What Is Design Thinking? How Does It Relate to Agile?

What is Design Thinking? “Design Thinking” is becoming a hot buzz word and many companies want to jump on the Design Thinking bandwagon. However, I’m not sure that many people are really sure what it is and how it might relate to their existing development process.

What is Design Thinking?

What Is Design Thinking?

There are actually multiple definitions of “design thinking”. Here is a definition from IdeoU:

Design thinking has a human-centered core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. When you sit down to create a solution for a business need, the first question should always be what’s the human need behind it?”

“In employing design thinking, you’re pulling together what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows those who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges. The process starts with taking action and understanding the right questions. It’s about embracing simple mindset shifts and tackling problems from a new direction.

What is Design Thinking?

In simple terms, you might say that it is a human-engineering focus on product development that emphasizes considering human factors in the design. In this context, it is just a way of thinking like Agile and not a specific methodology.

Stages in Design Thinking

Another context of Design Thinking is to define a more specific set of process stages for how it is done. Here is an example of this from the Interactive Design Foundation:


Here’s an explanation of these stages. It’s important to recognize that these stages are intended to be conceptual. The design process is not necessarily intended to follow these stages rigidly and sequentially.


1. Empathize Stage

  • “The first stage of the Design Thinking process is to gain an empathetic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve
  • Empathy is crucial to a human-centered design process such as Design Thinking
  • Empathy allows design thinkers to set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs”

2. Define Stage

  • The next stage is to synthesize the information created during the empathize stage and develop a concise statement of the problem
  • The problem should be defined from the perspective of the user need
  • The Define stage will start to progress to the next stage, the Ideate stage. to look for potential solutions

3. Ideate Stage

  • During the Ideation stage of the Design Thinking process, designers are ready to start generating ideas
  • You’ve developed an understanding of your users and their needs in the Empathize stage, and
  • You’ve synthesized your observations in the Define stage, and created a human-centered problem statement
  • With this solid background, can start to identify new solutions to the problem statement you’ve created, and start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem

4. Prototype Stage

  • During the Prototype stage, the design team will produce some inexpensive prototypes to further investigate the potential solutions
  • The goal is to identify the best solution to the problem that satisfies the user need most effectively and most efficiently

5. Test Stage

  • During the Test stage, the design team will test the solution and gain user feedback
  • The results will often be used in an iterative process to either further define the problem or to better understand user needs

How Does Design Thinking Relate to Agile?

On the surface, it may look like Design Thinking may not be very compatible with Agile.

  • If you tried to do it literally, it might mean following a set of stages sequentially like Waterfall. However, that’s not really the intent
  • As I’ve previously mentioned, the stages are meant to be conceptual. They are not meant to be followed exactly in sequence as it might look

So, how do you go about integrating Design Thinking with Agile?

  • The most important aspect of design thinking is to be sensitive to the human aspect of design and
  • Don’t just rush into a design from a technical development perspective
  • Don’t create a technically-elegant design that may or may not be well-designed from a human engineering perspective.

However, it is not obvious how you would go about integrating that into an Agile/Scrum approach from a process perspective.

Similarity to Lean

The relationship of Design Thinking and Agile is very similar to the relationship of Lean and Agile. Taken to an extreme,

  • Lean would tend to pull you in opposite directions from Agile
  • Lean emphasizes reduction of waste while Agile emphasizes flexibility and adaptivity

Those two things are not entirely consistent with each other:

  • Following a lean approach might tend towards developing well-defined, repeatable processes and standardizing those processes to maximize efficiency and eliminate waste
  • Taken to an extreme, that might not be very consistent with Agile which emphasizes flexibilty and adaptivity

However, if you think of Lean from a conceptual perspective, it is not inconsistent with Agile.

  • There are many ways that an Agile approach already incorporates a lot of Lean thinking such as reduction of unnecessary documentation and other overhead; and
  • In general, there is nothing inconsistent about doing an Agile/Scrum process as efficiently as possible to reduce waste as long as it is done in the right overall context

Design Thinking and Agile

There is a similar relationship between Design Thinking and Agile:

  • Design Thinking emphasizes a methodical approach to analyzing and implementing a design to maximize the effectiveness of the design from a human engineering perspective
  • Agile emphasizes delivering value to the customer as quickly as possible and refining the design later if necessary

However, the overall Agile approach is not entirely inconsistent with Design Thinking:

  • Agile is a flexible and adaptive approach to project management and development that emphasizes relying heavily on user feedback and inputs to optimize the value of the solution you develop
  • While that aspect of an Agile approach is very consistent with Design Thinking, it doesn’t go as far as too emphasize the structured approach that design thinking advocates to understand the human needs behind project requirements

How do we reconcile this apparent conflict and incorporate Design Thinking into an Agile approach?

