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Centralized vs. distributed project management

Note that the PMBOK Guide is not about project managers, but about project management. The way project management is done can take two different forms:

  • Centralized: In this approach, coordination and other project management activities are done by a team dedicated to project management, and there’s someone on top of this team who’s usually called the project manager.
  • Decentralized: In this approach, there’s no one dedicated to project management activities, but instead the activities are distributed among everyone in the project.

Both forms are valid and can be fine as long as the rest of the system is properly designed to match it and the approach suits the size and nature of the project. In general, a decentralized management system can be used in small teams; for example, you can’t have a team of 100 people and have them coordinate themselves without a centralized form of coordination.

On the other hand, not everyone likes to have managerial responsibilities, and it can become a distraction for technical people to expect them to contribute to the management of the project instead of being focused on their technical work and having other people dedicated to providing them with facilitation and coordination services.

Decentralized system are more popular in the Agile community. While some methods, such as DSDM®, have a centralized management, Scrum uses a decentralized one. Most of the newer Agile methods are derived from or are highly inspired by Scrum, and therefore try to be decentralized, or at least pretend to be so. This is mostly troubling for those who try to create an Agile method for larger projects with multiple teams.

You may or may not have a project manager role in the project, but you always have project management, either done properly and with a structure, or done poorly on an ad hoc basis.

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