The project management profession is growing and evolving as projects become a more significant part of businesses in our complex and fast-changing environments. The approach to project management is, consequently, being improved to more reliably give successful results. But just what is the most reliable approach to project management? Is it the tried and tested methods that have been in use for decades or the newer more flexible methodologies that have been maturing rapidly in the 21st century? There are certainly strong advocates for both approaches.
Traditional project management started to be used in the 1960s as organisations began to recognise the benefits of planning work activities more rigorously, communicating more effectively and collaborating with different departments and businesses. Until the end of the 20th century project management methodologies took a traditional “waterfall” approach, which assumes that a project has a definite beginning and end, that it can be planned in phases, and that risks and other events affecting the project can, on the whole, be predicted. It assumes that the product, service or result that the project is intended to deliver can be specified in detail before the project starts and can, therefore, be delivered with defined resources in a specified timeframe.
Some of the most project-intensive industries such as construction and manufacturing have tended to use traditional methods such as PRINCE2, or those from the Association for Project Management (APM) or the Project Management Institute (PMI), which have been proven to work over time in a variety of business environments. Whilst such a method can work well for something like building a new bridge or motorway, it is much less suited to developing, for instance, a new software application at the forefront of technology so these traditional methodologies are not always appropriate for certain projects, particularly, but not exclusively, IT projects.
The disadvantage of a waterfall approach is that it is not always possible or desirable (in the case of an innovative design, for instance) to fully specify the end-product at the beginning of a project, and so significant changes may be required to the plans and schedule throughout the project. Uncertainty in projects is almost inevitable; people cannot always think in the abstract so cannot always articulate what they want until they see something. Consider a long, complex IT project that is expected to take over a year to complete – the chances are that technology will move on during the lifetime of the project leaving certain included features redundant and other, now essential, features excluded. Clearly, significant changes need to be planned for and managed in fast-paced industries in order to deliver what the customer needs at the point of delivery.
For these reasons many organisations were already adapting their internal project processes to use a more iterative approach, instead of trying to shoe-horn a project into a traditional framework fundamentally unsuited to the task, before the principle of agile project management was consolidated. These processes may not have been specifically identified as “agile” but often used the same principles: regular, staged deliverables, frequent face-to-face communication, emphasis on interactions rather than processes and welcoming change as the route to success.
Eventually, in 2001 a group of advocates of iterative methods with both academic and real-world project experience wrote The Agile Manifesto, which defined the principles of agile PM, based around the simple idea that smaller activities are easier to manage successfully. The principles were based on sound research that indicated that an incremental, iterative, prototype-based method would solve some of the problems inherent in traditional methods and so offer real business benefits.
Agile project management starts with the premise that not everything is known at the start of the project and that changes will always be necessary and, indeed, should be welcomed at every stage of a project. They are structured in small stages with frequent testing so that the team can learn quickly and use that knowledge to improve the project as it progresses. Using this iterative learning and modifying strategy makes the team increasingly effective in producing what the customer wants. Agile PM is a set of values and principles that can be used with a range of practical project management methodologies (such as Scrum, Extreme, Lean or DSDM)
According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), 15.7 million project management positions will have been created worldwide before the end of the decade across seven project-intensive industries: business services, construction, finance and insurance, information systems, manufacturing, oil and gas, and utilities. Project management is clearly a serious profession that needs a professional approach to delivering projects and that approach is likely to be an adaptable one: using a combination of traditional and agile PM methods, often on the same project, when the circumstances demand it.
A project with a fixed, and tight, deadline determined by prevailing market conditions may need the rigour of a Waterfall method as the dominant approach but could still benefit from some measure of flexibility in, for instance, rapidly developing a prototype. Similarly a completely ground-breaking product, of a type that has never been created before, would need an Agile approach but could benefit from the control of costs and schedules that a traditional approach can impose.
Just as concept artists produce illustrations that help production designers visualise sci-fi or fantasy elements for films or to help the film gain financial backing, the stage deliverables produced in agile PM have an important purpose – they can be the drivers that determine whether the project will be fully funded and supported as well as determining how a final product will be designed. This is an all-important element in many industries and an Agile approach, once exclusively IT-oriented, is being absorbed into the way all project manager’s work, whether in name or not, in order to add business value. The flexible, “new” approach to project management has gained increasing recognition in all types of projects as agile PM methods have matured.