Looking for an edge


Agile is emerging as the new weapon in the battle against the economic slump.


What used to be a buzzword is quickly evolving into a competitive advantage. For almost a decade now, the agile movement has garnered much attention for individual project successes in specialized project domains such as software development.

Now the economy is sparking steady growth in agile adoption across sectors. Around the world, organizations are facing the new reality that delivering on-schedule and on-budget is no longer enough to stay competitive. Sponsors aren't asking, “What does it take to implement this scope?” These days it's, “What can I get for this fixed budget?” Project managers, in turn, are being forced to adapt.


At the same time, the individual successes of agile have become much more frequent and much larger in scale. In the last two years, the single-most discussed topic among agile practitioners has been how to scale this more competitive management approach across all departments and all skill sets in the enterprise.

But what is agile, really? Consultants and trainers will tout their pet method as the true example of the ideal process. Articles and blogs ramble on about funny terms like “sprints,” “scrums,” “spikes,” and “stories.” And although the best place to start is the Agile Manifesto, I'd like to offer two key areas to focus on.

imgGet more information about the PMI Agile Community of Practice at finance.groups. yahoo.com/group/pmiagile.

First, a project leader must have a ruthless commitment to value delivery over performance to plan. No longer can you be content to deliver your full scope by the final deadline. Instead, deliver the highest risk and/or highest value requirement as soon as possible. Then, engage the sponsor to evaluate the deliverable and reprioritize what should be the next high-risk/high-value item to be delivered. As each priority is delivered, the sponsor is given permission to reprioritize or replace the remaining scope.

Although this kind of living project plan is compatible with best practices we've learned in the classroom, it's certainly not how things are generally done. We're told that a project plan must endure an extensive change-management process to reflect the latest shifts in business needs. Breaking the project up into vertical slices like this maximizes ROI.

Second, a project leader must create high-performing teams. Consider that the entire value of a project is generated not by the project manager, but by the project team. As project managers, we've been trained to engage in “monitoring and controlling” the team to ensure project results. What if we invested all our energy into accelerating and empowering the team?

We've been trained to perform lessons learned at the closeout of a project. What if we conducted lessons learned in monthly meetings and then held the team accountable for implementing those lessons right away? The only way to aggressively deliver on shifting priorities is to nurture the team you have with the right training, the right tools and the best possible work environment.

On PMI.org/voices


Agile continues to be a hot topic on the blog. Here's what Bob Fischer, a principal consultant at Enagility, had to say about the role of agile advocates:

Projects where there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what you are going to build and how you are going to build it are the best candidates for agile. I've been a very successful agile advocate, and I start by understanding the nature of the projects people are working on and what they are struggling with. I use that to make recommendations. I completely agree that agile advocates need to speak to their audience's needs, not agile jargon.

imgFor more Voices on Project Management, check out the blog at PMI.org/voices.


Sometimes it seems like agilists are speaking their own language. Here's a rundown of some of the more common terms.

Backlog: The scope of the project broken down into prioritized work packages

Burndown Chart: A graphical display of the remaining work left before a deadline

Incremental: Dividing project scope into vertical slices of business value delivered early and often, rather than all at once at the end

Product Owner: A representative of the sponsor, who prioritizes work packages and approves deliverables

Scrum: An agile project framework proscribing some processes while leaving room for context-specific processes

Spike: An investigative work package undertaken to learn something about another work package

Sprint: A time-boxed project phase resulting in an incremental deliverable business value

Story: A work package or requirement written as a simple sentence from a stakeholder's perspective

XP: Short for eXtreme Programming, an agile software project methodology

This sounds great on paper, but the truth is that creating high-performing teams that deliver value early and often is a difficult proposition. If your contract doesn't allow for shifting scope, you may have to work with your sponsors to meet the letter of a bad contract while delivering on the spirit of what the organization needs. If your budget doesn't account for retooling the team, you will have to make the business case for sacrificing lower priorities to accelerate delivery of the higher priorities. If you face a lengthy regulatory compliance process, you'll have to engage those officials at the very start of the project.

It's hard, but it is possible. There are plenty of examples out there. During the last year, America Online's media programming organization has shifted into a structure of 60 agile teams using the scrum project management framework. And a blend of agile processes helped Marriott International transform a struggling marketing intranet into a heralded turnaround story. Indeed, PMI's Global Operations Center has been evolving its use of agile processes to implement the Virtual Communities Project, arguably the organization's largest change initiative in recent memory.

Now is the time to get engaged, whether it's attending a conference, going to a class or networking with agile practitioners. It may be just what you need to survive in today's tough economy. PM


Jesse Fewell, CST, PMP, is a technology management consultant at Excella Consulting, providing project management and IT support to federal and commercial clients in the Washington, D.C., USA area. Currently, he is facilitating the formation of the PMI Agile Community of Practice.


RAISE YOUR VOICE No one knows project management better than you, the practitioners “in the trenches.” So PM Network launched its Voices on Project Management column. Every month, project managers share ideas, experiences and opinions on everything from sustainability to talent management, and all points in between. If you're interested in contributing, please send your idea to [email protected].





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