In the world of project management, the term “agile” is already over 20 years old, yet there is still a lot of hype around the topic of agile. A large number of companies today use the term "agile" in their job advertisements, in their method manuals, or within their PMO. However, there are very few companies that are truly 100% agile. Only about 8% of companies who responded to the State of Agile survey stated that they were completely agile. The other 92% either uses other project management methods in addition to agile, or they exclusively use hybrid methods or traditional project management.
In this blog post, we explain why using 100% agile project management methods is wishful thinking and why a hybrid method is the reality.
What Exactly Is Agile?
Agile approaches in project management originally came from software development and originated in the 1990s. There is a reason for this. Companies in the ITC sector had to contend with high market volatility and high innovation pressure. This demanded a quick response to the ever-changing conditions. Traditional project management was not up to these requirements.
Finally, in 2001, the 12 basic principles of agile software development were published as a Manifesto. Since then, agile has been a firmly established and now industry-independent term.
Why Traditional Project Management Wasn’t Enough for Software Development
Agile is not a cure-all, but rather an alternative concept designed to complement planning-oriented, traditional project management.
In traditional project management, the project result is fixed from the beginning. Therefore, it is the goal of all participants to achieve this result by any means and stick to the developed project plan. To achieve this goal, frequent adjustments have to be made to costs, time schedules, and staffing.
The waterfall model is characteristic of traditional project management. Here the project sequence is divided into sequential phases and all results have an effect on any subsequent results. This means that if one milestone is not completed on time, all following milestones will be delayed.
Unfortunately, we’re not in the A-team (“I love it when a plan comes together!”), so these days it is a utopian dream for a project plan to work in this way. IT projects, in particular, usually deviate from the original plan. We all know that market economy is merciless. Fast processes, complex dependencies and the increasing flood of information make it impossible to look far enough into the future and think of all eventualities right from the start. The further the end of the project lies in the future, the more uncertain the forecasts are. Experience shows that IT projects are long-term projects and the effort involved to complete them is very difficult to estimate.
Often, there are big changes in the implementation and to the product during the implementation, either because the requirements of the client changed or because there are programming difficulties.
The problem with traditional project management is that every change to the project plan requires more effort and results in additional (often indirect) costs. There are delays because plans need to be updated or resource conflicts resolved. The budget is also often overstretched. The whole project becomes chaotic, and in the end, promises are broken and clients are dissatisfied.
In contrast, Agile PM has no problems with changes. In fact, it welcomes them!
Agile Project Management
You can compare traditional PM to archery. The archer initially spends a lot of time targeting the goal. Based on his experience, he takes environmental conditions into account so that the arrow hits the bull's eye. Whether he actually succeeds remains uncertain. For example, an unexpected gust of wind can redirect the arrow.
Agile PM is more like a game of golf. The player will review the course beforehand, so he knows roughly where to aim. With the first swing, he tries to get closer to the goal, but hole in ones are rare. Exactly where the ball lands can only be planned to a limited extent. The golfer must look at the new starting position after each stroke and possibly correct his direction.
Those who act according to agile principles see changes as part of the project work, and they agree that these changes produce positive effects. Agile project management is geared toward the business value to be achieved. Typically, project requirements such as delivery date, resource usage, and costs are defined as the project progresses.
A central element in agile is the high level of involvement of clients throughout the project. This requires regular communication. The focus is clearly on customer satisfaction. Interim results are delivered at periodic intervals so that clients can provide feedback. In other words, the end product to be delivered is initially only roughly known and will be specified during the course of the project.
Agile PM also allows for detailed planning, but only for the short term. Work is done in iteration cycles, not in sequential phases. These cycles are for a fixed duration during which the process, the use of resources and the goal are specified.
Self-organizing, independent project teams are also typical in agile project management. Project managers may, therefore, have a less significant role than in traditional PM. High adaptability and quick implementation take precedence over detailed planning and management
Is Agile the Right Choice Today?
Now comes the answer nobody wants to hear: yes and no. Not always and not necessarily. In fact, agile methods are superior when projects:
- have unclear requirements that must be defined.
- are long-term with a complex scope.
- are characterized by a short time-to-market.
- are in high-risk, constantly changing industries.
- include tasks where the project team breaks new ground (for example, when developing a prototype or creating a new product).
- include goals that can be achieved incrementally (for example, an extensible software prototype or a marketing campaign).
The best solution, however, is to let the project teams decide based on the team and the type of project which method makes the most sense. If this is achieved, all parties will be satisfied at the end of the project. The Pulse of the Profession study by the PMI shows that 79% of all companies do it this way. They use different methods in parallel or let the teams decide how they want to work. The reality is not just agile, but mixed or hybrid.
Hybrid Is In
Hybrid project management should combine the best of both approaches, since agile principles can usually only be realized in certain areas of the company. The traditional process model forms the organizational framework within which product development follows agile principles. That is, the operational-level team members and managers are agile, while the steering committees and program management systematically plan at the decision-making level. Even with very large projects, individual sub-projects or work packages – which require a different approach depending on their specific characteristics – hybrid PM often comes into play.
Agile PM has its advantages: it allows for shorter product development cycles, risk-free changes, and a strong focus on current customer and market needs in a fast-paced world. However, without planning, documentation and control it just does not work. This is especially true when many stakeholders and PMOs are involved. We've seen that, according to studies, most companies are not agile. However, classical approaches such as the waterfall model are losing importance. As a result, the hybrid approach is currently the closest to reality - everything else is wishful thinking.
Incidentally, it doesn’t matter much to Meisterplanners which project management methods are used. We believe that teams know best how to successfully launch projects. Meisterplan is a lean project portfolio management tool that works with any project management method. Try it for yourself!