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:

ItemScrumKanban
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
Roles
  • 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
Meetings
  • 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.

    https://asq.org/quality-resources/total-quality-management

    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.

    Using Agile for Non-Software Projects – Agile Home Remodeling

    A number of my students have requested some case studies that show applying Agile to non-software projects. As an example, I recently completed a home remodeling project which may seem simple and trivial; but believe me, it was not.

    Agile for Non-software Projects

    Using Agile for Non-Software Projects

    It is possible to apply Agile to almost any project but that doesn’t necessarily mean using Scrum. And, it certainly doesn’t mean just going through the rituals of doing Scrum mechanically. Applying Agile principles and figuring out how to apply them to non-software projects can be very challenging.

    Background

    I have been a project manager for a long time. I’ve managed large, complex multi-million dollar projects; but nothing compared to a recent project to do a major remodeling of the kitchen in our house. The project involved:

    • Knocking down a wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house to create a more open environment
    • Ripping up the concrete floor to re-route electrical and plumbing connections
    • Replacing all of the existing kitchen cabinets and appliances
    • Installation of new lighting fixtures
    • Moving the entrance-way to the master bedroom to be more consistent with the new floor plan
    • Removing a pantry and replacing it with a new pantry cabinet which required knocking down a wall and moving an intercom system
    • Repainting the entire area and many other cosmetic enhancements

    Agile Home Remodeling – Why was this project so difficult?

    • My wife was the major stakeholder in the project, she is a perfectionist, and she has a habit of changing her mind frequently about what she wants. (Her response to that is “She doesn’t change her mind, she just decides as she goes along”)
    • Multiple outside contractors did all of the work in this project
    • A major challenge was to try to manage the costs and schedule of this project within reasonable levels

    Agile Contractor Selection

    The first task was to select a contractor (or contractors) to do the work. I had several choices:

    Contractor “A”

    Contractor “A” was the most widely-known contractor in this area. They advertise widely on television and have a good reputation for delivering a high-quality result. They would also take full responsibility for the overall solution. However, their approach is fairly rigid and controlled. Once you sign a contract with them, it is very difficult to make any changes.

    Contractor “B”

    Contractor “B” was much less widely-known but offered much more flexibility and willingness to work with on a design that was customized to meet our needs. They would also take overall responsibility for managing the overall solution.

    Contractor “C”

    Contractor “C” offered the most flexibility to meet our needs but was actually two different contractors. It was not really possible for either of them to take overall responsibility for the overall solution

    • One contractor did the demolition and prep work including electrical and plumbing to prepare the new kitchen
    • Another contractor provided the kitchen cabinets and counter-tops. They installed them after the initial demolition and prep work had been completed
    • Following the installation of the cabinets and counter-tops, the original contractor returned to do the finish work. That work included final installation of new lighting fixtures and repainting of the entire area

    Choosing a Contractor

    Selecting a contractor was difficult:

    • Contractor “A” was probably the lowest risk choice from a traditional project management perspective. It would require less management on my part but offered little flexibility to adapt the solution to meet our needs
    • Contractor “C” was the highest risk and involved coordinating the work of two different contractors. However, they offered the most flexibility to meet our needs
    • Contractor “B” was a compromise between those two extremes. They had the advantage that they were a single contractor who would take overall responsibility for the solution. However, their costs were considerably higher than Contractor “C”

    Final Contractor Selection

    We chose contractor “C” because flexibility and adaptivity to meet our needs was so important; even though contractor “C” had the highest risk and might be the most difficult to manage. However, these two contractors had a history of working together successfully on other similar projects. I also had a good feeling that I could trust and partner with these individuals to manage the overall solution. That was a key difference:

    • With contractor “A”, we would have relied on a very clear and well-defined contract to deliver the solution. However, we would have little or no flexibility to make changes (That’s what many people might call “Waterfall”)
    • Contractor “C” had a statement of work but it was understood to be flexible and subject to change. The relationship relied on a spirit of trust, partnership, and collaboration (This relationship was much more similar to Agile)

    How Did the Project Work Out?

