Why Agile Works for Today’s Projects

The more traditional “waterfall” approach to project management, which all the major project frameworks such as PRINCE2®, APM BoK and PMBoK® came from, works well in stable contexts.

There is a clear case that the world we operate in since PRINCE2® was launched in 1996 is now far more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Waterfall approaches that encourage thorough big design at the beginning are still relevant where we can be confident before work begins that requirements will not need to change significantly during the life of the project.

However, such are the volatility of operational drivers that bear upon businesses that often the customer simply must adapt. The urgency of these drivers will not allow them to wait until the end of the project. This might require frequent changes throughout a project. With a waterfall process this probably means expensive re-working of the plan and wasted effort.

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That leads to our belief that taking the Agile approach of frequent small deliveries coupled with a more continuous conversation with the customer allows much greater flexibility. It delivers results, and therefore benefits, much more quickly.

The beauty of Agile is that customers can decide what they want to achieve as they see what the suppliers can achieve. It’s approach is one of ‘learning by doing’ allowing teams to reflect on their experiences as they go along and adapt accordingly.

4 key elements of Agile

The success of Agile comes down to a number of key elements. To start with, you need a self-organising team. By moving away from silo working, team members are encouraged to use their overlapping skills and work together which in turn gives them much greater empowerment and satisfaction.

Then there’s ‘timeboxing’ where the emphasis is on fixing the time and cost elements of a project but also allowing the plan to evolve. Requirements can be prioritised with crucial input from a customer representative as work progresses. The Agile contract between customer and supplier is radically different to the expectations of waterfall; requirements are flexible within agreed parameters, but time and cost are not.

Third, Agile practice will usually keep ‘must haves’ to around 40% of the total effort – it’s always tempting to put too many priorities into the ‘must haves’ segment. Similarly, Agile teams also ensure there is only a finite number of tasks in the ‘doing’ category to help reduce the complexity of projects at any one time.

Finally, people engagement is a critical part of Agile working and is successful because the different stakeholders within a team work closer together and are empowered to have more say in both what they do and the order of the work. This is recognised as being much more motivational than the classic ‘command and control’ approaches which tend to be common among management.

…and 3 Agile myths

Of course, not everyone is ready to embrace Agile and one of the common misconceptions is that there is some sort of overall unifying Agile methodology.

That rather misses the point. There is no one right way of organising and managing an Agile project, and that’s what makes it so attractive to some and threatening to others.

Some try to adopt Agile techniques while at the same time continuing with a waterfall perspective, but as you might expect this is unlikely to deliver success – it is the Agile way of working that makes the techniques work, rather than the other way round.

Lastly, there are those who think Agile is only relevant to software development but that’s simply not true – it can equally be used on a variety of non-software examples such as renovating a large building, improving business processes or improving job aids for customer-facing personnel.

Barriers to Agile

One of the main reasons why Agile won’t work is if an organisation operates a culture of micromanagement and entrenched silos of working that won’t allow collaborative behaviours.

Other issues are likely to include weak team leadership or trying to implement it in organisations where the nature of the work is such that working releases is inconceivable in small iterations.

Why Agile is here to stay

Agile has made such significant inroads that it cannot be dismissed as a fad and should be understood by all managers who are involved in innovation and development. To ignore it now is to miss an opportunity that can deliver quick results and achieve cost savings.

Apple, Amazon, GE Healthcare and Salesforce.com are among those organisations already using Agile, having recognised that it is better suited to the complexities of 21st Century organisations. And above all, Agile knows how to get the best out of knowledge workers and ensure they stay motivated.

Faced with those conclusions – why wouldn’t you want to be more Agile?

About the author: Patrick Mayfield has helped author Managing Successful Programmes (2007) and The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: the essential Guide to the Change Management, the Change Management Institute’s Body of Knowledge (2014). He also authored Practical People Engagement: Leading Change through the Power of Relationships (2013) and posts for the Learning Leader Blog.