  • The general approach behind Agile is to emphasize delivering “value” to the customer as quickly as possible
  • “Value” is whatever the business sponsor and the users define it to be and there are different aspects of “value” that each may have different priorities

Human factors is an intangible thing that is difficult to put a value on and may be frequently overlooked. Considering human factors in the design definitely has some level of value but the priority of that aspect should be relative to other aspects of the design


General Recommendations

Here are some general recommendations for how to incorporate Design Thinking into an Agile/Scrum development process:

  • Design Thinking is not a methodology. It is a way of thinking like Lean or Agile. It does not invalidate the basic Agile/Scrum methodology and it isn’t inconsistent with it if it is done in the right context
  • The most important thing is for Agile teams to be sensitive to the human engineering approach in Design Thinking and incorporate it into the Agile development process in whatever way makes sense

Specific Recommendations

Exactly how you might go about doing that might vary from one project to the next. Agile is based on delivering value and human engineering is only one component of value. There are different approaches that might be used depending on the level of value placed on human engineering in the project:

Integrate the Focus into Each Sprint

If a focus on human engineering is critical to a particular project, it could be done by incorporating that focus directly into the design process for each sprint. Roman Pichler has suggested an approach for doing that in this blog post:

Increase Level of Upfront Design

In some projects, if the focus on human engineering is very critical, it may justify doing more upfront design prior to the start of the project to develop and test the overall design approach. Alternatively, a special sprint (or spike) could be dedicated to finding an optimum design from a human engineering perspective

Make Human Engineering a Constraint

If the focus on human engineering is less critical, another approach would be to just integrate the the focus on human engineering into the design as a constraint that has to be met. It is essentially a risk of not providing an acceptable level of human engineering in the design.

Overall Summary

Design Thinking is not inconsistent with Agile but it will take some skill to incorporate Design Thinking into an Agile/Scrum development approach. The big problem is that many people are looking for a single cookbook solution, like “Let’s Do:”

  • Agile, or
  • Lean, or
  • Design Thinking
  • etc.

Many people are looking for “silver bullets”. They would like to find a simple, single “cookbook” approach that if they just use that particular canned approach it will guarantee successful projects. That just isn’t realistic. Rather than force-fitting a project to some particular approach or methodology (Lean, Design Thinking, or whatever), you have to learn how to blend different approaches or methodologies in the right proportions to fit the nature of the project. That can require a lot more skill but it definitely can be done.

What is the Lean Startup Approach? How Does It Relate to Agile?

What Is the Problem?

The “Lean Startup” approach is based on a book by Eric Ries of the same name. The fundamental problem that the book addresses is that many companies:

  • Think that they know what the market and their customers want,
  • Make a lot of assumptions based on that thinking
  • Launch a long and expensive product development effort to meet what they think are those needs, and
  • Then find out that those assumptions were wrong

That approach is typical for a company with a traditional plan-driven approach to project management. (That is what many people loosely call “Waterfall”). The problem isn’t really unique to startups; this problem can take place with any company of any size – it may happen more frequently with startups just because there is normally a higher level of uncertainty associated with a startup.

What’s the Solution?

The solution to this problem is to use an incremental and iterative approach to product development. That approach should have lots of customer input and feedback along the way. That approach is exactly what is used in an Agile product development effort. The approach would look something like this:

It’s easy to see how this approach can significantly reduce the market risk associated with new product development. And, it is appropriate for any company (not just startups).

  • Instead of committing to a long and expensive development process on the basis of some limited number of assumptions that may later to be wrong;
  • It treats those assumptions as only a “hypothesis” and seeks to validate those assumptions (hypotheses) as the project is in progress.

How Does This Fit With Agile?

The product development approach recommended by the Lean Startup method is essentially the same as an Agile/Scrum product development approach. It is based on an incremental and iterative development process with lots of direct customer input and feedback.

  • The Lean Startup approach goes somewhat beyond an Agile/Scrum approach.
  • The approach focuses on how the business strategy behind the product is developed and validated, which an Agile/Scrum process does not directly address.

In practice, this concept can be applied at many different levels. It is not limited to a single product development effort and it is not limited to startups. There are potentially multiple levels in any enterprise-level Agile implementation as shown in the diagram below:

The implementation of this is really at a higher level than the development process. It is at a business strategy level and a product strategy level. At each level in an enterprise:

  • There may be different levels of uncertainty and
  • Each level may call for a different planning approach based on the level of uncertainty at that level

Planning in an uncertain environment can be very difficult. Here’s an article that goes into that in more detail:

Overall Conclusions

The “Lean Startup” approach is a good, common-sense approach to planning that is very appropriate for an uncertain environment. It acknowledges the level of uncertainty in the environment:

  • Rather than glossing over the uncertainty and making assumptions about it to try to make it go away
  • It uses an incremental and iterative development effort to validate those assumptions as the project is in progress

This approach is not unique to startups; it can apply to a company of any size and level of maturity. It can also be applied at any organizational level and any level of planning and management in a company based on the level of uncertainty in the company at that organizational level or level of planning and management.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Why Is Automated Regression Testing Important in Agile?

Why is automated regression testing important in an Agile environment? An Agile development approach can dramatically improve the quality of software, but it requires a very different approach to software testing. Here’s a previous blog post with more on why an Agile testing approach makes so much sense:

What’s the Impact of Agile on Regression Testing?

Because the testing approach is so different, regression testing; and, in particular automated regression testing becomes a lot more important:

  • In a traditional plan-driven project management approach (Waterfall), all testing is typically done at the very end of the project
  • At that point-in-time, all software development is normally complete and the software is stabilized
  • In an Agile environment, software testing is done concurrently with development throughout the project
  • As a result, software is still changing as it is being tested

The difference is shown below:

Why Is Automated Regression Testing Important in Agile?

A big challenge this creates is this:

  • In a Waterfall-style development process, the software should be stabilized once it goes into testing
  • In an Agile environment, the software is continuously changing throughout the project. During each sprint, in addition to testing new functionality, it is essential to do regression testing. The purpose of regression testing is to verify that some new changes haven’t inadvertently broken something that was previously tested
  • In a large, complex project, the number of features requiring regression testing will grow significantly as the project is in progress. That makes it almost impossible to do manual regression testing. Attempting to do manual regression testing would slow down the progress of the project significantly if it can be done at all.

