Agile is a well-used and misused term. Can I run a project in an agile approach should probably always be answered “yes”! That’s agile with a lower case ‘a’ where the definition of the word is able to move quickly and easily. We should all look to work in an agile way. Of course, when people refer to this, they mean (consciously or not) Agile.

Agile is not a project management method per se, more a philosophy, a set of principles that have been used to define formal methodologies such as Scrum.  Working in an Agile way does sound good though and is sometimes used as a reason for poor planning, scoping and lack of project management generally. “I don’t need to plan, I’m taking an Agile approach!”. This is not Agile, this is just bad project management.

The Scrum methodology (as an example) has clearly defined characteristics, language, approach, and principles. It is certainly not ‘making it up as we go’.  There are many articles on what constitutes Scrum and here I want to discuss when we should use this type of approach versus Waterfall.

Scrum Vs Waterfall

Often when people say Waterfall, they predefine it by saying “the traditional Waterfall approach” as if it were something from the Victorian era and should be condemned to the bad working practices of the past. Not true. Lots of projects are run using a linear approach. That sounds better, doesn’t it? Yes, the Association for Project Management Body of Knowledge Version 7 discusses project management methodologies and refers to Waterfall as Linear. Most projects are run in a linear way; we define requirements, we build a solution, we test and then have our Champagne. Perfect.

The APM refer to Agile as iterative. I see this as a good standard term for us all to use.  So you might be asking, can I run this project using a linear or iterative approach? Let’s look at the fundamentals.

Linear vs Iterative

Linear projects have a more clearly defined scope of work where time and resources are estimated to achieve that scope of work.

Iterative have clearly defined resources and timescales with a relatively more flexible scope.

Linear Project Characteristics

Linear Project Characteristics

Iterative Project Characteristics

Iterative Project Characteristics

So, for those projects where the scope is well known, it could make more sense to plan that work using a linear approach. For those projects where the exact scope is unknown, perhaps we are focusing more on achieving value in a defined period of time. We’ll do what we can within that period of time, then perhaps Iterative is a better way forward.

Should I use an Iterative or linear approach?

I would like to take this a little further and talk about Hybrid, combining both. Let us have the best of both worlds, rather than following one single approach.  Projects typically sit within a corporate environment where start, end and budget need to be set. The finance team is not particularly open to being told its an Agile project, so we do not know how much money we need. Referring to my opening statements, this is not Agile.

So, projects need to fit the corporate approach and lifecycle framework. This structure is important for good governance and lends itself to linear. Within the project itself, there also may well be Work Packages (areas of scope) that also have a high degree of certainty. These benefit from being well planned with estimated resources and timescales, being more linear.

There are other Work Packages that might have a higher degree of uncertainly. We are not sure exactly how we will achieve X but it needs to deliver Y benefit or value. If you have been involved in projects with a high degree of uncertainty (or lots of unknowns) and have attempted detailed planning you will be familiar with the frustrations and friction this can cause. “We don’t know, so how can we plan!” is the common complaint.

These uncertain Work Packages could benefit from taking an interactive approach. Define timeboxed periods (yes, sprints), prioritise the scope (yes, product backlog) and put a team together to crack on through that timebox focusing on the most important items.  Have a daily meeting to check progress and ensure we are all working in the same direction (yes, daily stand up).  The daily meeting ensures we retain focus and flexibility, important given the uncertain nature of the work.

This diagram illustrates the point. Work with certainty is managed with a linear approach, whereas work with a higher degree of uncertainty benefits from a more iterative approach.

Waterfall vs Iterative Project Approach

Therefore, going forward consider the right approach for each Work Package based on the level of scope uncertainty. The higher the uncertainty perhaps the more we should lean on an iterative approach. The more certainly then the more we should lean towards linear. Current thinking looks beyond classifying projects as Waterfall OR Agile but rather recognises that a good Project Manager is flexible and uses the techniques & approach best fit for each scenario.  Perhaps we should all be agile after all.

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