The evolution of Agile project management

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For many, even those who work in project management, the Agile approach is a somewhat elusive concept.

Few people outside of software development have been formally introduced or trained in the discipline, and this sense of it being an unknown quantity often results in people avoiding the topic completely. However, agile project management is gradually creeping into the mainstream, with a growing number of industries outside of software starting to recognise its potential.

Where did agile come from?

Agile was originally established for use in software development in the early 1980s. Those working in the field at the time suggested that the sequential approach used for other projects was not necessarily suitable for software.

Unlike other projects, which tend to carry many dependencies, it was recognised that in software several different elements could be created at the same time with no disruption to the overall goal.

Other approaches such as the phased methods were also deemed unsuitable due to a tendency for poor communication between groups working on a project, so even though different phases could be completed simultaneously, the lack of communication would result in a poor understanding of how the whole project fit together.

Even today Agile is primarily viewed as a software development approach, and it’s relatively rare for it to be used elsewhere.

Experts of the time wanted an approach that allowed people to test and evolve software as it was developed to reduce wasted time developing inappropriate requirements. Proponents of agile argued that waterfall approaches only present one opportunity to get everything right and assume all requirements and information is presented accurately upfront, which is rarely the case in software.

Software developers were looking for a way to allow the development of project attributes which could be created alongside requirements gathering, enabling continual progression of a project. Agile was developed in response to this need, and the recognition that other approaches led to wasted time while requirements were confirmed.

Why is agile controversial?

Although agile proved to be highly effective in the software development setting, few project managers in other industries opted to endorse or adopt the approach for their projects.

Arguable a large part of the resistance is due to the perceptions of agile. As it was originally designed for software development, this is widely considered to be its only remit. Even today Agile is primarily viewed as a software development approach, and it’s relatively rare for it to be used elsewhere.

In addition to this there are several features of Agile which some project managers find challenging to assimilate into the remit of the projects being worked on. These include:

Less documentation

In agile very little documentation is produced due to the constant adaptations being made to the deliverables. This is in direct contrast to many other approaches which are typically very documentation-heavy, which makes some project managers nervous as they cannot keep track of inputs and outputs as rigidly.

Blurred lines between roles

Some project managers like to have very defined roles and responsibilities to create accountability and ensure processes are followed. This is less of a priority in agile, as people tend to do whatever is needed, regardless of their official designation.

Greater flexibility

Having been trained in a highly regulated and process-driven methodology, many project managers struggle to adapt to the agile approach, which is far more flexible, and allows for people to adapt plans and make changes on the fly.

Many engineering projects run up excess costs due to requirements not being met, or being incorrectly interpreted

In software development this is often necessary as scope can change very quickly, and with little notice, but many feel that for other projects in different sectors this isn’t feasible or advisable. There are situations aside from software development where this would be appropriate, but arguable few would be comfortable in dealing with it.

It doesn’t scale as well as other approaches

The bigger the project and project team the more difficult it becomes to use agile.

Agile works on the principle of quick, responsive changes, which only really works when teams are close-knit and willing to pitch in. In some organisations and projects, this isn’t feasible, or even advisable – there are too many people, elements and requirements involved to be able to change direction at the drop of a hat.

However, it does work well for projects that can be broken down easily into smaller elements.

How is agile used now?

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Although agile is still mostly used for software development, there is growing consensus that it also has its place in a variety of other project types. There is a particular push for it to be used in other engineering disciplines, with many viewing it as an ideal complement to the iterative nature of many engineering projects, allowing for scope and deliverables to be amended in real time, rather than at the final stages.

The primary driver of the change is cost. Many engineering projects run up excess costs due to requirements not being met, or being incorrectly interpreted. Poor scoping is often blamed for this, but there is also recognition that if scoping and adaption of requirements becomes a continuous process this will allow faster updates, reducing risk of misaligned expectations down the line.

How is the use of agile expected to change?

The largest change for the approach will be its use on a wider scale than at present, with a more diverse range of sectors adopting agile. This can be seen occurring now, with other industries besides software development, such as digital marketing, using the approach.

Other changes in the general project management arena that might influence how agile is used include significant growth in the field. This expansion in the industry will lead to larger numbers of project managers, and may result in more project and programme managers deciding to opt for multi-disciplinary working approaches.

This may be in a bid to differentiate themselves from the increasing competition, or with a view to being able to apply different methodologies to different types of project within their portfolio or career. The result may be growing numbers of project professionals adopting agile as their methodology of preference.

The future of agile remains uncertain, but there is a growing interest in the approach, and ultimately if project professionals view it as providing a more efficient basis for managing projects, it will quickly become the method of choice.

The challenge in this instance is whether project managers have the skills and mindset needed to put it into practice effectively, and truly reap the benefits of the agile approach.

Enhance Magazine

This article was featured in Issue 18 of Enhance Magazine

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