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Finding the Right Blend: Sometimes Pure Agile Isn’t the Way to Go

Agile project managers need to remind their stakeholders & teams that agility is the very opposite of rigidity & inflexibility

Only a fraction of organizations will migrate to Agile methods completely and for all projects. The reality is, many types of projects are not well suited for Agile approaches for a variety of reasons. Some organizations run multiple projects across many departments and corporate entities, many of which may not have the inclination or resources to manage in an Agile manner. Others have made significant investments in traditional or proprietary methodologies and are not prepared to simply abandon them. Further, many companies are global, with development resources located around the world, in different time zones, with varying local corporate cultures and working styles.

For all of these reasons, Agile project managers need to be prepared to work in cooperation with non-Agile project managers, teams that employ traditional methods, and organizations that have resources scattered around the globe.

How the Blended Approach Works
Agile adoption doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing, either-or scenario. The very incremental, iterative concepts that Agile project managers (PMs) apply to their projects can also be applied to Agile adoption. For instance, teams that are migrating to Agile methods can adopt certain elements, such as user stories in place of requirements definition, and incremental, rather than "big-bang" planning, as ways to ease into the Agile migration. While these incremental methods will not offer all of the advantages of the total Agile environment, they have the advantage of being less disruptive to existing approaches and offer "proof points" to reassure managers and teams that these methods can deliver the expected results.

Where Agile Fits
There are a number of areas where the Agile method can fit into a non-Agile project. Remember that the success of Agile methods revolves around the customer and the team. It is really about collaborating on all levels of the project. When they work in concert with one another, the project deliverables are much easier to complete. In your Waterfall or non-Agile project, look for places where you can easily adopt the top four key Agile methods:

  • Iterative delivery of customer value
  • Early and frequent customer feedback
  • Working in highly collaborative, multifunctional teams
  • Continuous inspection and adaptation

The preceding methods are based on the Agile Manifesto's value statement. The focus of the Manifesto is on the following:

  • Individuals and interactions
  • Working software
  • Customer collaboration
  • Responding to change

Take a look at your Waterfall project and identify where you can leverage the power of customer involvement. Typically, you will be able to modify your Communication Plan, Stakeholder Management Plan and Risk Management Plans with an Agile approach. This proactive approach will allow you to ensure that impediments, which delay delivery of product, are managed and eliminated.

Proof Points
Because Agile methods focus on the customer, team, iterative delivery, and continuous adaptation or change, it is recommended that Waterfall-focused organizations begin to test the waters of Agile by using "proof points." Proof points are areas within a Waterfall project where you can "prove" the power of Agile elements. Not only will this help move the project forward, but it also highlights the value of the Agile methodology and helps an organization transition from using 100% Waterfall approaches to Agile methods.

Good opportunities to show proof points are within the planning, requirements and team communications areas of a project.

  • Start by approaching the work on a project by not only planning the entire project, but also planning the specifics of how a certain work package can be delivered.
  • Implement the practice of user stories to define the requirements differently.
  • Leverage the power of daily stand-up meetings (five to 10 minute meetings in which everyone stands to keep things brief). This allows the project team members the opportunity to share work progress and possible obstacles that may lead to challenges in completing the work package.
  • Use daily stand-up meetings to empower the team members to have open communication, while supporting each other to eliminate impediments.

These areas begin to shift an organization's mindset on how projects can be delivered differently. They offer the opportunity for organizations to embrace Agile while in the comfort of traditional project management.

Not One Size Fits All
It's important to recognize that Agile project management is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy. In fact, a foundational concept of Agile is the idea that every project should be considered as a unique entity, and PMs must make determinations for each unique effort regarding the amount of documentation, process rigor and management oversight required. This adaptive approach to project management also enables the ability to interweave elements of traditional project management into an Agile approach.

There's no reason why an Agile approach cannot have a Gantt chart if managers or stakeholders request one - as long as it's made clear that the chart will only schedule out as far as the iteration or release currently being built. The knowledge areas, process areas and artifacts of traditional project management are still applicable in an Agile environment, as long as they are adapted to the core concepts of incremental, iterative design and change readiness. Agile methods are called "adaptive" for a reason. Agile project managers need to remind their stakeholders and teams that agility is the very opposite of rigidity and inflexibility. Both the substantive and human elements of change must be considered, and the transition should be made to an Agile environment that is appropriate to the culture and practices of an organization.

More Stories By Nancy Y. Nee

Nancy Y. Nee, PMP, CBAP, CSM, Vice President, Global Product Strategy, ESI International, guides clients in the development and implementation of learning programs customized to their specific needs. Her solutions reflect the insight of almost two decades of PM and BA experience in healthcare, information technology, financial services and energy.

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