Project Management Institute

The agile project manager

Changing to an agile culture doesn't begin by diving in headfirst.

BY JESSE FEWELL, CST, PMP

The executives have spoken: “We're going agile. We've hired the consultants, sent everyone to training and installed all the right tools.”

But several months in, there are little more than quick wins and marginal improvements on key metrics. And management is asking you, the project manager, why the organization is not seeing returns on its agile investment.

Here are some key elements of moving beyond the first step of agile mechanics to achieve real results:

Message the mission. Do your people even know why the organization needs more agility? Has senior leadership made the case for change? Have they emphasized why this change will strengthen the organization and move it forward?

If your organization has been doing business a certain way for decades, people will be slow to jump on the bandwagon. Many rightly will be skeptical: “This is just the latest process fad.”

If you are leading any kind of organizational change effort, be the change agent that generates support by articulating and broadcasting the case for change. If you fail to do so, you'll find rows of cubicles filled with people merely complying with the new process, often complaining under their breath.

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Minimize commitment. Many executives read about agility in a magazine and discover an all-consuming conviction about a new direction. They will be tempted to go all-in: “We will be 100 percent agile by year's end.”

However, business experts caution us to minimize the amount of work with which we start. Stanford University business professor Jim Collins found the greatest companies limit their new ventures to small “tracer bullets” to see whether the idea has momentum; they launch larger “cannonballs” only after collecting empirical data to support further investment. U.K.-based economist Tim Harford asserts that trial and error is the foundational approach for all of human advancement.

When organizations first implement agile approaches, they should use small milestones to gauge whether agile initiatives are moving in the right direction.

Measure against the mission. Even if we've minimized the amount of agile change we take on, we need to measure whether that small change is making an impact. If our strategy is customer retention, for example, we should confirm whether our agile efforts are pleasing customers. If our mandate is to control costs, our metrics should measure whether the agile approaches are helping us complete projects under budget.

Make good mistakes. If you're measuring against business objectives, chances are one or more initiatives will fail. A new process will cause delays, or a new feature will upset customers. The temptation will be to resist mistakes, criticize those who make them and revert back to old ways.

However, true agility is not the prevention of all mistakes. Be the change agent that celebrates the learning and innovation that comes from the right mistakes in the controlled environment of small commitments.

Achieving agility is more than just implementing approaches and applying process. A change agent must pay attention to our human tendencies to barrel forward without buy-in and employ the discipline needed to grow one step at a time. PM

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Jesse Fewell, CST, PMP, is a founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice and is participating in the development of a software extension to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). He can be reached at jesse.fewell@vcleader.pmi.org.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2012 WWW.PMI.ORG

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