By Jan Pries-Heje, professor at Roskilde University and external facilitator at Mannaz.
Are you considering applying agile project management? Or are you already doing so? Read more and get an IT professor’s perspective on the method’s opportunities, potential and limitations.
Is your project management ready for the future?
Agile project management is gaining a serious foothold in Denmark. Many companies implemented the method a long time ago. However, others are still hesitating and doubt if agile project management will add value. So let’s start by putting into words what agile project management can do. The answer lies within the agile project management form’s ability to absorb change quickly and effectively. It is simply born to handle change. Thereby, the agile form is more equipped to tackle the speed at which companies are forced to change and adjust to their surroundings.
A faster horse
Companies often do not know themselves how to conquer the challenges they face, which makes it difficult to make a requirement specification. Still, many have tried to make a requirement specification the classic way, which has caused them trouble. They have not had sufficient knowledge about the subject matter and, even if they did ask the users in their search for clarity, the answers they got were along the lines of the new having to be like the old – just a bit better and faster. Or, to put it another way, sort of like wishing for a faster horse instead of inventing a car. The error occurs at this point, because everything is based on the old, even though technology gives us brand-new opportunities, for example through digital platforms, information architecture (IA) and robot technology.
“The brief iterations with user involvement are the very foundation of the agile principle.”
Ready for change
No wonder it’s difficult for users to define what they need for the future. We are indeed facing substantial change, and not even the experts agree what exactly the future holds. But it is in the very meeting with the unknown and the imprecise that agile project management has its strength. The agile project management form embraces the challenges because the method is iterative. Perhaps a quick prototype is made, feedback is received from the users and the prototype is adjusted, or a brand-new one is made if the first one missed the target. In that way, the user’s feedback is at the centre of the development, as opposed to the classic method where the user typically does not see the end product until the project is completed.
The brief iterations with user involvement are the very foundation of the agile principle. User involvement is crucial because, naturally, the project team members are not experts at everything; rather, they need a close collaboration with a user who has a decision-making mandate. The decision-making mandate is key here, because the quick response ensures quick progress and saves a lot of waiting time.
Not everyone is ready for agile project management
The extensive user involvement may seem extreme, because the project owner must be available almost all the time. That’s the price for the speed of the project, and I do come across leaders who say that they don’t have the time. If that is the case, agile project management does not suit that particular organisation, because the project owner’s availability is a prerequisite for the agility to succeed. User involvement is also the reason why agile project management is not suited for projects where the users are not clear, for example if you need to make a database that is to be used by other systems.
Furthermore, it is a fundamental prerequisite for agile project management that everyone can solve all tasks on the team.. For example, if you are a team made up of specialists, such as an IT architect etc, and you are each only able to solve your own task, you will not benefit from Scrum. On the other hand, there is a great risk of a bottleneck, and in those instances, agile project management is not ideal, either.
“Practice makes perfect – especially when it comes to agile project management.”
Adjusting as needed
Recently, when I was writing an article about agile project management, I interviewed nine different companies, and I learned that no one fully uses the Scrum method. I learned that the companies had mostly taken the parts they were able to use and adjusted the method to their reality. This is somewhat surprising, but I think it is positive, because what matters most is that companies find the method that ensures progress and success.
So far, my experience has shown that Scrum and other agile methods are best suited for small projects with up to 15 participants, but right now it seems as if that limit is being pushed. The big question is what the maximum size is for teams that run agilely. This is where we will see the next innovation within agile project management, if you ask me. In order for large teams to succeed, everyone definitely needs to be performing at their best.
Agile project management in the public sector
Compared to agile project management, the classic public organisations might stumble with the informal form seen in Scrum. It will probably go okay in the small teams, but as soon as the project becomes bigger, it may pose a challenge, the reason being that the hierarchical structure of public organisations makes it difficult to delegate the decision-making mandate to the project owner.
Even if it may take a bit longer for agile project management to catch on in the public sector, a survey conducted by Mannaz and Roskilde University showed that 40% of Danish companies have tried agile project management at least once. This makes sense, because there are many advantages to the agile form, even if a certain mindset and framework must be in place.
If you would like to get started on agile project management, it is important that you don’t just go ‘all in’. Each project must be assessed according to the project management form that is the most suitable. It is not agile or nothing. For your first project, you must choose a project of guaranteed success. Agile project management takes practice, so don’t start with your riskiest project.
For the past 20 years Jan Pries-Heje has researched, solved problems and designed solutions for IT organisations and IT projects. Since 2007 Jan has worked as a professor of informatics and computer science at Roskilde University where he heads a research group for user-driven IT innovation. Since 1999 Jan has researched in and helped companies with agile development and agile project management. For example, he has designed a model for choosing between agile and plan-driven methods, and has developed a method that can be applied to tailor an agile procedure for a specific organisation. Jan is an external facilitator at Mannaz on the training programmes Agile Project Management, Examined Scrum Master and Mannaz IT Project Management Training.