Beyond Either/Or

By Kate Rockwood  

Waterfall versus agile. In the 16 years since a group of software developers published the agile manifesto, that debate has raged — especially as agile spread well beyond its original roots in small IT companies and startups. 

According to VersionOne’s 2017 State of Agile survey, 94 percent of respondents said their organization practiced agile — and 1 in 4 agile users were at an organization with more than 20,000 people. And while a majority of organizations still rely on waterfall, 74 percent of respondents to a 2017 KPMG survey reported using agile for some projects, and 76 percent predicted the number of projects managed with agile will outnumber traditional approaches in three years. 

No doubt, agile is here to stay — but that doesn’t mean the end for waterfall. The reality is, different types of projects need different approaches, be it pure waterfall, pure agile or hybrid.

And that means the argument between approaches has reached détente. Organizations see pros and cons to every approach, including agile.

“When we pit agile against waterfall, it casts waterfall as old, bureaucratic and rigid,” says Jordi Teixido, PMP, chief operating officer at fintech company Strands, and project management consultant, KION, Barcelona, Spain. “But sometimes I see more rigidity in agile.”

Woman deciding which path to take

Culture Clash

Agile’s growth is tied, at least in part, to the phenomenal results it delivers. Organizations that have deployed agile at scale have accelerated their innovation by up to 80 percent, according to a 2016 McKinsey study. 

But even when it’s chosen for the best of reasons — a faster product launch, a leaner team, more innovative features — agile’s revved-up metabolism can be at odds with an organization’s overall agility. 

“We know that when people use agile, projects are faster, on-budget and with higher customer satisfaction, but some elements of, say, a construction project, aren’t easy to adapt to agile,” says Guy Schleffer, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, international cooperation manager, Ministry of Defense, Tel Aviv, Israel. 

The McKinsey study revealed incredible struggles for companies that try to incorporate agile practices into all business units and functions without making significant structural changes that extend far beyond the project team. 

“If you start with pure agile at a larger company, you’ll find that the company is expecting governance,” says Robert Moores, PMI-ACP, PMP, program manager, Google, London, England. “Everything might be hunky-dory on the project team, with standups and burndowns, but then you get to product release and you see that you’ve just moved the bottleneck from planning to somewhere else.” 

Sales and marketing may need more ramp time before launch, or the legal team could have issues with features that might have been flagged earlier in the process.

The Right Formula

Just because an organization sees the power of agile doesn’t mean it will take it on in totality.

Mr. Moores has spent more than a decade working on agile projects across a handful of global tech organizations, “and it’s surprising how many companies love the idea of agile but are building their own frameworks with more upfront planning and an upfront approval phase,” he says. 

The level of governance is largely tied to the organization’s risk appetite, but also varies by the actual work at hand. 

“If you’re doing a project like a prototype with, say, four people and it won’t affect many teams in the business, then pure agile is fine and often works really well,” Mr. Moores says. “Whereas if you’re impacting the bottom line or there are big public relations implications or security issues, it’s dangerous to proceed in that off-and-running agile way.”

Some organizations may demand approval at the portfolio level for a team to take a pure agile approach on a project. The team may also be required to meet certain criteria, such as a method for tracking spending and a one-page summary of the project’s goals. 

But there’s a payoff. 

“You save time and money doing that, because you’re not applying unnecessary governance to projects that don’t need it,” Mr. Moores says. 

At organizations where agile approaches are less widespread or tend to meet resistance, project leaders should embrace as much upfront planning and governance as the project can reasonably bear. 

Sometimes a hybrid approach can be the best of both worlds.  

“Taking the best bits of agile and the best bits of traditional project management, from the project through the portfolio level, can give you the exact approach — and agility — you need,” Mr. Moores says. 

Flexibility in Action

Macro organizational changes won’t suffice, however. Project managers must also do their part and sharpen their skills across the entire delivery spectrum, says Mr. Teixido. 

“We’re in a continuously changing world, and project managers don’t want to limit an organization to only one method or the other,” he says. “Project managers should be well-versed in standups and sprints, but also critical path and critical chain.”

For organizations and project managers, it’s all about finding the right mix.

When Mr. Teixido was overseeing projects using scrum, for example, the daily standups began to feel more like a waste of time than a value add. So he tweaked the approach, shifting the team to weekly standups. “And we’re still doing sprints, we’re still doing agile,” he says. “It’s simply tailored to our needs.”

This article is adapted from “Agile Reckoning,” which originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of PM Network.

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