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Demystifying agile – is it right for you?

Agile may be a project management buzzword but it offers organisations many benefits as teams work together and deliver results quicker – but is it right for everyone?

For many organisations agile project management remains a mystery.

Those used to taking a traditional waterfall approach will have heard how projects can supposedly be leaner and potentially produce less waste because teams work more effectively and flexibly.

What are the secrets of agile, is it always the right choice?

According to the Association for Project Management (APM), which hosted an Agile Summit in July, it is not as complicated as it might sound.

This is all about collaborating with customers rather that purely negotiating contracts, and focusing on people rather than processes and tools.

Organisations are encouraged to work flexibly rather than have a structured plan so that they can react faster; while prototypes are produced rather than comprehensive documentation.

A minimum viable product (MVP) is identified to signal the start of the project’s delivery. This can be changed over time as teams share ideas and realise the different opportunities and benefits.

The APM says scope, where the consequential time and cost is calculated, is not the driver. Instead resources are allocated over a period of time and used when needed. The project manager controls the overarching budget, which leaves team members to focus on their jobs and make changes as they see fit. The project manager ensures that nothing happens to adversely affect the overriding business case.

How does culture need to adapt?

Many organisations will have invested in agile tools, but these can be wasted without an agile culture in place. 

Investment in agile tools is wasted unless the company embraces an agile culture.

Conversely, agile tools are not always needed if there is an agile philosophy internally and everyone, from the top down, has embraced the principles outlined above. 

“What we might think of as ‘agile maturity’ can challenge many common practices and norms seen in more traditional projects,” says APM.  “In agile project management, objective setting is both top down and bottom up as delivery teams become self-directing and senior managers develop a less directive, more ‘servant leader’ approach to management.”

Even within a mature agile environment there can be internal tensions, especially when there are time pressures.  Talented management is essential to agree changes, release control and build consensus, and a different mindset is needed as people get used to never having a finished product.

Also, for this approach to work effectively organisations must align their approval and decision-making processes to avoid stifling agile delivery.

When will agile work best?

Agile is not the best route for every project and there will be times when a waterfall approach is preferred and necessary.

Process, schedule and transactional relationships might be essential to achieve the required goals, and there are project managers who worry that, because agile focuses on small, incremental changes, the bigger picture can be lost.

Conventional project management often determines ‘what’ the project should deliver while agile techniques control ‘how’ it is delivered because it is more people-focused.

If an agile approach has not been fully embraced internally, however, or a consensus cannot be reached, then traditional project management techniques can certainly ensure that change is delivered in a controlled way.

Established techniques can also make a valuable contribution within an agile environment around managing budgets, prioritising actions and requirements, and scheduling meetings and reviews.

A project can benefit from a combined approach.

Projects that are complex and require high levels of control might adopt agile approaches for scoping before moving to a more traditional project management model during the delivery phase.

“Overall, agile and waterfall approaches to project management both bring strengths and weaknesses to project delivery,” says the APM. “Professionals should adopt a ‘golf-bag’ approach to selecting the right techniques that best suit the project, the project environment and the contracting parties. There should be an emphasis on the behaviours, leadership and governance rather than methods to create the best opportunities for successful project delivery.”

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