Is Agile the next big thing?
In 2001 the term ‘agile’ was used to represent a family of lightweight approaches to software development. Over a decade later when I wrote this article, agile is now mainstream and is changing the way organisations deliver benefits to their customers. Agile is now being used on projects which doesn’t involve I.T.
However, the growth of agile and how it sits with respect to traditional project management approaches such as PRINCE2 and PMI is not straightforward.
There is a huge amount of hype and confusion around what agile does and how it does it. The parallels to the snake oil salesmen of the mid-west in the 1800s can be found with promises of ‘twice as much in half the time’.
Origins of the hype
Agile has its heritage in I.T. where it was generally used on a small scale, in environments where an existing software product already existed.
There were many local successes and the idea of working with backlogs and to-do lists in regular timeboxes or sprints reaped rewards. These successes created the space for agile approaches to grow.
In the UK, this interest in agile was epitomised by using methods such as Scrum, XP (eXtreme Programming) and DSDM (Dynamic Systems Development Method). In later years, Agile Project Management approaches such as AgilePM have begun to get wider traction.
Where is the confusion from?
In a similar way to a child growing up, agile had challenges as it faced new situations. The challenges it faced came in three areas:
Firstly, nearly all agile is being practised in what are called ‘product’ environments. These are where something already exists, and it needs enhancing or modifying. The idea of using agile in a ‘project’ environment which builds something from scratch is frequently ignored.
Secondly, nearly all the agile debate has been focused on I.T. solution delivery. The concept that this delivery is taking place in a wider context and needs to sit in a strategically focussed business context is often overlooked. What about when there is no I.T. element to a business change?
Thirdly, a lot of agile techniques do not work when they are scaled up into a larger context.
The leading thinkers in the agile arena have addressed this but most people have not.
Is agile a method or a philosophy?
Agile is a philosophy, a mindset. To get the most out of agile it is important to understand what is really meant by the term ‘agile’.
Agile is broad
Agile is a very broad term and covers many things. These range from philosophical aspects such as collaboration and self-organising to more technical aspects. The technical aspects include such concepts as writing requirements in the form of ‘user stories’ or using ‘low-tech’ burndown charts to show detailed progress.
This broad church of ideas and concepts is further heightened by the increased use of automated test-driven development (TDD) and continuous integration (CI) in the software domain.
But it doesn’t stop there. Organizations are taking the agile philosophy far beyond I.T. as they look to become agile at the programme, portfolio, and organisational levels.
This great flexibility and opportunity for agility brings with it a burden. Agile is a coat of many colours. Taken as a whole, agile looks good but often people struggle to understand what makes up its different parts.
Many techniques are not agile
A good example of this is that burndown charts, user stories, estimation games, MoSCoW prioritization, pair programming and other tools and techniques are often seen as agile. However, they are in fact just a series of popular techniques which can be used on a non-agile project.
Agile or waterfall dichotomy
This causes confusion as many people see things as a straight choice between agile or ‘traditional’ project management (epitomised by project methodologies such as PRINCE2). Often this is peddled as a choice between ‘agile’ or the ‘waterfall approach’.
Misconceptions about Agile
However, in these two widely held beliefs there are in fact two huge misconceptions. These misconceptions are:
- That agile is a holistic approach to managing projects when in fact it is largely a set of product delivery techniques.
- That traditional project management approaches and methodologies (e.g. PRINCE2 or the PMBOK) mandate a waterfall approach when in fact they do not.
Is agile only of limited use?
As agile has come of age and grown past the Agile Manifesto since it launched in 2001. Many people and companies have realised that it works on more than in just small scale I.T. context.
Agile can be used anywhere which is why it may well be the next big thing.
Agile challenges a lot of traditional thinking but to get it to work you must understand what it does, how it does it and why. When you address these points, you can then address the areas previously mentioned where agile is being misunderstood.
The big agile irony
The pioneers in the agile marketplace have realised that there is something of an irony in how to take agile to the next level. This is often called ‘corporate strength agile’ or ‘agile with rigour’ as opposed to ‘fragile agile’.
This irony involves embracing some of the basics of traditional approaches to project management and integrating them with the agile ethos.
What you create is the best of both worlds. Keep some of the project management basics (e.g. up-front work, project management, governance, etc) AND let the agile techniques do what they do best (e.g. respond to change, focus on time, build incrementally, etc).
No need to replace the likes of PRINCE2 and PMBOK. No need to reinvent the wheel. However, there is a need to bring the agile ethos into play and this is where the more scalable robust agile approaches such as DSDM and AgilePM come into their own.
Solving the problem – where to start
Understand that agile is about solution delivery
One key factor in getting agile to work on a larger scale and in environments needing stricter governance (e.g. when compliance is involved) is to realise that nearly all things agile operate at the ‘solution delivery’ level. Therefore, how does the ‘stuff’ that sits above this get handled?
An organisation can start to make quick progress when it realises that a lot of agile was never meant to work at the project management level let alone the project governance level.
Project management does need to change
Changes do need to be made at the project management and governance levels. Agile may deliver a solution that is deliberately less than 100% and it will enable detailed changes to be handled with less formality.
Agile also eschews the need for detailed specifications at the outset allowing understanding to evolve as the work progresses. Even the drafting of an agile business case is created in a slightly different way.
Senior management be aware
These differences are more than nuances and therefore it is imperative that senior management understand the reasons for using agile and the impact it will have.
The key to success is bringing in agile as a managed change to a way an organisation works and not let it just happen or worst of all letting it spread virally.
What should a project manager do?
When embarking on a transition towards greater agility within an organization it is important that everyone realises one essential caveat. Success will not come from a new broom sweeping out all the traditional experience and knowledge that has been built up within the organization over the decades. However, it is important for any individual (say a project manager) to upgrade their skill set and adapt to the challenging times that many people are currently facing.
Therefore, any project manager with any level of experience needs to shop wisely as they look at the various options to do with agile training and accreditations.
It is best to look at the bigger agile picture and realise that institutions like APMG, PMI and IfG (Institute for Government) are all seeing a big shift to large scale agile project management with or without an I.T. element.
This is a significant step up from learning various agile techniques, most of which do not relate to the project management layer which sits above the solution delivery layer where agile has come of age.
Do not confuse solution delivery with project management and don’t confuse team leading with project management either!
Agile is not a new project management method. Agile is not even new! It is however here to stay for a long while. Agile will be judged on how well it is adopted, implemented, and practiced.
In today’s economic climate those organisations and individuals who get it right will reap the rewards. Those that don’t, won’t!
agileKRC has helped shape agile thinking by leading the teams that developed AgilePM® and PRINCE2 Agile®. We take a practical, success-oriented approach. We begin by taking the time to listen and understand your needs, before offering our real-world experience and expert guidance.