New Breeds

Hybrid Approaches Can Sow Confusion; But If Thoughtfully Developed, They Will Deliver Value

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

A project manager recently shared with me the solution to his agile problem. “We can't use agile techniques because other departments are not on board with them yet. So instead, we use a hybrid model,” he proudly declared. “We call it ‘water-scrum-fall.’”

The subject of hybrid approaches—drawing on agile and traditional techniques—comes up more frequently in my conversations with project managers these days. But deviation from textbook agile methods inspires heated reaction (much of it negative) from experts and makes many practitioners anxious. Here's a pragmatic perspective on this growing debate.

Combos can help. Many situations can benefit from a combination of plan-driven and agile techniques. For example, a construction project might initially involve iterating design mock-ups and prototypes, and then be executed via a rigid plan-driven methodology. Many teams in many kinds of organizations tailor their approach depending on the type of project or life cycle phase at hand. But there is a dark side.

Beware tack-ons. The best intentions can lead nowhere. After hearing about the benefits of agile approaches, executives and senior leaders may issue a mandate for project leaders to “go agile.” Eager to meet expectations, project managers implement new techniques (such as timeboxes and user stories) into their project environment—while maintaining existing siloed and sequential work processes. The result: a “double overhead” dynamic that confuses people and slows down the project. Surprise, surprise: The superficial changes failed to boost collaboration.

Experiment. Rather than be superficial, be experimental. Try slicing work items into micro-deliverables. Try forming a cross-departmental tiger team. Try soliciting stakeholder feedback on intermediate outputs. Try something, then review whether it helped, and adjust. Even if your combination is problematic, regular intermediate checkpoints will reveal what's wrong.

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Declaring the use of a hybrid approach isn't dangerous in itself. The danger is in saying, “Our hybrid is just right. We've figured it all out. You should follow our example.” Too many project managers and even self-described agile experts say this about their own pet methodology.

Many situations can benefit from a combination of plan-driven and agile techniques.

Mix, match and mash up. Don't be haphazard in how you hybridize—but don't be afraid to try something new if straight agile or straight waterfall isn't cutting it. PM

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

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