Agile the holy grail of project management (?)

Agile the holy grail of project management

This is the second blog that resulted out of my learning experience during the Zurich 2016 Expert Seminar on 18 and 19 February 2016. You can find the first blog over here>>. During one of the streams we talked about classical versus non classical project management. I mentioned that it sometimes looks as if Agile is a new holy grail.

When I searched for “Agile”, using Google, I got 80,600,000 results, a staggering result. “PRINCE2” only gave me 6,040,000 results, and IPMA some disappointing 670,000 results. So it seems to support the idea that Agile is indeed the Holy Grail of project management.

The manifesto

In 2001 the name Agile, as we now know it, was born with the Agile Manifesto. It is a high level document that communicates a desire to change the way that we have been delivering software during the 20th century. When you read it, you cannot disagree with it. The authors wrote: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others to do it.” I think this should be the mission of every software engineer on the face of this earth. They advocate a strong focus on: individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration and responding to change.

When you read it, it is surprising that we even need to write this down. The software industry in a whole has failed to live up to our expectations. Time and time again expectations are not met, and, when Agile can make the difference, we can do only one thing and that is to warmly welcome it.

Failing projects

When you search for “failing projects” you will get 94,700,000 hits and “failing project management” another 68,400,000. The order of magnitude is about the same as the amount of hits we get for Agile. This makes me wonder, is this a coincidence or do we witness another phenomenon?

Let me try to give you my interpretation.

Mankind is advancing, there are more people on the face of this earth than ever before. Technology is developing at an astonishing pace. Globalization, geopolitics, available communication channels have made the world a complex place to live in. The challenges we face are incomparable with those of the previous century. These challenges are and will be met by projects. These projects are becoming increasingly complex. Whatever we do we will be confronted with failure. This is inevitable and, by the way, there is nothing bad about it. Because the only way to learn is to fail, to reflect and to improve. Agile is just one of those improvements in doing projects, but it will not be Agile alone. We will need to look further.

What do we mean by saying that’s classical?

In my previous blog I made an argument that there is no such thing as classical project management. But still this designation is used and cannot be ignored. What does someone mean when he says, that’s “old thinking”, or that’s “classical”? On the internet I found 4,880,000 hits, that’s a lot, there must be a market for the distinction between the classical and the non-classical. What is the underlying need to which the authors are responding?

Mostly they want draw our attention to a better way of managing a projects. Instead of using a strict description of all the software deliverables at the start of the project they propose that it is better to do this once every two weeks and work in sprints instead of using the stages of the waterfall method. It seems as if this works better for IT projects, at this moment.

Saying something is classical, means that there is a suggestion for a better approach.

The problem with a Holy Grail

The 80,600,000 hits show that Agile is booming. The social pressure to use Agile is tremendous, we are in a stage that everyone has to adopt it. If you don’t use it, you will become obsolete. Training is booming, certifications are everywhere. Enormous amounts of money and effort are invested in implementing the Holy Grail. Will it work? It is just a method that you buy, and somewhere in time it too will become obsolete. The more you have invested in it, the more difficult it becomes to accept that. That is the real problem with a Holy Grail, you will become blind for the next disruptive change. The Grail has stopped the learning process.

My suggestion would be a new manifesto, one that has at least the next line in it: We value learning above the method.

Projects are learning experiences

I’m a skeptic as you may have noticed. I don’t believe in one method, one philosophy, one solution to all our project problems. Next to that, I definitely don’t believe the sales manager from a consultancy or training firm. I realize they are there to sell and to make their owners rich, preferably very rich.

But I do believe in improvement which is a synonym of learning. That’s my Holy Grail, that’s more Agile than Agile itself. At the start of each project, each stage, product backlog, decision to be made or milestone to achieve, I wonder: “Could we do better?”  This question has always the same answer: “Yes”.

Things to come

I’ve made the next step after the conclusion in my previous blog that there is no such thing as classical project management, we now came to the conclusion that projects are learning experiences that need to be geared towards a continuous cycle of stepwise improvement. So in my next blog you can read about this learning experience that projects need to become.

Classical project management versus non-classical

Classical and non-classical project management

18 and 19 February 2016 I was one of the speakers at the IPMA Expert Seminar in Zurich. One of the streams, in which I delivered a lecture and facilitated a workshop, was about classical project management versus non-classical. It was one of these seminars that I will cherish as a learning experience and has inspired me to write a series of blogs to extend the message that I tried to communicate. I hope that it will inspire you to think out of your ‘project management box’.

Does classical project management exist?

You need to know that I’m a radical skeptic. This does not mean that I don’t believe in something, but that I doubt all that I believe. I can never be sure that my ideas are true. This enables me to step out of the mental models that I have built up during my lifetime. This sceptic attitude results also in that when someone mentions the distinction between classical and non-classical, I wonder whether there is something as ‘classical’ project management.

It is commonly believed that project management is invented in the 20th century, as a kind of late offshoot of the scientific management movement. With the Gantt chart as a popular technique. I do not agree with this. For me that is too easy and just copying what everyone is telling. From the start of civilization, the human kind has built solid structures like temples, places to gather, theaters, irrigation canals, and so on. It has fought its wars, build kingdoms, sailed the oceans, and explored the unknown. Now you tell me, if those weren’t projects? And if they were, there should have been someone that managed the work to be done.