Overall Summary

For these reasons, it is important to do regression testing to ensure the quality and integrity of the software in an Agile environment. And, for a large, complex software project, automated regression testing becomes essential.

Is UML Still Relevant Today? How Is it Used in an Agile Environment?

I’ve seen a lot of questions about Unified Modeling Language (UML) that center around “Is UML still relevant today?” and “How is it used in an Agile environment?”. I will try to address these questions in this blog post.

What is UML?

UML stands for “Unified Modeling Language”. Here is a definition of UML:

” The goal of UML is to provide a standard notation that can be used by all object-oriented methods and to select and integrate the best elements of precursor notations. UML has been designed for a broad range of applications. Hence, it provides constructs for a broad range of systems and activities (e.g., distributed systems, analysis, system design and deployment). “

“In 1994, Jim Rumbaugh, the creator of OMT, stunned the software world when he left General Electric and joined Grady Booch at Rational Corp. The aim of the partnership was to merge their ideas into a single, unified method (the working title for the method was indeed the “Unified Method”). “
Visual Paradigm website

What’s the primary purpose of UML?

The Visual Paradigm website summarizes the primary goals of UML as follows:

  1. Provide users with a ready-to-use, expressive visual modeling language so they can develop and exchange meaningful models.
  2. Provide extensibility and specialization mechanisms to extend the core concepts.
  3. Be independent of particular programming languages and development processes.
  4. Provide a formal basis for understanding the modeling language.
  5. Encourage the growth of the OO tools market.
  6. Support higher-level development concepts such as collaborations, frameworks, patterns and components.
  7. Integrate best practices.

UML is typically used to simplify a lot of written documentation. It provides a visual model of how a system works and how it is designed.

UML is intended to satisfy a broad variety of interests. It consists of a number of different diagram types that show the system from different perspectives. Those diagram types can be grouped into two major categories:

  1. Structure Diagrams – “Structure diagrams show the static structure of the system and its parts on different abstraction and implementation levels and how they are related to each other.”
  2. Behavior Diagrams – “Behavior diagrams show the dynamic behavior of the objects in a system, which can be described as a series of changes to the system over time

For further detail on UML diagrams, the Visual Paradigm website is a very good source.

How Does UML Fit Into a Software Development Process?

UML diagrams are heavily-associated with what is called “Big upfront design”. That is typically what is called a “Waterfall process where:

  • The requirements for the process, as well as
  • The design of the software to satisfy those requirements can be defined in some level of detail upfront prior to the start of the project.

In that kind of environment, UML diagrams are a way of presenting a visual, diagramatic view of what is in the requirements documents and how the design will be implemented and that can be particularly useful for large, complex projects.

UML obviously works best in a sequential Waterfall process as shown here:

Are UML Diagrams Still Relevant?

In this type of process,

  • The requirements definition phase would typically take place first
  • Then, UML behavior diagrams might be used to define the most critical behavioral characteristics of the system from a user perspective
  • Those diagrams might then serve as input to the design process where the design of the system would be laid out to satisfy those requirements
  • Once the design process is complete, UML structure diagrams might be used to define the expected overall structure of the system from a design perspective
  • Those diagrams might then serve as input to the development process to implement the design of the system

In this type of environment, the UML diagrams provide two different kinds of value – UML:

  1. Provides a communications mechanism to summarize the information that is in various project documents. That is useful to transition that information from one phase to the next
  2. Can also be used for support purposes after the project has been completed. refer back to how the design of the system was created
  3. Can potentially play a role in defining and standardizing the system architecture of the solution. That can be particularly important in large, complex, enterprise-level projects where it is important to have a clear and consistent architecture for solutions

Is UML Still Relevant Today? What Is the Role of UML in an Agile Development Process?

Many companies are moving to an Agile development process for software development which raises the question: “Is UML still useful in an Agile environment?”. In an Agile environment,

  • The requirements for the project and the design of the software are normally not defined in detail prior to the start of the project
  • Both the requirements and the design typically evolve and are further extrapolated as the project was in progress
  • In an Agile environment, there is also normally much less reliance on formal project documentation

The difficulty of using UML diagrams in that environment should be obvious:

  • There is typically insufficient information at the beginning of the project to define the requirements and the design in detail prior to the start of the project
  • It might require a lot of effort to continuously update UML diagrams as the project is in progress to reflect any changes
  • It raises questions as to who would benefit from maintaining and updating those UML diagrams and how they would benefit from it

The general rule I use for any kind of documentation is that:

  • We shouldn’t create documentation for the sake of creating documentation
  • Documentation should create some kind of value for someone and
  • That value should be sufficient to overcome the costs of creating and maintaining that documentation

Overall Summary

Agile is redefining how software is developed and raises some significant questions about “Is UML still relevant today?”.

The value of UML diagrams in an Agile environment is limited and the effort required to continuously update the diagrams as the project is in progress may not be worth the effort. However, there are a couple of reasons why UML diagrams might still be useful:

  • Support – There might be some value in having UML diagrams as an aid for supporting the system once development has been completed
  • Architecture – There might also be some value in using UML to define and standardize the architecture of the solution

Both of those functions would depend heavily on the complexity of the system, the criticality of the business functionality it provides, and the overall support strategy for the system.

Additional Resources

You can find further information on how an Agile/Scrum development process works and the advantages it provides in these links:

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

What Is the Truth About Agile versus Waterfall?