    This was a difficult effort to manage.

    The scope of the project changed numerous times

    My wife decided that we couldn’t remodel the kitchen without replacing all the living room furniture and carpets. And, of course, other changes to the rest of the house became necessary as well which included:

    • Repainting the master bedroom,
    • Replacing pictures and reupholstering other furniture. and
    • Enhancements to other areas of the house

    Nailing down the design requirements was very difficult

    As I mentioned, my wife changes her mind frequently, and insists on perfection in the end-result. We looked at many different kinds of granite counter-tops and many different floor tiles before making a final selection. There were also many times when a “final selection” changed before it really became a “final selection”

    This Was a Project Management Nightmare

    This was not a large project but it was one of the most difficult ones that I have ever had to manage. For a traditional plan-driven project manager, this would have been a nightmare attempting to control all of these changes. It is also very challenging to be caught in the middle between a very demanding stakeholder and contractors who have to deliver the work within a given cost.

    However, this is a perfect example on a small scale of what an Agile Project Manager has to do. You have to learn how to balance flexibility and adaptivity to maximize the business value of the solution with some level of planning and control,

    What Were the Results?

    The project turned out to be enormously successful

    • The whole project was completed in a little over three weeks from the time the work started
    • It went over the budget that that we expected to spend but the costs were still at a reasonable level
    • Most importantly, my wife was delighted with the way it came out and she is the most important stakeholder I needed to satisfy.

    Finished Result

    Here’s a picture of what the finished kitchen looked like:

    The New Finished Kitchen

    Work-In-Progress

    Here’s a couple of pictures taken during the work-in-progress leading up to finishing the kitchen:

    Tearing Down the Wall to the Old Kitchen
    Ripping Up the Concrete Floor to Re-route Plumbing and Electrical

    How Does This Apply to a Business Situation?

    I know this is an unusual situation but I like to use unusual situations. I think it encourages “out-of-the-box” thinking rather than viewing standard, stereotypical Agile case studies. The following is a summary of how I think these lessons-learned can be applied to a business situation:

    Contractual Relationships

    Most businesses could not survive without some kind of contractual relationships with outside contractors. In addition, many businesses have significant supply chains that are critical to the success of their business.

    • Typically, a firm, fixed-price contract and a competitive bidding process among multiple bidders is used to get the lowest possible price.
    • That is a relatively low-risk approach from a cost-management perspective but doesn’t necessarily result in the best overall solution.
    • When there is a lot of uncertainty in the requirements, a different approach is needed to maximize the business value of the solution. It requires a collaborative partnership with a contractor to work together to maximize the value of the solution is essential

    Trust

    Developing that kind of relationship with contractors requires trust. For that reason, it will not be possible to develop that kind of relationship with just any contractor. That’s why it is important for a business to have strong relationships with a selected number of contractors who can be regarded as close partners.

    Risk Management

    I took a risk by going with contractors that I thought were the highest risk from a project management perspective. However, that risk paid off in terms of the overall quality of the solution. A similar thing is true in a business environment. Many times you have to take a risk to maximize the value of the solution.

    Productivity

    The project was completed in a very short time once the work was started. That was largely due to the fact that I empowered the contractors to get the job done the best way they knew how and I didn’t attempt to micro-manage what they were doing. Conventional project management might attempt to more directly manage the work being done.

    Overall Summary

    Here are some of the important conclusions and lessons learned from this project about applying Agile to non-software projects:

    • Agile principles and values can be applied to some extent to almost any project. However, it requires some skill to interpret these principles and perhaps combine them with traditional project management practices.
    • The overall value that the project delivers is what is most important. The key stakeholder determines “value”. Cost and schedule goals have some value but are only one component of value and not necessarily the most important,
    • A spirit of trust and partnership is important even in a contractual situation. Over-dependence on a traditional contractual relationship can severely reduce flexibility and impact the value that the solution provides.
    • Risk management is important but attempting to minimize and over-control risk can also impact the value of the solution. Taking risks may be necessary to maximize the value of the solution.

