Oct 19, 2008

Dancing with Projects

Posted by in Culture & Change Management, Project & Program Management | 0 Comments

There's much being written these days about the need for agility in business. Yet I wonder whether most folks really understand or appreciate what's meant by "agility." Agility does not mean unmanaged or undocumented! A look in the dictionary reveals a lot about agile management practices. The word agility, derived from the Latin agere, means “to drive, act,” and is related to the word “agency.” So, it means to have a sense of ownership, to be able to drive something forward. Other definitions also mention “ready ability to move with quick easy grace.” So it’s also associated with the quick and easy changes of direction and form called for by today’s business environment. Thirdly, the definition refers to “having a quick resourceful and adaptable character.”So, agility has three characteristics important to project management in this new business world:

  • Sense of ownership and authority
  • Quick and easy changes of direction
  • Resourceful and adaptable manager characteristics.

How do these attributes apply to the practice of project management? Well, most of us practice what I’ll call “traditional project management” (TPM) - a method focused on centralized decision-making and control within a hierarchical organizational structure. TPM has been proven to be successful when projects have solutions that can be pretty well defined, scoped and estimated (both time and cost), such as most construction projects.

However, today’s business projects are likely to have high degrees of unknowns and uncertainties associated with them (the global economic picture included!).Many project managers today feel it is nearly impossible to completely and clearly document all requirements, even at a high level, at the beginning of any project, given the speed of economic dynamics. Only after product development commences does the customer begin to realize that what they needed is not exactly what they requested. The cost to business and consumers for this behavior is immense when projects are not completed satisfactorily, with missed schedules and cost overruns. An approach that deals with the reality of change, which is always changing, needs to be utilized, or an approach that incorporates discovery and learning throughout the project life cycle. That approach is Agile project management, which seems to me to be based on six principles:

Close interaction between the customer/user and the developers

  • Less time dedicated to planning at the beginning of the project
  • Smaller teams and more highly skilled team members
  • Delayed but timely decision making
  • Adaptive Leadership
  • Elimination of “waste” – activities that don’t contribute value.

Barriers to adopting Agile PM. We have become accustomed to using formal predictive approaches to force uncertainty resolution in a project and to prevent changes in the project’s scope. With agile project management, change and uncertainty become the norm and the project team needs the ability to adapt to ensure project success.

A 2006 survey conducted by the Agile Project Leadership Network revealed that the greatest concerns expressed related to implementing agile techniques centered around “soft” issues; that is, issues related to people and the organization, not the methodology or the tools. I believe these observations are equally pertinent to organizations adopting agile project management.

Because of our past experiences, as business people, we are typically comfortable with pre-planned linear approaches to our projects. And, we tend to resist doing non-linear, or adaptive, work. Often times this resistance is demonstrated through actions such as scapegoating, projection of negative claims on a process, or killing off the leader in the hopes that “if only we had the right leader our problems would be solved.”

The reality is that as project managers, we are frequently not in positions of real authority to drive organizational change. We, nonetheless, are in the strategically challenging and personally risky position relative to communicating these new approaches to project team members and sponsors, approaches that will require a change in thinking, attitude and perceptions of how things are going to be. In particular, leaders in a PMO should act as change agents, assisting the organization in determining when new and better techniques in the application of project management should be adopted or adapted into practice.

The PMO should guide the project managers and sponsors, as they determine when to use a certain methodology for delivery, establishing boundaries and a structure for all projects, no matter what the delivery process. The PMO should work with the project managers and project teams to determine how to best adapt existing processes to be more agile, more nimble, and in the education and communication of these adaptations to the rest of the organization. Additionally the PMO should serve as the leader in measuring the impact agile techniques have on the business’s overall performance.

For more details about Agile PM than it’s possible to put in a blog entry, if you’re at the PMI Global Congress in Denver this week, you can check out my presentation:

Agile Project Management: A Mandate for the Changing Business Environment (Monday, Oct. 20, 2:30 PM - 3:45 PM)

 … or, if you are a PMP, stop by the PM Solutions booth on the show floor to pick up your “PMP gift” copy of my new book, Agile Project Management: A Mandate for the 21st Century.

Then, please: share your thoughts with me here on the Strategy & Projects blog, because – like any other business endeavor - Agile Project Management is evolving based on the experiences of its practitioners.


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