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.