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How Do You Choose the Best Methodology to Fit a Project?

I often see questions on “How do you choose the best methodology for a project?”

How do you choose the best methodology for a project?

What’s the Best Approach for Projects?

I don’t think that there is one single “best” approach that works for all projects.  A lot of people make the mistake of force-fitting a project to some standard methodology.

  • Some project managers will try to use a traditional plan-driven methodology for a project (what many people loosely call “Waterfall”) because it is the only thing that they know and it has been so widely-accepted as the way to do project management
  • Many other people have the misconception that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” and will attempt to force-fit a project to one of those extremes

The “best” approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the project.  That takes more skill but it definitely can be done.  You should also recognize that there is not a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” as many people seem to think.  There is a whole spectrum of different approaches ranging from heavily plan-driven at one extreme to heavily adaptive (or Agile) at the other extreme.

Range of Agility

How Do You Choose the Best Approach?

There are a number of factors that influence the selection of the best approach for a particular project.

    1. Level of Uncertainty – Probably the most significant factor in choosing an approach is the level of uncertainty in the project.  A project with a high level of uncertainty would be best-suited for a more adaptive (Agile) approach.  Attempting to force-fit such a project to a traditional plan-driven project management approach could be disastrous.
      • It would force you to make a lot of assumptions to try to resolve the uncertainty; and, in many cases, those assumptions may be wrong and require a lot of re-planning and possible re-work
      • The emphasis on planning and control in a traditional plan-driven project can create an environment that is not conducive to changes which will make it difficult to maximize the value of the solution in an uncertain environment
      • In today’s competitive environment, creativity and innovation can be very important to create very competitive business solutions and an approach with a heavy emphasis on planning and control can stifle creativity and innovation
    2. Customer Relationship – Managing customer expectations is probably one of the most critical aspects of any project.  If the results of a project are not consistent with customer expectations, the project will likely not be viewed as successful no matter how good you think it is.  The nature of the customer relationship can range from:
      • A contractual style of relationship where there are very definite and well-defined customer expectations that must be met.  In this type of relationship, the customer may not take any responsibility for the success of the project.  The customer defines what his/her expectations are and expects the project team to do whatever is necessary to meet those expectations with limited participation by the customer.
      • A collaborative style of relationship where there is a shared responsibility for the success of the project between the project team and the customer and the customer takes an active role in helping to define the direction of the project as it is in progress

      Naturally,  the contractual style of relationship is well-suited to a project with a relatively low level of uncertainty where it is possible to define the customer’s requirements in some level of detail prior to the start of the project.  It would be much more difficult to make a contractual-style relationship work in a project with a high level of uncertainty.

      Of course, the customer has to be amenable to whatever type of relationship you choose.  If the project has a high level of uncertainty, that would lean towards more of a collaborative relationship but the customer has to be open to that kind of relationship for it to be successful.  This is a big problem in many companies where it is difficult to break down organizational boundaries between organizations and establish truly collaborative relationships based on a spirit of shared responsibility, trust, and partnership.

    3. Project Team Capabilities – The final major factor in selecting a project approach is, of course, the capabilities of the project team.    An Agile approach requires a lot of training and skill and a hybrid Agile approach  can require even more training and skill.  Naturally, it does not make any sense to choose an approach that the team is not capable of implementing.

Why Is This Important?

There are two major factors that require us to broaden the way we think about “project management” today:

  • Solutions tend to be much more complex and the level of uncertainty is much higher
  • Competitive pressures frequently require much higher levels of creativity and innovation

For those reasons, force-fitting all projects to a standardized plan-driven approach that is oriented around planning and control to achieve predictability over project costs and schedules is not necessarily the best approach for all projects.

A project should be focused on producing value for the customer, meeting cost and schedule goals is only one component of value, and it may not be the most important component of value to the customer.  There have been many projects that have met their cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver an acceptable level of business value.  “Value” can be a very elusive goal but, in any case, it’s what the customer thinks that “value” is that counts.

How Do You Apply Agile Techniques to Non-Software Projects?

Many people have asked “How do you apply Agile techniques to non-software projects?”.  I’ve done a lot of that myself in writing and publishing five books and designing and developing numerous online training courses so I thought I would summarize some of the techniques I’ve learned for doing that over the years.