Agile Versus Waterfall

How many times have you heard people compare Agile versus Waterfall?

  • It happens a lot,
  • I do it myself, and
  • I keep hearing presentations that talk about how Agile has displaced Waterfall

But, if you really think about it, I don’t think that’s a very meaningful comparison and it’s out-of-date. The result of this confusion is people tend too see these two alternatives as binary and mutually-exclusive choices and they try to force-fit a project to one of these extremes:

Agile versus Waterfall

There are many myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes behind the typical “Agile” versus “Waterfall” comparison. I hope this article will help people see these two alternatives in a fresh new perspective as complementary to each other rather than competitive.

What’s Wrong With The Typical Agile versus Waterfall Comparison?

“Agile” and “Waterfall” Are Not Individual Discrete Methodologies

When people talk about “Agile versus Waterfall”, it sounds like there are two individual discrete methodologies that can be directly compared:

  • One called “Agile” and
  • One called “Waterfall”

The truth is that neither “Agile” or “Waterfall” is an individual discrete and well-defined methodology. It would be more accurate to recognize that each one is a style of methodology with more than one different methodology associated with each style. For example:

What is the “Agile” Methodology?

“Agile” is not a single methodology. Agile methodologies include Scrum, Kanban, and other less commonly-used methodologies. Scrum is so widely-used, that when many people say “Agile”, they really mean “Scrum”; however, it’s not really accurate to say that “Agile = Scrum”. In addition, many people consider Scrum to be a general framework and not a specific methodology. Here’s some more detail on that:

The common denominator of these Agile methodologies is that they are flexible and adaptive. That makes them well-suited to an uncertain environment where an empirical process control approach is needed. I think the word “adaptive” is a much better and more accurate term to use to describe these methodologies because it defines a style of methodology and doesn’t convey the idea of a specific methodology at all.

What is the “Waterfall” Methodology?

“Waterfall” is also not a single methodology. When people talk about “Waterfall”, they are not necessarily referring to the pure original phase-driven approach defined by Dr. Winston Royce in the 1970’s. “Waterfall” has evolved significantly since those days and there are many variations that might still be considered to be “Waterfall”. For example, the Rational Unified Process (RUP) and its many variants probably would be considered “Waterfall”.

Again, when people use the word “Waterfall”, they are not generally talking about a specific methodology; they’re talking about a style of methodology. You will find more detail on that in this article:

The common denominator of these methodologies is that they are “plan-driven”. They emphasize trying to achieve predictability over the costs and schedule of a project plan. They do that by nailing down the requirements in detail upfront and controlling any changes once the project is in progress

It’s Not a Binary and Mutually-exclusive Choice

Another serious flaw in the typical “Agile” versus “Waterfall” comparison is that it implies that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between these two extremes and that is also not the case.

These two approaches are not mutually-exclusive. If you recognize that these are really styles of methodologies and not really individual methodologies, there are many ways to blend the two styles together:

  • Its not a matter of blending a Scrum methodology with a true Waterfall methodology;
  • It’s a matter of blending a plan-driven style of methodology with a more adaptive style of methodology in the right proportions to fit a given situation.

Agile versus Waterfall – An Example of Sloppy Terminology

A lot of this is just sloppy use of terminology; but, in many cases, there’s also an implication that Agile is good and Waterfall is bad. Here is an example to illustrate what I mean by sloppy use of terminology when people talk about “Waterfall”:

From the 2011 Chaos Report: “Agile Succeeds three times more often than Waterfall” The report goes so far as to say, “The agile process is the universal remedy for software development project failure.”

What do they mean by “Waterfall”? (Are they talking about a specific methodology – like the Waterfall that was defined by Winston Royce in the 1970’s or are they talking about a broader range of plan-driven methodologies?

  • How did they define how “success” was measured and how do you compare success from one project to another? Are the metrics for success really the same across all projects to make that comparison?
  • How can anyone possibly say that “The agile process is the universal remedy for software development project failure”?

This is an example of some of the opinionated polarization that has existed for a long time. Saying that “Agile is better than Waterfall” is like saying “A car is better than a boat”. They both have advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment that you’re in.

A More Accurate and Meaningful Comparison

A more meaningful and more objective comparison is between an “adaptive” style of project management and a “plan-driven” style of project management.

  • “Plan-driven project management” is a style of project management where the requirements and a detailed plan for completing the project can be defined prior to implementing the project
  • In contrast, an “adaptive” style of project management starts the implementation of a project with a less well-defined plan of how the project will be implemented. Then, the requirements and plan for the project are expected to evolve as the project progresses

Neither of these is an absolute, rigid extreme. In reality, no project is ever totally plan-driven or totally adaptive; you won’t find many projects:

  • That start out with an absolutely rigid plan that is not expected to change at all, or
  • That have no plan whatsoever of how the project will be done

There is a broad range of alternative approaches between those two extremes as shown in the diagram below:

Levels of Agility

Fit the Methodology to the Nature of the Problem

A good rule to follow is don’t force-fit any project to any methodology that doesn’t fit the nature of the project. A methodology does not provide a “cookbook” approach for solving any problem you might have:

  • Rather than force-fitting a project to some particular methodology (whatever it might be) and taking a “cookbook” approach to applying that methodology mechanically.
  • The right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve. It takes more skill to do that but it definitely can be done.

