Practical Guidance

Agile Teams Focused on What We Do Also Must Examine Why We Do It


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

Recently, I was facilitating a leadership workshop at an insurance company's office in Asia when a fierce debate broke out among executives. “We are failing at empowerment,” one said. “Employees should circumvent processes if those decisions generate benefits.” Another countered: “No! If the benefit is clear, the best way to empower is to create a new process for people to follow.”

The debate about processes—when to follow them versus when to bend them in favor of deeper principles—has been an age-old, fundamental tension in project management. Those of us contributing to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Seventh Edition are exploring such challenges.

Over the past year, PMI has asked project leaders around the world: What project advice would you offer your less-experienced self? The responses have revealed three key patterns—all of which put principles in their rightful place:



Principles make agile real.

Agilistas love debating agile processes—whether it's scrum versus Kanban or estimates versus none. But the irony is that we are supposed to be above such trivial battles. The Agile Manifesto challenges leaders to follow values that go beyond any given process or plan.

Project professionals agree. Project leaders from all approaches tell us that principles give processes meaning. For example, we can get formal signoff on a product backlog, deliver 100 percent of our sprint goals on budget and on time, and still leave customers feeling left out of the creative process.

Principles guide tailoring.

Today's project environment requires a focus on value, so we see the project from the customer's eyes. Let's look at a hypothetical medical records project, for example: The project team says there's no way to complete any meaningful scope within a one-month scrum timebox and still pass a data privacy audit. Instead, a quick conversation with key stakeholders reveals they prefer two-month deliverables that are ready to ship, rather than more frequent feel-good reviews of partial work. While such an adjustment would violate the letter of the textbook process, it achieves the deeper value of customer satisfaction.

Principles fill the gaps.

When reality is moving fast, your processes might not give you the answer you need. Project leaders are recommending that we balance opportunities and risks.

Imagine that an agile approach is selected to yield transparency on a multi-vendor, high-profile public project where many things could go wrong. Unfortunately, an agile response to impediments—only after the project experiences them—means inviting stakeholder criticism. However, a more balanced perspective could inspire the team to add a risk-adjusted backlog. By including both work-to-do and risks-to-address on the backlog, the team can add more credibility than a conventional agile approach.

Have you ever been accused of being the process police? Take this feedback to heart and start pursuing principles as a deeper source of project guidance. You'll be aligned with your community and viewed as a strong leader. PM

img Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, serves on the development team of the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition and is the author of the upcoming book Untapped Agility. He can be reached at [email protected].



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