Why Agile Is NOT a Methodology

By Stephen Townsend 

Have you ever heard someone say that agile is a methodology? If you have, this article may help you correct the misnomer.

According to the Agile Practice Guide — developed jointly by PMI and the Agile Alliance® and published in September 2017 — “agile” is an approach to collaborative problem-solving for exploratory work informed by “a mindset of values and principles as set forth in the Agile Manifesto.” The agile mindset informs personal behavior, ways of thinking and actions aligned with the Agile Manifesto values and principles.

For example, self-directed teams represent a core value embedded with: 

  • Passion for the work
  • Accountability for individual output
  • Collective responsibility for the team’s performance  

Practices and techniques that enable or support such values and their embedded behaviors align with an agile mindset.

The concept of agility, nimble, quick and fast with agile

Methodologies

Many approaches align with the values and principles set forth in the Agile Manifesto. Some of these approaches, such as Scrum, are methodologies. A methodology is a documented set of practices, techniques, procedures and rules intended to be used repeatedly and consistently to manage certain types of work. A methodology prescribes an ordered approach to tasks and activities so that practitioners build experience with successfully applying the specific practices and continuously improve upon previous applications.

Scrum, for example, has prescriptive elements consistent with the definition of a methodology, including:

  • Specific roles, such as a Scrum Master and Product Owner.
  • Specific events, such as sprints and retrospectives.
  • Specific artifacts, such as backlogs.
  • Specific rules, such as time-boxing for development activities and incremental product releases.

Tailor-Made Processes 

On the other hand, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) is not a methodology. It does not prescribe specific practices or techniques that should be applied to all project work.

Rather, the PMBOK® Guide highlights how practitioners can apply approaches from 10 key knowledge domains to five interactive project processes, in ways that have proven successful in a variety of projects from different industries and geographies. It encapsulates good practices that relate to most projects most of the time, but does not restrict practitioners to just those specific practices.

For example, the Integration Management Knowledge Area highlights commonly-used approaches for project planning, but does not require those specific approaches. Instead, it acts as a guide to help practitioners tailor the approach to the specific characteristics of each project.

One project team may develop a very detailed project plan covering key activities from project start through completion. Another team may decide to segment the project into several small pieces, each with its own specific plan for completing the work. In both instances, the team must decide how best to plan the work and measure the amount of work completed to deliver a solution for the business or customer.

An organization that feels it would benefit from some degree of process discipline may choose to use the PMBOK® Guide to develop an internal methodology describing key tasks or practices that project teams should use during the project. This approach ensures that practices important to the organization are consistently applied across all projects.

Some organizations may have different levels of process discipline built into a methodology:

  • More prescriptive requirements for large, complex projects
  • Few key requirements for projects similar to those the organization has successfully executed in the past
  • Very light processes for projects in which customers define requirements in real time

Improving Performance and Success

The key to effective application of a methodology is not its consistent application. It is taking the lessons learned from utilizing a methodology to improve team performance and project success.

In Scrum, retrospectives help teams learn and adapt so they improve their performance in real time. Other methodologies may require teams to conduct in-depth workshops at the end of a project to assess overall performance and opportunities for improvement.

In both instances, practitioners learn and change as a result of that learning. And, as a result, they can better help their teams perform more effectively and deliver stronger results for their customers and organizations.

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