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Is an agile project approach the holy grail in crisis times?

Only those who have the agility to change with the market and innovate quickly will survive (Robert Kiyosaki)

 The answer to the title question is no … Being agile is crucial to survival. Being agile is not just adopting an agile way of doing projects. An agile project approach can be one of the pieces of the puzzle to be or become agile. Confusing? Let me try to clarify …

Disclaimer: I am not an agile specialist, scrum master, product owner of any of that. I am leading a team of architects and working with CIOs and IT managers. This is a write up of what I see and hear in my daily conversations.

What is Agile?

Try searching the internet for definitions of agile. It is an interesting read. Personally, I like the definition of the Agile Alliance most as a starting point: “Agile is the ability to create and respond to change. It is a way of dealing with, and ultimately succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment.” There is nothing in this definition on concepts like user stories, daily stand-up meetings, incremental or iterative development, …  

Do we have an uncertain and turbulent environment during this crisis? Fair to say to answer is yes. An agile approach to deal with that crisis is the ability to create “things” and as such respond to the change that is needed. And not just create “things”, but create the right things. Again, nothing so far on a methodology or a project approach.

One challenge is that agile does sometimes trigger negative reactions with senior management or leadership. To understand that, let us have a look at what agile is not.

What Agile NOT is?

Agile is not the solution for every problem you have

Imagine you and a friend decide it is time to start doing some sports. You are a master in agile methodologies. You will approach this “getting to do sports” project in an agile way. In a first iteration you start to create an index of all possible sports and present it to your friend. To goal is to come up with a short list of possible sports. Once that is done, you go to a sport psychologist for an assessment of what sport would fit best with your motivation and mental abilities. And you ask your friend to do the same. As a third iteration you propose to have a medical check-up. In the meantime, your friend went to a sports shop, bought a pair of tennis shoes, a racket, a short and a t-shirt and is already doing a “start to tennis”.

An agile approach is not the best solution to simple problems. It is also not something to introduce in an environment in complete chaos. The sweet sport for agile approaches in when you have complex problems. A simple problem is when you have one answer to one problem. A complex problem has multiple answers to multiple questions. That is where agile is at it is best.

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Agile is not a religion with long-haired priests using huge amounts of post-its

Agile methodologies have not done themselves much of a favour by acting as some sort of alternative lifestyle. There is nothing “underground” about agile, even if some people would like to position it like that. It is a serious business alternative to traditional approaches. And both are not mutually exclusive (no matter what the long-haired priests are saying). It is a matter of choosing the right approach to fix the right problem. And yes, in introduction courses you might be “playing with (virtual) post-it’s”, or “drawing houses” or “folding paper airplanes”. That gamification is not what agile is all about.

Agile is not getting rid of structure

If anything, agile requires MORE structure, not less … Agile embraces the apparent chaos that comes with short sprints and changing parameters. However, this has nothing to do with working without a structure. An agile approach requires structure and discipline. When team members would not show up in time for stand-up meetings or when they would not be prepared, the project will fail. But that has nothing to do with agile.

Agile is not a series of failures

Agile recognizes failure as an opportunity to strengthen your team and your product, not something that should be dreaded or downplayed. If your team is pushing itself to create truly great, innovative stuff, failure is a valued part of the process. Allowing an iteration to fail is part of the core principles of agile. But that is very different from allowing a project to fail. Quite the opposite: failure should come faster in an agile project, allowing the team to re-group and find working alternatives. And not coming to that conclusion after 6 months …

Agile in not one methodology

Scrum, Lean software development, Kanban, Extreme Programming, Crystal, … Those are all methodologies that share the overarching philosophy. When you decide to start putting some agile concepts into your organisation, you still need to decide what methodology would work best.

Advantages of an Agile Project approach?

For complex projects, an agile project approach is having a set of advantages. The quality of the product will improve. It will generate a better business value with more buy-in from users and stakeholders. It will allow flexibility through the process so dealing with changing requirements is not such a big problem. And it lowers the project risk by working with small iterations. You do not have to wait 6 months to find out what the team is trying to build is not possible or is not what the users need. These benefits only come with a proper implementation of an agile project setup. And that is one of the key pitfalls. We see companies trying to embrace agile concepts but struggling to get rid of old habits or failing to setup agile teams.

Summary

  • Agile is a mindset that allows organisations to be efficient in times of crisis. 
  • There are multiple agile methodologies to execute a project in an agile way. 
  • Doing a project in an agile way is not always possible or even recommended.
  • Doing the right type of projects in an agile way has a lot of advantages.
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