Overall Summary

The impact of all the myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes behind the typical Agile versus Waterfall comparison is significant:

Don’t Throw Out the Baby With the Bath Water

By categorizing all plan-driven approaches as “Waterfall”, people tend to dismiss any form of plan-driven approach and regard any kind of upfront planning as inconsistent with an Agile project. That’s not the case.

Get Past the Polarization

There has been a lot of polarization between the traditional project management community and the agile community. There is a perception that project managers and project management are associated with the Waterfall approach. As a result, some people believe that project management skills are not needed at all because the Waterfall approach is an out-of-date approach for many projects.

There is actually a lot of project management going on in an Agile approach although you may not recognize it as “project management” for several reasons:

  • It’s not the traditional kind of “project management” that is so heavily stereotyped. It’s a different kind of project management with an emphasis on maximizing business results rather than controlling costs and schedules.
  • You also won’t typically find someone called a “Project Manager” at the team level in an Agile project because the functions that would normally be performed by a project manager have been distributed among other functions on the Agile team.

We need to get past many of the myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions that exist in this area. We need to see these two approaches in a fresh new perspective as complementary rather than competitive to each other.

Additional Resources

This is only a very brief, high-level overview of the issues associated with comparing “Agile” and “Waterfall”. If you want to learn much more detailed information, check out my Online Agile Project Management Training Courses. The first course is free and is specifically on this topic: Learn the Truth About Agile versus Waterfall.

Kanban versus Scrum – Which Agile Approach Do You Prefer?

I recently saw an online question that asked the question “Which Agile approach do you prefer – Kanban or Scrum?”. I decided that it was worth a blog post because I’ve seen this question several times. There are a couple of things wrong with this question:

  • It implies that Kanban and Scrum are interchangeable and
  • That the choice of one or the other is only a matter of personal preference

I don’t believe that either of those is correct:

  • Kanban and Scrum serve very different purposes
  • The choice of which one you choose should depend on what problem you’re trying to solve and objectively fitting the best approach to the nature of the problem. Personal preference or bias should not be a factor in that selection

How Are Kanban and Scrum Different?

Kanban and Scrum are very different kinds of processes and are intended for very different purposes.

Detailed Comparison

The table below shows a comparison of how Kanban and Scrum are different:

Primary DeliverablesIntegrated SolutionsCompleted Individual Work Items
Nature of the Work To Be DoneThe work may have a high level of uncertainty and require considerable interaction with the customer to resolve the uncertainty as the project is in progressThe individual work items may be relatively well-defined and may not require much interaction with the customer to clarify requirements
PlanningMulti-level Planning
  • Sprint-level
  • Release-level
  • Project-level
No Significant Planning Required
  • Scrum Master
  • Product Owner
  • Team
No Defined Roles
Time-boxingTime-boxed Sprints
Work is organized into fixed-length sprints
Each work item is handled individually – Kanban has no concept of grouping work items into a sprint
WorkflowPush-Pull Model
  • Work to be done is planned and prioritized to support a product road map (Push Model)
  • Within a sprint, work is started as soon as capacity is available to work on it (Pull Model)
Continuous Flow Model (Pull Model)

Work is started as soon as capacity is available to work on it
  • Sprint Planning
  • Sprint Review
  • Sprint Retrospective
  • Daily Stand-ups
No Meetings
Level of Integration
  • Work can be organized into a hierarchical structure to facilitate integration
  • Sprints and releases can be defined to support Product Road Map deliverables
  • Work is organized as a single stream of work to be done with no hierarchy
  • Each item of work is treated independently and there is no mechanism for developing an integrated solution
Process Definition and Continuous Improvement
  • The process is intended to evolve as the project is in progress
  • Strong emphasis on continuous improvement with Sprint Retrospectives
  • The process may be well-defined and repetitive
  • No formal mechanism for continuous improvement

    General Comparison

    It should be apparent that Kanban is very streamlined and designed for efficiency but it is also very limited in what it is intended for:

    • Kanban has practically none of the overhead (planning, meetings, roles, etc.) of Scrum
    • However, it is intended for producing completed individual work items that do not require an overall integrated solution

    If you asked a developer which one they prefer, their choice might be obvious because developers like to write code without being burdened with too much overhead. However, that “overhead” is not unnecessary and can be essential in an environment where the goal is to produce a well-integrated solution that meets some overall business objective or solves a business problem.

    Overall Summary

    Kanban and Scrum are designed and optimized for very different purposes:

    • Kanban is designed for a continuous flow kind of process that may be somewhat repetitive. An example would be a customer service response queue or a queue of requests for business reports, The overall goal of a Kanban process is to produce as many completed individual work items as quickly and efficiently as possible
    • Scrum is intended for project work where there is an overall goal of producing some kind of integrated solution

    I’ve seen some people who want to abandon Scrum and move to Kanban because they don’t like some of the overhead that is built into Scrum; however, that “overhead” serves a purpose, provides value, and can be essential for projects that need to produce an integrated solution.

    Additional Resources

    This is only a very brief, high-level overview of differences between Kanban and Scrum. If you want to learn much more detailed information, check out my Online Agile Project Management Training Courses. The first course is free!

    How Do I Maximize My Value as a Project Manager?

    I frequently get questions from students and others asking “How do I maximize my value as a project manager?”. That’s a very good question because the world of project management is changing rapidly as a result of the influence of Agile. As a result, the answer to that question is not as simple as you might think. It’s important to understand the impact of these changes and plan your career accordingly.

    How Do I Maximize My Value as a Project Manager?

    What’s Different in Today’s World?

