The BIG Difference Between Agile Teams and Project Teams

June 1, 2020
3 minute read
Project managers often become responsible for running projects using Agile methods. Sometimes they get training, sometimes they just read some stuff online, and sometimes they just wing it. If you are a project manager trying to use Agile methods, this article is essential reading!

Last week I delivered an Agile Coach Training session in-house for a large Canadian organization. It was just myself and five other participants. We were discussing possible things to do if there is a person on an agile team who is not able to work effectively in that sort of environment. One “intervention” we discussed was about project teams and when to “Assign Work”…


Now hopefully everyone who just read that phrase “Assign Work” had all sorts of alarm bells go off in their head!!!!

As an Agile coach, I would only do this under extreme circumstances. And I would always be fully aware of the consequence of assigning work. I would be removing that person from the team by Assigning Work. A person is not in an Agile (self-organizing) team if they need to be assigned work.

Guess what?!? THAT is the BIG difference between Agile Teams and Project (or Functional) Teams.

On a project, the Project Manager gets someone onto the team by assigning them work!

On an Agile Team, a person is removed from the team by assigning them work.

Have you seen this happen? How did the assignee feel?

Let’s look at this a little closer. In its twelve principles of Agile software development, the Agile Manifesto states:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”


“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

Self-organization is a fundamental part of being Agile. Self organization includes, at a minimum, the freedom of individuals on a team to volunteer for tasks in the team’s plan. As soon as someone assigns work to a person, that person’s relationship to the work of the team changes. It is no longer self-organizing. The other individuals might still be self organizing, and they might still be an Agile team, but you now have one person who is not self-organizing and therefore not freely choosing to do the work of the team.

This concept of self-organizing is one of the most difficult for traditionally-trained project managers. These project managers often have drilled into them that they need to control the project group, they need to assign tasks to the proper resources, and that as a project manager they are accountable for the success of the project through these mechanisms of control and assignment. Giving that up can be a major psychological barrier, and in practice turns out to be a major reason why I don’t normally recommend making project managers into leaders of any sort in your Agile teams.


[This article was originally published on Agile Advice on 26-Sept-2011]

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Berteig Consulting

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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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