Project management of something that is new

When we think of projects we always think about sets of activities that are non-routine. We have to deliver something that has a number of new elements, and therefore it needs a different kind of management attention.  Now think about the pyramids in Egypt, this was something new, or what about the temple structures in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Chinese wall and the Alhambra in Granada Spain. There always have been leaders that were responsible for ‘managing the project’. When project management is managing the new, it is by definition non-classical. Therefore, we don’t need this distinction. To take it one step further …

We have never been classical

This awareness opens a new set of opportunities for me. Because I can adapt techniques from the past as well as techniques from the present. Without being afraid that I’m doing something old fashioned that isn’t professional anymore. Are you aware that ‘classical’ often is used with a negative connotation? It is used by consultants in an almost fanatic manner to promote a certain (often agile) method. The tremendous effect of the Agile Manifesto combined with the commercial efforts of training agencies to sell Scrum trainings, Kanban boards and others, make you feel that you are missing the boat. But saying that project managers need to become more Agile in order not to lose their jobs is denying the history of projects.

We have always been Agile

The distinction between Agile and non-Agile is one that, although proposed by many, is highly ambiguous, and more a mental construct or even just an ordinary sales argument. When we define project management as the management of something new, with a unique combination of different people, with different disciplines and personalities, within a certain time frame, that delivers value to others, then it can never be non-agile. So just as classical versus non-classical, I strongly doubt the difference between agile and non-agile in project management. When something is not agile it stops to be project management. There is no non-agility in project management!

What can you expect, from this blog on?

The stage is set, the distinctions disappeared, there is a clean slate, let’s build up our thinking about project management from scratch. Let’s step out of the project management thinking box. From now on I will try to upload a new blog more frequently, lets aim for one each week. Allow me to be your guide in this experiment to stretch our thinking about project management. These are the topics you can

  • Another holy grail than Agile.
  • D0 projects exist?
  • The disciplinary matrix of project management.
  • Goal setting, feedback and other project management hazards.
  • The problem with language.
  • The zone of proximate development.
  • Cultural Historical Action Theory for project managers.
  • The automated project manager.

These are some ideas I want to investigate, but I will subject myself to the associative process of the (my) human brain and will follow were this leads me. If you like this, notify the people in your network to my blog, and let’s build a network of professionals that will step out of the current project management thinking box.

Duurzaam Projectmanagement

Deze blog gaat niet over duurzaam projectmanagement, maar wel over hoe je deze competentie duurzaam ontwikkelt. Dus niet over people, planet en profit maar over jij als projectmanager die er voor zorgt dat je projectmanagement kunt blijven doen.


Vaak zeggen we tegen elkaar dat de wereld snel aan het veranderen is, en dat je je steeds aan moet aanpassen. Nu is het niet zozeer de wereld die aan het veranderen is, maar wel de wijze waarop we over die wereld denken en met elkaar communiceren. Na de verschrikkelijke aanslag op Charlie Hebdo  op 7 januari 2015 is het verleidelijk om te zeggen dat de wereld gevaarlijker is geworden. Wanneer we dat nu maar vaak genoeg tegen elkaar zeggen, dan maken we er uiteindelijk een selffulfilling prophecy van. Met woorden scheppen we de toekomst. Dit als actueel bruggetje naar duurzaam projectmanagement.

Twee eigenschappen

Een competente projectmanager heeft twee eigenschappen. De eerste, belangrijkste, is dat zijn of haar projecten als succesvol worden beoordeeld. Kortom, hoe praten betrokkenen over het project. Kortom, ben je in staat om de mensen rondom je project te overtuigen dat jouw aanpak in deze specifieke situatie tot projectsucces leidt. De tweede eigenschap is, of je in staat bent om het taalgebruik van de vakgemeenschap te volgen.

Deze laatste vraagt om een toelichting. Vaak zeggen we in projectmanagement dat we iets doen volgens best-practices, we denken dan vaak dat dit de manier van werken is die ook het beste werkt. Methoden als PRINCE2 staan er op voor dat deze gebaseerd zijn op die veronderstelling. Deze claims zijn echter zeer twijfelachtig. Wat feitelijk gebeurd is, is dat de vakgemeenschap gelooft dat het best-practice is. Achter methoden als PRINCE2 en ook “Agile familie” staan grote commerciële belangen. Organisaties vallen voor de commerciële verleiding en massaal slaan we dan een bepaalde richting in. Psychologische mechanisme zoals cognitieve dissonantie versterken dit met als resultaat, dat organisaties doorgaan men het verbranden van opleidingsbudgetten.


In al dat commerciële geweld sta jij als projectmanager. Vaar je met of tegen de stroom in. Duurzaam is, met de stroom mee. Duurzaam is, de nieuwe taal leren en binnen dat nieuwe begrippen kader projecten succesvol afronden. Best practice is niet de waarheid, maar slechts het resultaat van een onderhandeling over ideeën wat mogelijk het beste werkt. Best practice is contingent. Als jij in die onderhandeling steeds weer een compromis kan sluiten en projectsucces behaalt, dan is dat duurzaam projectmanagement.