Just Get Started

One of the most important principles I’ve learned is “just get started”.  When you’re faced with writing a book or developing a major online training course, it can be a daunting experience and just getting started is sometimes the hardest part:

  • We’re not sure how the final result is going to come out
  • We’re not certain how the final result will be structured – what should come first, etc.
  • We don’t want to produce something that is going to be a failure

You have to stop worrying about all of that and just get started.  I think of this kind of effort like developing a fine art sculpture.  You start with a lump of clay and you just keep molding and shaping it until it becomes a work-of-art.

How Do You Apply Agile Techniques to Non-Software Projects?

If you never get started, it will remain just a lump of clay.

  • It takes some courage and confidence in yourself to do this.  You’ve got to have courage and confidence that if you just get started, that somehow the final result is going to come out OK if you keep working at it
  • It also takes patience and commitment because you may have to go through a large number of iterations to get something useful out of it.  You may even have to throw something completely away and start over again

Use an Incremental and Iterative Approach

Many people don’t understand the difference between the words “incremental” and “iterative”:

  • “Incremental” means that you break up a solution into pieces and develop one piece (increment) at a time
  • “Iterative” means that if you’re not sure what a given piece should be, you develop something and then continue to refine that piece until you meet the customer’s expectations

Both of those are important:

  • Incremental Approach – using an incremental approach is very important.  In any large effort like writing a book or developing an online course, its best to break it up into “bite-sized pieces.  If you try to take on too much at once, you’ll never finish it.  The effort to write a book can easily take well over a year and it’s easy to get discouraged in that period of time that you will never finish if you don’t see progress in the work.
  • Iterative Approach – Taking an iterative approach is also important.  A close corollary to “Just Get Started” is “Don’t Expect Perfection”.  A major reason for not getting started sometimes is that we’re afraid to produce something that is less than perfect.  We have to accept that whatever we produce on the first iteration is certainly not going to be perfect and the final result may not be perfect either.  Get something done quickly and then continue to refine it as needed to meet customer expectations.There’s also a saying in Agile that is used a lot called “just barely good enough”.  We shouldn’t try to “gold-plate” or over-design something, it should satisfy the need to provide value to the customer and nothing more unless there is additional value in adding to the solution.  Keep it simple!

Know  Your Customers and Listen to Them

When I first started writing books, I had a lot of people who helped me.  I had a network of people on the Internet who provided me with lots of great feedback and inputs.  I would write a chapter or two of the book and put it out to my network for feedback and comments.  Part of doing that successfully is recognizing that you “don’t know what you don’t know”.  You have to be humble, listen to other people, and respect their needs and interests.  If you think that you know it all, you probably won’t be very successful.

In the online training I develop today, I get lots of feedback and inputs from students and I listen to it and take action.  As an example, I got some inputs from one of my students that one of my courses on preparing for PMI-ACP certification shouldn’t be a mandatory part of my overall Agile Project Management curriculum because some people didn’t care about getting the PMI-ACP certification.  As a result of that feedback, I split that course into two courses.

Refactor Your Work As You Go Along

I’ve done a fair amount of software development in my career and I’ve learned a lot from it.  I’ve learned the value of having clean and well-organized software because I have had to support a lot of the software I’ve developed.  Organization and flow of the material is particularly important in books and online training as well so it is essential to take time to go back and clean-up your work as necessary as you go along.  When I first write something, I get it done quickly but I may have to rewrite it and reorganize it 5-6 times before I’m satisfied with it.

Work at a Sustainable Pace and Do a Little at a Time

When you’re doing a long project like writing a book that can take well over a year and requires a lot of creativity and innovation, working at a sustainable pace is very important.  You can easily get burned out by trying to do too much too quickly and when that happens, your creativity can go downhill quickly.  Sometimes you need to put it down, walk away from it for a while, and come back when you’re refreshed to start work again.

Why Do People Have Trouble With This?

I think all of this is just good, common-sense things to do – why do people have trouble doing this?  I think many people think of Agile as Scrum and also think about doing it mechanically and aren’t sure how they would go about applying a Scrum process to this kind of effort.  Agile is not just Scrum – it is a way of thinking and we need to understand the principles behind it rather than attempting to follow a well-defined process and doing it mechanically and “by-the-book”.