    There have always been two primary aspects of being a good project manager, in my opinion:

    1. The first is knowledge of project management principles and practices
    2. The second is understanding of a particular area to apply that knowledge to

    In the past,

    • You might have been able to get by with being a “general purpose project manager” with a solid knowledge of project management principles and practices alone
    • In some cases, a project manager might have been nothing more than a good, high-level planner and administrator

    In today’s world, I don’t believe that is sufficient.

    1. Project Managers Need to Provide Business Value

    In the past,

    • It may have been sufficient for a project manager to be successful by delivering a set of defined requirements within a given cost and schedule budget
    • However, there have been many projects that have met their defined requirements but failed to deliver an acceptable level of business value

    That can easily occur for two major reasons:

    A. Level of Uncertainty

    We live in a world today where solutions are much more complex and there may also be a much higher level of uncertainty about what the best solution is. That can make it very difficult or impossible to accurately define the requirements for a project upfront. In this environment:

    • Business value takes on a much broader definition – Simply meeting cost and schedule goals is only one component of business value and it may not even be the most important component of business value
    • A more adaptive project management approach is needed – Attempting to define firm project requirements upfront in a very uncertain environment and then controlling changes to those requirements makes it difficult to optimize the value of the solution as the project is in progress
    B. Need for Creativity and Innovation

    There is also a very high level of competition in today’s world. Being successful in that environment can demand leading-edge products and it can require a significant level of creativity and innovation to develop those products. An over-emphasis on planning and control can stifle creativity and innovation.

    For example, can you imagine trying to develop an industry-leading product like a new iPhone with a traditional plan-driven approach to project management? There is a lot of uncertainty about how to maximize the customer value of a new iPhone and it can require a lot of creativity and innovation to be successful. Producing high-impact business results is what is important.

    2. There Is Not Just One Way to Do Project Management

    A major impact of this is that there is no longer just one way to do project management. You need to fit the project management approach to the nature of the project. Any project manager who only knows how to do a traditional plan-driven approach to project management and tries to force-fit a project to that approach is not likely to be successful.

    It is also not a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” as many people seem to think. A good project manager needs to see those two approaches in a fresh new perspective as complementary to each other rather than competitive and learn how to blend those two approaches in the right proportions to fit any given situation.

    How Do You Adapt to This New World?

    It can be a big challenge to develop and enhance your project management skills to adapt to this new world. Here are some questions I’ve seen frequently:

    What Certification Should I Get?

    PMI is still catching up with these changes. For a long time, PMI has treated Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as two separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. Today’s PMI certifications still reflect that:

    • PMP is heavily associated with traditional plan-driven project management
    • PMI-ACP is associated with general Agile and Lean knowledge

    Neither of these certifications really addresses the most important challenge I believe a project manager needs to address of learning how to blend these two areas in the right proportions to fit a given situation. In addition, the role of an Agile Project Manager is still not well-defined and PMI-ACP is only a test of general Agile and Lean knowledge and does not prepare you for a specific role. The result is that:

    • Both of these certifications have value as a foundation, but
    • They do not go far enough to address the primary challenges that a project manager might face in today’s world

    What Academic Degree Should I Get for Project Management?

    There have also been a number of questions from college-age people about the role of an academic degree in becoming a project manager. For example:

    • What academic degree should I get for a career in project management?
    • Is it worthwhile to get a master’s degree in project management?

    Here are my thoughts on that:

    • There is certainly some value in academic training but project management has always had a practical, real-world focus on getting things done. As a result, an academic degree in project management without any real-world experience has limited value
    • Many universities that offer academic training in project management still base their curriculum heavily or exclusively on a traditional plan-driven approach to project management and have not fully-integrated an Agile approach into their curriculum
    • As I’ve previously mentioned, project management is more than just knowing project management skills, its important to also have some knowledge of an area to apply those skills to. An in-depth knowledge of general project management skills without much knowledge of how to apply those skills to deliver business results in a particular area of focus is not a good formula for success, in my opinion.

    What Is the Role of an Agile Project Manager?

    Any project manager should have a clear idea of what role they are preparing themselves for. However, the big question that is difficult to answer is “What Is the Role of an Agile Project Manager?” That role is still evolving and there is even some controversy among some people that there is a role for a project manager at all in an Agile environment. I can only give you some general recommendations on this:

    • The role of a project manager in leading and managing small, simple, single-team projects is rapidly disappearing
    • Many project managers who may have primarily focused on performing that role will need to move up to a higher level of value-added
    • The primary focus of any project manager should be on delivering business results and just a knowledge of project management skills is often not enough to do that

    Here’s an article with more on that:

    Overall Summary

    The world of project management is going through some very rapid and significant changes at this time.

    • Many project managers have questions about how to adapt their careers to fit this new environment
    • There are no simple and easy answers to that because the role of a project manager in this environment is still rapidly changing

    The most important things for a project manager to realize are that:

    • These changes are happening and can’t be ignored. Most project managers will probably need to upgrade their skills to continue to grow and thrive in this new environment. Any project manager who is in “denial” and insists on doing project management the same way it has been done for years may have limited success
    • PMI is still catching up with these changes. As a result, you can’t totally rely on PMI certifications to guide you in the right direction. The existing PMI certifications are a good foundation but they don’t go far enough at this time

    Additional Resources

    This is only a very brief, high-level overview of the changes going on in the project management profession. If you want to learn much more detailed information, check out my Online Agile Project Management Training Courses. The first course is free!

    How Does Agile Testing Work and Why Does It Make So Much Sense?