    Additional Resources

    For another example of applying Agile to non-software projects, check out this article:

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

    Why Is Planning Difficult? Is It a Waste of Time?

    Why Is Planning Difficult?

    Why is planning difficult? A lot of people seem to think that planning is very difficult and some think it is a waste of time because even very well-thought-out plans often don’t work out as expected. This issue is important because it is at the crux of selecting a methodology and planning approach for a project. Do I use Agile or plan-driven (aka Waterfall)?

    Why Is Planning So Difficult?

    Many people seem to think of planning as an “all-or-nothing” proposition – either you develop a highly-detailed plan or you do no planning at all. I don’t believe that to be the case. There seems to be two major problems associated with why people have this difficulty with planning:

    Dealing With Uncertainty

    Many people seem to have difficulty dealing with an uncertain environment – they want things to be crystal-clear, black-and-white and, in an uncertain environment, they think that it is a waste of time to do any planning at all.

    Unrealistic Expectations

    A related factor is that many people develop unrealistic expectations about planning.

    • If you develop a well thought-out plan, they expect that it should work every time.
    • Many people are also unrealistic that everything about a project will go absolutely perfectly all the time and
    • Murphy’s Law often contradicts that belief.

    Planning Fundamentals

    Let’s review some fundamentals about planning. We can learn a lot about how the military does planning.

    Planning in the Military

    Here are a few of my favorite quotes on planning in the military:

    Plans are nothing; planning is everything”  – (Dwight D. Eisehhower)

    What Eisenhower is saying is that documented plans should not be considered to be sacrosanct. When people document a written plan, the plan often takes on a life of its own and it becomes the “gospel” that everyone is expected to follow rigidly. However, that should not be the case and that’s not a reason to not do any planning at all. Here are a couple of examples:

    • It would be foolish for a military unit to go into battle without doing any planning at all. You should take advantage of whatever intelligence you might have about the enemy positions (as uncertain as it might be) but you shouldn’t lose sight of the uncertainty in that information.
    • In an American football game (or any other sport you want to choose), the coach prepares his team for what he thinks the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team are; but, again, that planning is based on very uncertain information and lots of assumptions.

    Here’s another quote along the same lines:

    “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”  (Helmuth von Moltke the Elder)

    What Helmuth von Moltke is saying is that you shouldn’t expect that a plan won’t change at all once you start to execute it.

    An Example

    In World War II, Churchill and Roosevelt spent years planning the invasion of Europe that ultimately resulted in the Allied forces landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Both men knew that an invasion of Europe was the only way that the war could be won but there was a lot of uncertainty about:

    • Where should the invasion take place? How can the Allies preserve the element of surprise?
    • What’s the best way to do it? What are the odds of it being successful?
    • How many deaths and casualties can be expected?

    This was a huge decision that had enormous impact:

    • The fate of Europe and most of the free world at that time depended on this being successful
    • Both men faced some level of opposition at home knowing the large number of casualties to be expected

    It took a lot of courage to do this planning and make a decision under these circumstances knowing that there was a lot of uncertainty in the situation and the impact of the decision was so enormous. However, planning was essential – can you imagine what might have happened if the invasion was attempted without any planning at all?
    Source: Churchill and Roosevelt Spent Years Planning D-Day

    What Does This Have to Do With Agile?

    This whole issue about planning is at the crux of the controversy about “Agile versus Waterfall”. Many people see the choice between Agile and Waterfall as a binary and mutually-exclusive choice and planning is at the center of this controversy:

    • Some people in the Agile community might say that its a waste of time to do planning in an uncertain environment and you should just use an Agile approach and let the project plan evolve as the project is in progress
    • Some people in the traditional plan-driven project management community might say that it would be foolish to attempt to do a project of any significant scope without a detailed plan for it to be successful

    The truth is somewhere between those extremes – it’s not an “all or nothing” choice and you should adapt the methodology and the level of planning to fit the nature of the project. The level of uncertainty in the project is a big factor in making that choice. In an uncertain environment, it might be foolish to attempt to develop a highly detailed plan but uncertainty is never an absolute and it would be equally foolish not to take advantage of whatever information you might have.

