Project Management

Blog: Keeping Agile in Check

As an avid listener to Alistair Cooke, he once remarked that explaining the difference between English politics and American politics was like landing on a political chess board where the King and Queen can’t move, and the pawns can move backwards.

I was struck with the comparison between traditional project management and the new world of Agile.

As a veteran of project management (one of the intro words they use to wheel me out nowadays), the benefits of taking a project management approach always included the ‘fact’ that it brought clarity and focus to the endeavour along with clear accountability for all the players on the project chessboard.

The traditional chess board set up along with its constituted ‘rules of engagement’ is akin to predictive project management methodologies. On this board, everybody knows their place; pawns lead the line with the King and Queen dictating play, progressing to victory with the team focused on a clear, common end-goal.

With the self-organised teams’ principle of Agile, the pawns can indeed move backwards, the King and the Queen no longer dictate play and the bishops and knights maraud up and down the board in sprints with the end goal being incrementally addressed via the backlog.  To be fair, Agile might be more akin to a draught (checkers) board ‘set up’ where the rules are simpler with the project team ‘pieces’ moving in multiple directions up and down the board and velocity being one of the measures ‘in play’.

So what? The point is that both methodologies reflect different approaches to project planning and assessing which board should be used is one of the first things the team should consider.

Much has been written about the merits of Agile and there is no doubt, particularly when it comes to software development, that adopting an adaptive approach to managing projects can and does pay dividends.

Traditional Project Managers (fondly referred to as dinosaurs) have indeed been persuaded (not all mind you) that at the very least Agile has its place. I presented a paper at the Ireland PM Summit a couple of years ago which polled 50 senior project managers who had a strong track record in predictive or waterfall techniques and the findings included that 68% of the group agreed with the statement that when Agile emerged initially “that they were skeptical on the claims of the ‘agile evangelists’” and while 62% “still had reservations on Agile techniques”, 96% (i.e. all but two of group) agreed with the statement that ”Agile is Goodish”.*

However, the crescendo to adopt Agile techniques for all projects does need to be checked and balanced. “Agile is eating the world” surveys indicate that senior executives give high priority to becoming Agile, but the gap between aspiration and reality can lead to claims that overstate both the value of Agile and what it can deliver.

The label “Agile” is often used without any real understanding as to its meaning and it is often applied to scenarios where the traditional project management chessboard should be set out. Recently, one of my MBA students when completing an assignment to compare and contrast Agile versus Waterfall, included a reference to a Ted Talk which suggested that Agile could / should be adopted for raising children – I spurted my coffee onto my keyboard and the dinosaur in me ‘growled’!

Predictive techniques are still needed and at the end of the day irrespective of whether Waterfall or Agile is the framework that will be applied, the project itself must still be managed. Responsibility can be collective, but the project manager is ultimately accountable for delivering the project, with or without a Scrum Master. Also, the suggestion that Agile ambles along without team structure and without the players knowing their roles is a fallacy that needs to be put to bed.

That said, poor understanding of Agile can lead to unwarranted headlines and helps awaken the dinosaurs that still need some time to come through the project management ‘ice age’, if that is the lens that you are looking through.

“The label “Agile” is often used without any real understanding as to its meaning and it is often applied to scenarios where the traditional project management chessboard should be set out”

It is worth remembering that the most important word in ‘project management’ is ‘management’ – Agile and Waterfall are simply frameworks that help set out how the project foundations are architected.  Management, planning, communications & engaging stakeholders are the essential ingredients that must be applied irrespective of whether you set out with a predictive or an adaptive approach.

So, to sum up, three takeaways to chew on:

#1

Agile might have taken a while to get acceptance but it has merit and has earned its place at the project management table.

#2

Not throwing out the ‘baby with the bathwater’ and recognising that the traditional ‘Waterfall Approach’ still has merit.

#3

Reflecting which approach should be taken is one of the elementary & indeed significant tasks that project managers need to consider when initiating a project.

Who knows, if we tiptoe to have a look at the future project management landscape, we might see dinosaurs pirouetting around the Agile chessboard but keeping the claims in check and refraining from suggesting that “Agile is Awesome” will pave the way for a more considered adoption of the techniques.

Personally, not having to wonder where I went wrong when raising my children will make it a lot more palatable to use the Agile chess / checkers board when considering how best to manage projects.

As for child rearing, my wife reminds me, that I was far too busy managing projects to have had any real hand in raising them – she’s claiming the Project Manager title for that ‘endeavour’ and she’s a big fan of the word ‘Awesome’ – opposites attract!

About the author: Terence O’Donnell is a project management expert having worked, trained and consulted for decades in the field. Terence specialises in Governance and Compliance consulting and areas such as Data Protection, Portfolio Management, Programme and Project Management, PMO Design and Development, Strategic Change, Certification and Training. Currently Projects & Consulting Director at Auxilion, part of the I.T. Alliance Group, Terence is a also former Director of the Centre for Project Management at UL where he held the Kent Chair for Project Management and directed the MBA programme. Terence has held global PMO roles in and project managed major ICT and organisational change programmes across the corporate and public sector. He is a founding member of the Ireland Project Management Institute’s (PMI) chapter and past president. Terence was recently recognised for his contribution to the discipline with the Distinguished Contribution Award at the 2017 Ireland National Project Management Awards.

*Reference: ”Agile is Goodish” Survey – The project managers who responded had, on average, over 22 years’ experienc e in managin g projects, primarily based in Ireland with the majority of the respondents working in the Engineering / I.T. Sectors.

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