaders set the tone for organizational culture and lead the way towards culture change. So, what evidence is there that would indicate leaders are increasingly changing their organizational culture?

In the latest State of Agile report, it was noted that,

Organizational culture and Agile values are becoming more aligned. A few years ago, more than 8 out of 10 respondents identified culture as a significant barrier to Agile adoption. That number now stands at slightly more than 4 in 10.

15th Annual State of Agile Report, 2021

In the same report, another indicator for me that the frozen middle leaders are starting to thaw is the percentage of responses identifying

Inadequate management support and sponsorship

as a key challenge to adopting Agile dropped from a high of 45% in 2017 to 40% in the 2021 report.

And finally, on a personal note, I’m seeing an increase in the number of mid-level people managers I work with, realizing that the key to change initiatives is that the change must start with them. Fading are the days of change by delegation and issuing “Make it so!” commands from a sterile command centre.

As the resistance from mid-level people managers turns to slush, I’m now encountering another frozen layer in the middle. A new frozen middle represented by the traditional Project Management Office (PMO). Why has the PMO taken over as “The New Frozen Middle”? In my opinion, I see 3 reasons.

  1. Scrum Master = Project Manager
  2. Triple Constraints Rule (Still!)
  3. Multiple Masters

Scrum Master = Project Manager. There is no Project Manager role or accountability in Scrum. A Scrum Master’s accountabilities include:

  • Service to the Scrum team so that it grows into an effective high performing team.
  • Service to the Product Owner so that the Product Owner develops a good product vision and product backlog by effectively interacting with the Scrum team and stakeholders.
  • Service to the organization so that it understands how to effectively support and leverage the Scrum framework.

In short, being a Scrum Master is a full-time position. Especially for teams and organizations that are new to Agile ways. Overloading Scrum Masters with the Project Manager role is a recipe for disaster. Both roles will suffer from the “Jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome. So why do organizations do it? I’ve seen a couple of reasons:

  1. When Scrum Masters report into the PMO, it’s tempting for uninitiated leaders to treat Scrum Masters and Project Managers as fungible resources. Worst yet, hiring project managers and having them masquerade as Scrum Masters!
  2. A focus on cost savings. Why buy 2 when you can get a 2-for-1 bargain. Problem is while the Scrum Master part of your bargain is helping the team be self-managing, the Project Manager part of that same bargain is hand-holding them with micro-managing Gantt charts and status reports. The phrase “Penny-wise and pound-foolish!” comes to mind.

A Scrum Master is not a Project Manager, just as a Project Manager is not a Scrum Master.

Triple Constraints Rule (Still)! Traditional PMOs continue to pay homage to the triple project budget-driven constraints of Scope, Time and Cost over everything else. Business value delivered and customer experience are little more than frozen footnotes on the PMO’s traffic light status reports.

Multiple Masters. In organizations that have a shared services PMO, there’s the risk of having misaligned objectives and goals between what the business stakeholders want and what the PMO wants from the teams. The business wants value, creativity, innovation and happy customers. The PMO wants military-precision one-size-fits all status reports to monitor and control scope, cost and time with zero variance.

What can be done to thaw the freeze between Agile ways and the PMO? Here are a few ideas that have worked for me.

  1. Start with engagement and communication. Often, ‘what’ the PMO wants and ‘why’ they want it are reasonable. It’s the ‘who’ and ‘how’ that will change in the Agile ecosystem. Start with a conversation.
  2. Fill the traditional Project Manager void in Agile. Be prepared to answer the question “What happens to Project Managers in Agile?” There may not be the need for a Project Manager role on a Scrum team, however, the project management responsibilities won’t go away. The default answer shouldn’t be “The Scrum Master is the Project Manager”, A better answer could be “The Scrum Team is the Project Manager.”Then ask the team how they can deal with any required project management responsibilities.
  3. Build a bridge for Project Managers. Paint a picture of alternative futures and career paths for Project Managers. If the need for Project Managers is reduced in an Agile ecosystem, perhaps it’s an opportunity for Project Managers to become Release Managers, Program Managers or Portfolio Managers. In my conversations with Project Managers, I’ve always stated that even though there may not be a need for Project Managers on agile teams, there will always be a need for the unique capabilities and experience that the person behind the Project Manager role brings. See it as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

It’s not all doom and gloom with this new frozen middle. I’ve seen several examples of enlightened PMO leaders warming up and finding their place in the Agile ecosystem. Not only finding their place but actually thriving and evangelizing the very thing they froze on. In every example I can think of, the turning point was a personal epiphany leading to personal change. I really hope it’s a change that more Project Managers and PMO leaders will warm up to. Last thing we need is a new Ice Age.

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