    How Do You Put This Into Practice?

    A lot of people might see “Agile” and “Waterfall” as totally incompatible with each other. It’s like mixing oil and vinegar – they just don’t mix well. And, if you look at this from a mechanical process perspective, that might be true.

    In order to learn how to blend these two approaches together in the right proportions to fit a given situation,

    • You have to understand both approaches at a deeper level and get past some of the strong stereotypes that exist about both “Agile” and “Waterfall”.
    • It’s really a choice of selecting a more plan-driven approach or a more adaptive approach based on the level of uncertainty in the situation and there is a whole spectrum of alternatives as shown below:
    Levels of Agility

    Rather than thinking of “Agile” and “Waterfall” as binary and mutually-exclusive choices and trying to force-fit a project to one of extremes, a better approach is to fit the methodology to the nature of the project and the level of uncertainty and the planning approach is a major factor in making that determination

    Overall Summary

    Here’s a summary of the key points I want to make in this article:

    1. Planning is not an “all or nothing” proposition
      • The planning approach should be directly related to the level of uncertainty in the environment
      • Planning in an uncertain environment can be difficult but that should not be an excuse for not doing any planning at all
      • However, to quote Eisenhower, “A plan is nothing – planning is everything” – don’t get locked into thinking that a written plan is sacrosanct and doesn’t need to be changed to adapt to the level of uncertainty in the environment
    2. The level of uncertainty and the planning approach is probably the most important factor in selecting a project management approach for projects
      • Rather than thinking about “Agile” and “Waterfall” as binary and mutually-exclusive alternatives,
      • Its more accurate and more objective to think of a spectrum of alternatives from heavily plan-driven at one extreme to heavily adaptive at the other extreme

    Additional Resources

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

    Agile Project Management for Business Executives

    I have just released a new online training course called “Agile Project Management for Executives”.

    Agile Project Management for Business Executives

    The Agile Bandwagon

    In many areas, “Agile” is becoming a hot new buzz word and everyone wants to jump on the “Agile bandwagon”. They may not fully understanding why they’re getting into it and exactly what they expect to get out of it. In addition, many companies also make the mistake of assuming that whatever is good for the development process is good for the business as a whole and that is not necessarily the case.

    Agile Bandwagon

    Agile Project Management for Executives Course Summary

    Agile has huge potential benefits for a business; however, it is easy to get carried away with some of the hype that exists about Agile. To avoid that, it is important to develop an objective understanding of its benefits and limitations to know how and when to apply it successfully. The right approach is to not necessarily to just implement Agile for the sake of becoming Agile, but figure out how it’s going to help your business and what problems it will solve. The typical questions and challenges this poses for business managers and executives are:

    • How do I reconcile an Agile development approach with my existing business management and project management processes?
    • Do I need to unravel all of my existing management processes in order to adopt an Agile development approach?

    This course will help you answer those questions. It also includes assessment tools and planning tools that are designed to help you develop a very effective Agile Project Management approach that is very well-aligned with your business.

    Intended Audience – Agile Training for Managers

    There are three potential audiences for this course:

    1. Senior-level Executives

    The first audience is senior-level executives who want to make their business more agile. The course will help develop a well-integrated approach to fit an Agile development process to their business

    2. Business Sponsors

    The next audience is Business Sponsors of an Agile initiative who want to learn more about Agile Project Management. The course will help them prepare to provide more effective leadership for the initiatives that they are responsible for

    3. Product Owners

    The final audience is for Agile Product Owners.  Many of the people who are selected to perform that role are not well-prepared for what it requires and the role is not well-understood. The course will help them to better understand how to effectively perform the Agile Product Owner role

    Why Is This Course Unique and Important?

