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Could Combining Traditional and Agile Methods Lead To More Successful Projects?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 10th December 2012

There are many different ways to approach managing a project and the best approach will partly depend on the type of project, the type of organisation and even the personal attitudes of the project manager. Some organisations will insist on following a formal methodology rigorously, others will allow a PM to adapt a formal method to best suit the organisation’s working practices and the vagaries of the type of project being undertaken. Others will pick and choose aspects of a traditional method based on their experience of previous successful projects. Many IT projects (but certainly not all) will use more flexible approaches such as agile project management methods.
Whilst most experienced project managers will have their own preferred methodology, there is not one right way to manage a project; a project can, of course, be successful using different approaches or even a combination of approaches. But can PMs who have a staunch belief in their preferred method learn from others with different convictions and experiences?
By opening up their minds to a different approach they may find that combining the best aspects of formal methods with the best elements of an agile method (and maybe some internal processes thrown into the mix) may just offer a better way of managing projects. Of course, it would be a compromise between traditional and agile methods and many would argue that a compromise never really provides what anyone actually wants but what it could do is offer a solution that delivers a successful project and that would mean the client is satisfied, which is surely the ultimate goal of every project.
It is true in all aspects of life, not just in project management, that compromise gives no individual what they really want but if we chose to live our lives taking no account of the views and opinions of friends, colleagues and family, the end result would not be a very good one. And so it is with project management or, indeed, any aspect of our working lives.
So, just how could we combine a traditional approach with agile project management methods?
project stats on laptop
The common ground between tradition and agility
First we should consider what all projects have in common: they all seek to deliver a quality end-product that fulfils the requirements of the client within a defined timescale and at a defined cost. Every project will have risks, encounter problems and need changes to the specification of the product, the schedule and maybe the costs. Complex issues, interactions and dependencies will have to be dealt with; a team will have to be put together, managed and motivated, and progress will have to be communicated to all concerned.
So, no matter how the project is completed, the fundamentals of what need to be done are the same. It should, therefore, in theory, be a simple matter of agreeing which aspects of different methods work best for different parts of the project. Well if someone can give me a simple answer to that I will eat my head (in the words of Dr Grimwig from Oliver Twist).
We could start with our preferred methodology and select the elements that we expect to work well for an upcoming project and, naturally, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel for every new project but over the course of several projects we could refine and improve the processes that are right for our own organisation and types of project. Once we know what aspects of a methodology work well and which work less well, then we can start to introduce elements from other approaches to take over from the parts that are not being successful.
To simply ignore all aspects of traditional PM methods, which have many, many years of wisdom incorporated into them, would risk missing out on all of that accumulated knowledge. Similarly to ignore the advantages of agile project management methods would forever root your projects in a constrained approach that can lead to projects taking longer than necessary and developing more problems along the route to a successful delivery than a flexible approach which delivers staged products that can be refined more readily towards the end goal.
But how can we evaluate which aspects of a particular method might be the best overall?
analysis of agile project management methods
Measuring & Experimenting
Obviously any approach must be suitable for a range of different project types but to fully evaluate a particular process of an overall method it must be possible to measure the results – in an ideal world it would be particularly interesting to run a single project using 2 different methods and compare how successful each method is at different stages of the project lifecycle. This would require that individuals with firm beliefs in one method or another open their minds to discussion, analysis and evaluation and be prepared to admit that certain ways are better than their preferred method. It would require honest debate, and not argument, between project management professionals with differing viewpoints. I am not optimistic that anyone would undertake such a thorough (and expensive) evaluation simply in the spirit of experimentation.
But if there is anyone out there actually doing that I would love to hear from you!
Mixing Ingredients
In many ways combining project management methodologies is a bit like a recipe – you take the ingredients that go together best to produce the desired dish for any given meal. If PM processes were a selection of ingredients with certain combinations proven to work well together then it would be relatively easy to mix flexibility and discipline in just the right proportions to deliver a truly successful project.
Without some formal elements a project can get mired in long drawn-out processes that add nothing to the final outcome, but similarly a lack of rigour can result in a lack of control that can lead to an unsuccessful outcome either through project delays, budget over-runs or a failure to deliver what the client expected.
Without a doubt it is a real challenge to combine traditional and agile project management methods in order to manage a project in a controlled yet flexible way but it might just be the way to find the solution to the lack success in many projects.
Think about it if you are struggling to get the requirements or planning phase of a project completed.
And if you have successfully combined formal and agile project management methods why not share your experiences with us?

  1. Maggie Collins says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post!
    I think natural fits for PMI-to-Agile bridge building can be found in the PMI initiating and planning process groups, particularly if a team struggles with getting out of the planning phase. An Agile-adapted method might, for example, begin very early in the process with developing the HR plan: for Agile chartering to commence, a project team ~ including its core team ~ is a great place to start, because they’re all essential participants in the Agile chartering process.
    So far, I haven’t combined Agile and traditional methodologies: have you learned more about this subject since publishing this post that you’d like to share?
    Thanks again,
    Maggie Collins

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