David Walker writes about the role of Agile Project Management in delivering the strategic plans needed to thrive post-pandemic.

I wrote an article a short while ago that said one of the things people need to think about is how to start on a journey to a ‘new normal’ without knowing what it really looks like.

Subsequent to that I had a chat with a CEO of a software company. We mused about the impacts of the pandemic in a business context, and how we are all really guessing what the future holds. We agreed that the need was for businesses to do something, the days of long-term strategic plans are over and short-term strategic plans are what is needed now.

This led us on to a conversation about how this may mean that Agile projects and Agile Project Management will be applied more outside of its traditional software development homeland. Is now the time for Agile Project Management?

When people talk about Agile projects they tend to discuss Project Agility. In the Agile approach, work is delivered incrementally to the customer (who may be internal or external). Increments of work are released as soon as they are ready and can add value, not waiting until the end of the project. This allows for frequent changes in direction based on the feedback from customers in response to what they are receiving.

However, aligned to this is the consideration of Organisational Agility. This refers to how the organisation approaches how it works. Executives demand “organisational agility” which is the ability to respond faster and more flexibly to disruption or changes demanded by their customers or within the market they serve. There may be a desire for fast and flexible responses but that is not always possible. Traditional hierarchies, complex governance structures and centralised decision-making may prevent effective agile working.

Traditionally project management is focussed on delivering a total outcome. Agile turns this approach to delivering new products or services on its head. To compare and contrast the two approaches we think about the bases of the project management paradigm – time, cost and scope.

A traditional approach typically uses rigid project management that is linear in nature. In an Agile approach, instead of comprehensively gathering the requirements (ie; scope) for all elements up front, Project Managers are encouraged to create an experiment. They take an element that can be developed quickly and adds value, it is developed and put in front of the customer to get their feedback. If greeted with enthusiasm – for instance it is still applicable to the strategic requirements of the current view of ‘new normal’ – it develops further. If the customer doesn’t like it – perhaps it is no longer relevant to the perceived ‘new normal’ – it goes no further. Time and cost are more important than scope.

With a more traditional approach (most often referred to as the ‘waterfall’ approach) we map out the full scope, then build towards developing the full requirement by applying the time and cash to achieve the outcome. Only when the full requirement is built do we usually get the benefits of the project. In a post-pandemic sense this would amount to understanding every nuance of the perceived ‘new normal’ and building a comprehensive project to deal with all aspects of that.

Comparing and contrasting the two approaches in this short article is difficult, but here are some distinctions;

  • The Waterfall approach is ideal for projects which have defined requirements, with few changes expected.
  • The Agile approach is best suited where there is a higher chance of frequent requirement changes.
  • The Waterfall is a sequential approach. It has a long planning horizon and interdependencies are built in. Changes can be difficult to make.
  • Agile is iterative – it has a short planning horizon and is consequently flexible. It is possible to make changes in any phase.
  • Waterfall works well where Time and Cost are lesser constraints, and scope is most important.
  • Agile works well where Time and Cost are the most important constraints, and the Scope is subsequently constrained by these.

With thanks to praxisframework.org.

Consequently Agile Project Management will work well where we don’t have a complete view of the future. In the post-pandemic case the scope is unclear (or unknown) but to thrive we need to head off in a strategic direction heading towards what we perceive to be the ‘new normal’. Time and cost are more important, and because we recognise that ‘new normal’ is evolving (to the ‘next’ normal) taking an Agile approach allows us to deliver value-creating activity without having full clarity of the long-term strategic requirements. Organisations need to take a long hard look at their Organisational Agility though – a fast and flexible approach will not work where historic and ingrained corporate practices constrain progress.

It is on this basis that it is my view that Agile Project Management is appropriate now. There is no reason that Agile approaches cannot be applied to non-software projects (although there are some projects where it is not wholly applicable). As ‘new normal’ develops, the Agile approach builds in the flexibility to deliver incremental scope, and reflect the joint impacts of cost and time. If the ‘new normal’ changes, then the project delivery easily changes to reflect the amended strategic context. By contrast, developing a traditional fully-featured strategic plan and delivering against that incorporates a huge risk of delivering the wrong things, misaligned to the various states of ‘new normal’ to come.

David can be contacted at [email protected]

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