Traditional v Agile Project Management

Agile Project Management v Traditional Project Management: Mindset and context matter most

Successful project management today is no more or less magical or mysterious than it has ever been. Success is a natural result of consistently applying basic fundamentals, with the right mindset, in your business context.

Depending how you frame a question about agile, compared to traditional, project management, an online search will deliver between 35 million and 1,700 million results in 0.8 seconds or less! No surprise, the majority are promoting a perspective; arguing a position because that’s what is being offered for purchase.

These methodologies are, in reality, very similar. A methodology, like technology, is neither the problem nor the solution. Asking which is better is the wrong question. Understanding the fundamentals and how they can be applied to your business context will guide you to proven methods, without getting lost in fancy labels.

The History

The Egyptians used project management to build the Giza Pyramids between 2589 and 2504 BC. Similarly unique constructions were created by the Indus valley and Mesoamerican civilisations around that era. From those times to Vitruvius in the first century BC and until the 1900’s, construction projects were managed based on the individual skills of creative architects and master builders.

But in the 1950’s, project management developed as a discipline when engineers developed and used specific tools and techniques to manage complex, large scale construction, engineering, and defence activities.

Japanese industrial management methods found their way to the west during the 1980’s essentially under the banner of Total Quality Management, Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing. Japanese industry, because of their methods, were way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of speed of design and execution. The principal concept being: value people and let strategy unfold. When industries in other countries tried to use these methods they didn’t always deliver success. History reveals the challenge is not solution deployment, it’s how people are supported to handle the change.

Agile Project Management evolved from the lean manufacturing concept introduced by Toyota in the 1940s. The following timeline shows how project management and management methods emerged relative to the development and use of Agile:

  • 1911 Scientific Management
  • 1940’s Lean Manufacturing
  • 1951 Total Quality Management
  • 1970’s Waterfall Model created
  • 1981 Japanese management – value people and let strategy unfold
  • 1986 Six Sigma
  • 1991 SCRUM conceived
  • 1995 SCRUM codified and put into practice
  • 2001 Agile Manifesto written
  • 2003 Lean Software Development “toolkit” publish

The Difference

Is mostly terminology, and users not being creative when applying already proven methods within their context.

Traditional projects generally involved delivering a known outcome to the customer – which could be specified. With technology projects, what the customer wants is less certain.

The waterfall model was developed by software engineers applying the project management thinking successfully used by construction, industry and defence engineers. They embraced agile project management methodologies because they believed it increased their speed, collaboration, and ability to respond to customer requirements.

Agile project management is an iterative approach to managing (software) development projects. Software engineers could have managed their project by adopting a flexible mindset when applying project management methods in their context.

Time, cost and quality are the key variables for every project. Scope (what the customer wants) specifies these. Quality, in traditional (engineering) project management should be broadly interpreted. It covers safety, environmental, and finished product. Delivering what the customer wants within these variables is the goal of every project manager.

Traditional project management developed two project-scheduling models that are similar in concept but used differently:

  1. the critical path method (CPM) – the primary assumption of CPM is that the duration and sequence of each activity is known.
  2. the program evaluation and review technique (PERT) – PERT assumes activity duration and sequence are uncertain and uses resource capacity to plan delivery.

Agile developed two similar models:

  1. Scrum uses fixed-length iterations of work, called sprints.
  2. Kanban matches the work to the team’s capacity.
  • In both models, work is split into relatively small activities and the sequence organised by priority.

Traditional and Agile projects both need to manage work scope and structure. The labels are different but not the intent:

  • Agile manages stories, epics, initiatives, and themes.
  • Traditional manages activities, stages, phases and programs.

The Insight

The digital revolution has already delivered great advances. It’s also created avoidable complexity.

There was no need to rename proven constructs as epics, stories, themes, and initiatives, or scrums, sprints, ceremonies, standups and retrospectives.

Today, businesses are starting to understand that lean management principles can be used by any sector. Teams just need a flexible mindset when applying already proven practices.

A project (agile or traditional) is:

  • a temporary activity with a defined, and usually fixed, start and end
  • expected to deliver a particular result (product, service or outcome)
  • intended to satisfy unique goals and objectives for a customer.

Project management is the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria at a specified time.

We get stuck by not being flexible or innovative [mindset] when applying already proven concepts.

When searching for answers we get misled by promotional articles dressed up as breakthrough innovations suited to the current times.

Self-proclaimed online thought leaders make statements like “Based on our experience, and the needs of the modern workforce, we believe it is time for enterprises to consider work management as a holistic practice and begin treating work—people, their actions, and the intellectual capital they create—as a tier-one asset. Business should consider the idea of a “Chief Work Officer,” a person to coordinate people, work, content, process, performance, and oversee the complete experience of working for the company.” What a load of bollocks!

It’s not a question of which methodology is better but which is most suited to your operation context – the circumstances that form your business setting and the activities you complete.

The Hunter region is evolving from traditional into agile engineering, construction and mining businesses, now complemented by growth in medical, education and professional services. These businesses have not thrown out traditional project management but adapted lessons from agile to be more productive and profitable.

The next round of business modernisation workshops is closing soon. If you want to learn how to apply agile lessons to deliver projects that lift the productivity and profitability of your business then book a call using this link.