    For many years, many people have treated Agile as a development process. However, in recent years it has become apparent that the implementation of Agile as a well-integrated, enterprise-level business strategy is not well-understood.

    1. Business Perspective

    A lot of the Agile training that exists today is very focused on implementing Agile as a development process and on the “mechanics” of how to do Scrum. There is a relatively weak focus on Agile from a business perspective. For example, my own Certified Scrum Product Owner certification was heavily focused on the “mechanics” of how to do Scrum. It didn’t really directly address the role of the Product Owner as a business decision-maker at all.

    2. Objective, Pragmatic Approach

    This course is not a sales-pitch for Agile. It recognizes that there is not a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” as many people seem to think. Instead, it objectively presents Agile and traditional plan-driven project management approaches as complementary to each other rather than competitive.

    3. In-depth Training

    This course is not a superficial seminar on how to implement Agile. It is a very substantive, university-level course that is over four hours long. It provides a very in-depth understanding of Agile from a business perspective

    4. Complementary to Agile Project Management Approach

    This course is also designed to complement all of my Agile Project Management courses. Implementation of Agile at an enterprise-level requires a collaborative partnership between a business executive and a senior-level Agile Project Manager. That relationship should be based on a mutual understanding of how an Agile approach might apply to their business.

    Overall Summary

    Business Executives and other business-oriented people such as Product Owners and Business Analysts need to understand the fundamentals of how an Agile process work because they will likely play a critical role in its implementation.

    Additional Resources

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

    What Are the Critical Skills of a Scrum Product Owner in Agile?

    I recently participated in an online discussion on the question of “What are the Critical Skills of a Scrum Product Owner?” This is a very good question because the role of a Product Owner is not very well-understood. The actual role that a Product Owner plays can vary significantly in the real-world depending on the nature of the company’s business and the scope and complexity of the projects that the Product Owner is responsible for.

    What are the Critical Skills of a Scrum Product Owner?

    What Does the Scrum Guide Say?

    The Scrum Guide defines the role of the Scrum Product Owner. However, it recognizes that the role varies widely across organizations. Here’s what the Scrum Guide has to say:

    “The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.”

    “The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:”

    • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
    • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
    • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
    • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
    • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed

    “The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.”

    Impact of the Nature of the Company’s Business

    The nature of the company’s business will have a very big impact on the role of the Product Owner. In this regard, there are two major types of companies that are most significant:

    • Product-oriented Companies
    • Project-oriented Companies

    Product-oriented Companies

    Product-oriented companies who are in the business of selling products to external customers are at one extreme. In those companies, a Product Owner may have the full responsibilities of a Product Manager, including product profit-and-loss responsibility.

    In this world, the critical skills of a Product Owner are essentially the same as the skills of a good Product Manager

    Project-oriented Companies

    At another extreme, are companies that are not really in the product development business at all. The work is more project-oriented to develop projects for internal use inside the company. In that kind of environment, the role of a Product Owner is likely to be very different. What is typical in this role is the role of the Product Owner is somewhat of a combination of a “Business Analyst on steroids” and a “Project Manager on steroids”.

    Scrum Product Owner versus Business Analyst Role

    A Product Owner has some attributes of a Business Analyst:

    • Both have a responsibility to represent the requirements of the business solution, but the Product Owner role is much more than an ordinary Business Analyst. A Product Owner has decision-making responsibility on the requirements where a normal Business Analyst does not have that kind of authority. 
    • The Product Owner also has some attributes of a Project Manager as he/she is responsible for the successful completion of the project. That responsibility is also much more than a normal Project Manager. A Project Manager is normally responsible only for delivering defined requirements without responsibility for the overall project’s business success. 

    Critical Scrum Product Owner Skills

    In this world, the critical skills of a Product Owner are:

    • Business Analysis Skills – Some “Business Analyst” skills are necessary for succinctly and accurately defining requirements but also have the domain knowledge and business knowledge to be a decision-maker to determine and prioritize what those requirements should be
    • Project Management Skills – Some “Project Management” skills are necessary to make good risk-based decisions on managing the project to make it successful from an overall business perspective (not simply meeting defined requirements)
    • Overall Management Skills – Above all else, the Product Owner is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the project from a business perspective. He is an important decision-maker and is sometimes referred to as the “CEO of the project”.