    Quality and reliability standards today for software are higher than ever and new approaches to software testing are essential to meet those goals. An Agile development approach provides a excellent approach to meet that challenge.

    Agile Testing

    How Is Traditional Software Testing Done?

    In a traditional software testing approach, a separate and independent QA organization normally does the testing:

    • The development team typically turns over software to the QA organization for testing at the end of the project
    • That normally happens after all development is complete.

    That method of testing is very consistent with a “Waterfall” style of development. A Waterfall project typically consists of phases that might look something like this:

    That’s been the traditional way that software development and testing has been done for a long time.

    How Is Agile Testing Different?

    Agile takes a fundamentally different approach to the whole development process (not just testing).

    • First of all, Agile does not break up a project into phases as the Waterfall model does
    • It breaks up a project by chunks of functionality and uses a much more integrated approach to develop and test each “chunk” of functionality

    There are two major differences that have a big impact on how testing is done:

    • Incremental Development Approach
    • Integral Testing Approach

    We will discuss each of these in the following sections.

    1. Incremental Development Approach

    Instead of developing and testing the complete functionality of the project as one big effort:

    • The functionality is broken up into small increments called “user stories” and
    • The work to be done to develop those user stories is broken up into sprints. Each of those sprints are typically 2-4 weeks long
    • The work in each sprint includes testing as well as development

    Ideally, at the end of each sprint, fully-tested software for that portion of functionality should be ready for release.

    2. Integral Testing Approach

    Instead of testing being done by a separate and independent QA organization:

    • The testing function is an integral part of the Agile team, and
    • As soon as software is sufficiently complete, it is tested

    It is worthwhile to note that integration of testing with development does not necessarily mean that developers do their own testing. Within an Agile development team:

    • There is value in having people who are specialized and trained in testing
    • Having developers test their own code is generally not a very good idea

    What Are the Advantages of the Agile Approach?

    There are several significant advantages to the Agile testing approach.

    1. Proactive Rather than Reactive Approach

    Agile testing is a more proactive approach to eliminate defects at the source. A reactive approach to find and fix defects later can require a lot more rework.

    2. Immediate Feedback to Developers

    An Agile testing approach provides immediate feedback to the development team. If difficult software bugs go unresolved, they can compound themselves and that can make it much more difficult find and resolve the defects.

    3. Quality is Not Someone Else’s Responsibility

    Agile testing makes the quality of the product an integral part of the development process. The development team producing the product owns responsibility for the quality of the product they produce. It is not someone else’s responsibility.

    In the traditional Waterfall-style development process, it is not uncommon for the development team to throw code “over the fence” to QA. They put the responsibility on QA to find any bugs.

    The Roots in Total Quality Management (TQM)

    In order to understand why this approach makes so much sense, it’s useful to understand the deeper roots that influenced it:

    • Agile is heavily based on the principles in Total Quality Management (TQM)
    • TQM was originally developed for manufacturing by Dr. W. Edwards Deming
    • The quality of the Japanese automobile industry was improved significantly as a direct result of TQM,
    • It is relatively easy to extend the TQM principles to software development.

    TQM emphasized a major shift in thinking from

    • A reactive “Quality Control” approach that was heavily based on inspection to
    • A more proactive “Quality Assurance” approach to go upstream in the process to eliminate defects at the source

    That makes sense for a number of reasons:

    • Resources required to perform the inspection are costly
    • Defects that are found after the work is already done can result in costly and unnecessary scrap and rework
    • Any inspection approach is based on sampling is not a thorough approach for finding defects. Some defects will likely slip through when you use sampling resulting in relatively low levels of quality

    It is easy to see how these same factors apply to a software environment. Many software testing processes have been based on an old-fashioned quality control approach. which is based heavily on inspection.


    Overall Summary

    A major shift in thinking is essential to more effectively test software and to reach much higher levels of quality and reliability.

    • The principles of Total Quality Management (TQM) are a good foundation for this shift in thinking
    • Total Quality Management (TQM) dramatically improved the quality of products in the Japanese automobile industry
    • TQM principles can dramatically improve the quality and reliability of software

    That shift in thinking that is based on TQM principles is well-integrated into an Agile/Scrum development and testing process

    Additional Resources

    This is only a very brief, high-level overview of Agile testing. If you want to learn much more detailed information, check out my Online Agile Project Management Training Courses. The first course is free!

    What Is Scrum and What Is Agile?

    There’s a lot of confusion about “What Is Agile” and “What Is Scrum?”. This article provides a very brief explanation. Loose terminology is a big source of this confusion. For example, many people use the word “Agile” when they really mean “Scrum”.

    What is Scrum?

    Difference Between Agile and Scrum

    For that reason, it is important to clearly understand the difference between Agile and Scrum. Here’s the difference:

    If you want to learn more about Agile, check out this article on “What Is Agile – How Would You Define It? – What Does It Really Mean?”

    What is Scrum?

    Here’s the official explanation for “What is Scrum” from the Scrum Alliance:

    “Scrum is a process framework used to manage product development and other knowledge work.

    Scrum is empirical in that it provides a means for teams to establish a hypothesis of how they think something works, try it out, reflect on the experience, and make the appropriate adjustments.

    That is, when the framework is used properly.

    Scrum is structured in a way that allows teams to incorporate practices from other frameworks where they make sense for the team’s context.” – Agile Alliance

    What Is a Framework?

