Can Agile PM be applied outside of IT environments?

, Can Agile PM be applied outside of IT environments?

Jim Conroy, VP Global Sales & Marketing at Project Objects discusses how agile methodologies are relevant to more than just IT.

Agile methodologies are most frequently discussed in relation to software development projects and have been proven highly effective at ensuring projects can complete on time and are delivered according to original stakeholder expectations. There is now strong evidence to support the use of agile working to deliver enterprise wide projects, such as the introduction of new applications, managing large R&D projects or the creation of an organisation-wide PMO, complete with an enterprise PPM solution as its backbone.

As an organisation, when implementing our software, we’ve also embraced agile working at multiple levels and merged two very different environments into one ‘wagile’ platform.  On the one hand, our customers need a top down waterfall PPM approach to control projects and link their strategic goals to execution.  On the other hand, customers want the ability to retain a high degree of creativity with their IT, R&D, Project and Product work teams, allowing them to work in a more agile, Kanban type environment.

A ‘wagile’ approach provides the depth of functionalities required for complex projects to link strategy with execution, to manage portfolios to make more effective decisions, to manage resources, to manage costs and to drive on-time completion of projects while also providing an easy to use agile, Kanban approach for the team to collaborate and execute on the projects.  Our model is the glue between outputs of work managed within agile teams and the overall project waterfall framework. We transform agile data into enterprise assets to support PM, PMO and Executives in their strategic decisions.

From experience, one fundamental reason why an agile approach makes sense at the enterprise project level is because these projects are highly complex and long term. They are transformative, typically involving a cultural change and it is difficult to envisage the full project scope at the outset.

Where some companies are mistaken about the viability of adopting an agile approach for projects, comes from outdated thinking that they have to take an either/or approach. ‘It has to be either waterfall or agile’. The world is changing and a hybrid ‘wagile’ model, taking the best of agile and waterfall approaches has emerged as an ideal compromise.

There is also a perception that for some companies in some industries, a completely agile way of running their projects is fundamentally flawed and that such a ‘loose’, iterative approach could have catastrophic consequences, not to mention become extremely costly.

How can an aircraft engine or an oil rig be engineered iteratively, they argue? Clear stages must be completed before the next phase can begin, or it would simply be uneconomical.

In our experience that is misguided, it is possible to adopt the founding principles of agile and run any project according to an agile worldview.  Each stage could be completed iteratively, but with the overall production phase run according to a stage gate approach. Softer aspects such as designing the user interface could also be approached in an agile way, perhaps using a methodology like ‘user teach back’ because mistakes at the software level are easier to rectify.

Our customers are typically running capital projects – in the oil and gas, utilities, construction and engineering, consumer products and financial services sectors, so we have learned a great deal about the viability of adopting a ‘wagile’ way of working outside the software development industry.  Experience has highlighted that whilst aspects of agile can highly benefit the ability to deliver a project to its successful conclusion, the sheer complexity of enterprise projects, the costs associated with an entirely agile, iterative approach and the likelihood that the said project will involve extensive cultural change, means waterfall must be retained as the underlying framework.

Increasing numbers of companies are now also actively adopting the hybrid ‘wagile’ approach where, for example, the PMO can leverage an integrated view resulting from the consolidation of the Engineering teams agile work into the overall project waterfall planning and control framework.

 

What aspects of agile working will most enhance waterfall project management?

Incremental or iterative working

This is the very essence of agile and one fundamental aspect that is most useful to enterprise projects. This is because, the complexity involved makes it so difficult to predict and scope in advance.  In fact, trying too hard to be predictive and prescriptive can significantly increase project risks. Instead, successful organisations are allowing traditional scheduling and project management to co-exist with agile techniques that are primarily applied at the tactical level. This means project cadence can be increased, plus stakeholders can naturally become more involved, which increases user acceptance and the likelihood of long term benefits realisation.

Sprints

Essentially a mini project within the overall project design, when sprints are incorporated into an enterprise waterfall methodology, the project timescales are significantly improved.  Stakeholders work more efficiently and the overall feeling of user empowerment is enhanced. Unlike a traditional schedule where people can be lulled into thinking there is plenty of time to spare, people tend to work harder in a sprint, to ensure they are not the team members who didn’t accomplish their tasks before the end of the sprint.

Timeboxing

This is one of the best examples to illustrate the benefits of a wagile approach that takes in the best of each methodology. Timeboxing takes a scope of work and puts it into a schedule – a ‘time box’. Regardless of how ‘agile orientated’ an organisation becomes, there will always be a need to deliver projects on time and according to budget.

Cross functional working

Part of the complexity inherent in enterprise projects is a result of the diversity of different stakeholders involved.  The greater the ongoing levels of cross functional involvement, as found in an agile approach, the lower the likelihood of any redundancy.  A cross functional team comprised of functional experts working together will always operate with greater efficiency and focus.

SAFe agile framework

There is also a perception that agile methodologies only work well for smaller companies and shorter-term projects. This is a misnomer and well proven frameworks exist to enable agile techniques to be scaled for an enterprise setting, the most common of which is SAFe. Enterprise PPM can act as the canvas where SAFe can be implemented to handle most of the important assets such as strategy, ideation, resource, financials and project execution.