Degrees of Uncertainty

When Assessing the Suitability of Agile Approaches, Zero In on Your Project's Known Unknowns



By Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, contributing editor

If you've never heard project managers debate the merits of agile, here's a quick summary. A gruff project manager says, “Since your agile approach doesn't fit my oil exploration projects, it's not relevant to me and thus not even worth learning about.” An agile zealot will respond, “Oh, yeah? Well, let me rattle off several digital products you don't care about, along with a few contrived examples.”

Here's a better way to size up whether agile approaches should factor into your project: Gauge the project's level of uncertainty, both in terms of requirements and technical challenges. And keep the following general points in mind.

Agile can't eliminate chaos. Some projects are just crazy. In 2009, US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger famously landed a jet in the Hudson River in New York, New York, USA after both engines failed. That set in motion a frantic rescue of more than 150 people. This “project” offered no time for an empowered agile team to set clear working agreements as they collaborated on a short-term plan. The only relevant approach was for citizens in nearby boats and first responders in the city to take immediate, organic action.

Agile isn't necessary for simple projects. Other projects really just aren't that hard. A project manager at a print advertising company once told me that every year she has to coordinate the order, delivery and installation of an expensive new printing machine. “My biggest risk isn't uncertainty; it's that I've got so many other things distracting me. Should I use agile to make sure I don't slip behind?” The answer is no.

Agile is optimized for complexity. The agile movement was founded by people trying to solve innovation problems involving some degree of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity). Unlike with chaos projects, these projects were planned with a clear goal from the outset. In this messy middle of the uncertainty spectrum, it makes sense to invest in a fully allocated team to regularly rework prototypes based on frequent retrospectives.

Agile might be more relevant than you think. Remember those oil drilling projects referenced above? Interestingly, their dynamics have transformed in recent decades. During the 20th century, it was common for only 1 in 5 drill sites to gush oil. That was okay because that one winner more than made up for losses. But today oil executives don't tolerate so much uncertainty. So drilling teams test assumptions and the viability of potential sites in an iterative fashion to boost the success rate.

Have you assessed the level of uncertainty your project faces? It's the first step toward understanding whether agile is a good fit. PM

img Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, has served on the core team of the Agile Practice Guide and the Steering Committee for the PMI-ACP® certification. He can be reached at [email protected].
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