    Many people will say that it is inaccurate to call Scrum a “methodology” and that it really is a “framework”. What’s the difference? Here are a two key differences:

    • A “framework” is not very prescriptive and is normally adapted to fit a situation
    • A “methodology” is more prescriptive and provides a specific and well-defined approach for arriving at a solution

    Empirical versus Defined Process Models

    A related factor to understand the difference between a “framework” and a “methodology” is the difference between an “empirical” process model and a “defined” process model:

    Defined Process Model

    A “Defined Process Model” attempts to define every piece of work in advance in order to develop a detailed plan for completing the work. There are two very important characteristics of a Defined Process Model:

    • Repeatable – A Defined Process Model will produce the same outputs every time for the same set of inputs
    • Predictable – The results of a Defined Process Model are predictable in advance

    For example, the diagram below shows a figurative depiction of a defined process using a well-defined methodology that is repeatable:

    Defined Process Model

    A traditional plan-driven project management approach as defined in PMBOK and a Waterfall model are examples of methodologies that follow a Defined Process Model.

    Empirical Process Model

    An “Empirical Process Model” is a style of work that leverages the principles of inspection, adaptation, and transparency. For that reason, an Empirical Process Control Model works best where the result that is needed is uncertain and the process to produce the result may also be not well-defined.

    The diagram below shows a figurative depiction of how an empirical process model works. Basically, the process is not as well-defined and uses an incremental and iterative process based on some level of experimentation to try to arrive at an optimum solution.

    Empirical Process Model

    A key point is that in an empirical process model, you’re not really sure exactly what the solution will be and you’re also not exactly sure of what the optimum process for arriving at a solution is. Scrum is an example of an empirical process model.

    Key Differences

    The key difference between the two process models is related to the level of uncertainty in the project:

    Low Level of Uncertainty

    With a relatively low level of uncertainty, a defined process model might work best especially if there is a goal of being predictable because it is a predictable and repeatable model.

    • To achieve predictability, you would typically use a Defined Process Model because all of the work can be planned in advance
    • A Defined Process Model may also be more efficient because the work can be planned and organized in advance

    For example, you would be very likely to use a Defined Process Model if you were building a house where it is important to have some predictability over the costs and schedule for completing the house.

    Higher Level of Uncertainty

    With a higher level of uncertainty, an empirical process model might work best because it provides a more adaptive approach for arriving at an optimum solution.

    • It may be less efficient than a Defined Process Model because it may require more trial-and-error but
    • It is much more likely to produce a more optimum solution, especially in an uncertain environment.

    For example, if you set out to find a cure for cancer or some other disease that has no known cure, the solution is probably not well-known when you start the project and it likely requires some level of experimentation to arrive at at an optimum solution.

    How Does Scrum Work?

    Scrum uses an empirical process model that continuously refines both the product and the process to produce the product as the project is in progress. For that reason, Scrum works best in an uncertain environment.

    Scrum Is Incremental

    A Scrum process breaks up all the work into short development increments called “sprints”

    • Sprints are limited to a fixed-length that is normally 2-4 weeks long
    • The Product Owner prioritizes all work based on business value. That enables the team to deliver value as quickly as possible

    Scrum Is Also Iterative

    At the end of each sprint, the Product Owner and any important stakeholders review the results of the sprint and provide feedback and inputs

    • Providing direct feedback and inputs is essential to optimize the solution
    • Reviewing the results at the end of each sprint enables rapid learning for ongoing continuous improvement

    Additional Resources

    This is only a very brief, high-level overview of Scrum. If you want to learn much more detailed information, check out my Online Agile Project Management Training Courses. The first course is free!

    Who Gets Blamed When an Agile Project Fails?

    Have you ever thought about “When an agile project fails, who gets blamed”? I thought it was a very interesting question.

    Who Gets Blamed When an Agile Project Fails?

    How Does an Agile Project Fail?

    It’s actually difficult for an Agile project to fail.

    • An Agile project typically does not have rigid cost and schedule goals that must be met and
    • An Agile/Scrum process has the capability to detect and correct potential failures early

    Given that, an Agile/Scrum project should be self-correcting if it is done properly. For example, at the end of each sprint:

    • There is a Sprint Review to detect problems with the product
    • There is a Sprint Retrospective to detect and correct process problems

    An Agile project should provide early warning of a potential failure with plenty of opportunity to correct any problems before the end of the project. At the end of each sprint, both the product and the process to produce the product are reviewed and corrected if necessary. If an Agile process fails, the process must have broken down somewhere; and rather than looking for an individual to blame, a more appropriate response would be to figure out what went wrong in the process to prevent it from happening again.

    Fail Early, Fail Often

    One of my favorite Agile mantras is “fail early; fail often”. People should not be afraid of failure and should see failure as an opportunity for learning. That is very important in an environment that is designed to support creativity and innovation. If senior management is looking for someone to blame, that’s not very consistent with an Agile culture.

    How to Prevent Failure in an Agile Project

    It’s relatively easy to prevent failure in an Agile project – its mostly a matter of:

    • Implementing the process effectively including Sprint Reviews and Sprint Retrospectives with an emphasis on continuously improving both the product as well as the process for producing the product as the project is in progress
    • Designing and implementing an enterprise-level transformation to align the Agile development approach with the company’s business and to create a culture that is supportive of an Agile approach

    The important point is that their should be:

    • Everyone in the organization should have a spirit of shared ownership and partnership and be committed to the success of the project instead of an “arms-length” contractual relationship between the business and the project team
    • The business sponsors and users actively participate in the project in a spirit of partnership as the project is in progress to provide feedback and inputs as the project is in progress

    Additional Resources

    You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.