    Impact of the Scope and Complexity of the Project

    Beyond the nature of the company’s business discussed above, the role of the Product Owner can also vary widely due to the scope and complexity of the project.

    • At one extreme, you might have a small, single-team Agile project with a very limited scope and complexity
    • At another extreme, you might have a much larger and more complex enterprise-level project with multiple teams

    Naturally, that will also have a very big impact on the role of the Product Owner.

    What Does a Scrum Product Owner Really Do?

    So, what does a Product Owner really do? Here’s a very good article on that subject:

    The Top 10 Responsibilities of a Product Owner

    Additional Resources

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

    What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Agile and Scrum?

    I have often been asked “What are the advantages and disadvantages of Agile/Scrum?” so I thought it would be useful to summarize what I believe are the most important advantages and disadvantages.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Agile/Scrum

    Advantages of Agile/Scrum

    1. Flexibility and Adaptivity

    An Agile/Scrum approach is best-suited for a relatively uncertain environment. In that kind of environment:

    • It is very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately define the requirements and design for the solution in detail prior to the start of the project
    • Flexibility and adaptivity are essential to further define and elaborate the requirements and design of the solution as the project is in progress

    2. Creativity and Innovation

    In the highly competitive environment that we live in today, no one wants to buy average, run-of-the-mill products.  People expect a higher level of excellence and that requires creativity and innovation.  An Agile/Scrum approach emphasizes creativity and innovation to maximize the business value of the solution. An over-emphasis on planning and control tends to stifle creativity and innovation.

    3. Time-to-Market

    An Agile/Scrum approach typically results in faster time-to-market due to shorter startup times. An incremental development effort will also allow early delivery of at least a portion of the solution without the entire solution to be 100% complete

    4. Lower Costs

    An Agile/Scrum approach can lower the costs of a project in several ways:

    • Significantly reduced overhead resulting from reducing unnecessary documentation and control requirements
    • Higher productivity of the project team
    • Reduced “feature bloat” from using an incremental development effort and prioritizing the requirements. Using that approach, it will become apparent when the project begins to reach a point of diminishing returns where the incremental value of the features no longer exceeds the incremental development cost

    5. Improved Quality

    In an Agile/Scrum project, quality is an integral part of the development process rather than a sequential activity.  The developers know that quality is not “someone else’s responsibility”

    6. Customer Satisfaction

    An Agile/Scrum approach should result in higher customer satisfaction and more effective solutions because the customer is heavily involved in providing feedback and inputs throughout the development process

    7. Employee Satisfaction

    An Agile/Scrum approach should also result in higher employee satisfaction from all employees that are engaged in the effort because they are much more engaged to take responsibility for their own work as part of an empowered team

    8. Organizational Synergy

    An Agile/Scrum approach can improve organizational synergy by breaking down organizational barriers and developing a spirit of trust and partnership around organizational goals.

    Disadvantages of Agile/Scrum

    1. Training and Skill Required

    An Agile/Scrum approach requires a considerable amount of training and skill to implement successfully.  Many project teams don’t fully understand the need for training and skill or don’t want to put the effort into it. They attempt to do Agile/Scrum mechanically without fully understanding the principles behind it and that is typically not very effective

    2. Organizational Transformation

    An Agile/Scrum approach may also require some level of organizational transformation to make it successful.  It require the business users to work collaboratively with the development team in a spirit of trust and partnership.  That may require breaking down some organizational barriers that make that difficult or impossible to do

    3. Scalability

    It can be difficult to scale an Agile/Scrum approach to large, complex projects.  There are some models for doing that (Scrum-of-Scrums, LeSS, and SAFe are examples) but none of those are a cookbook solution that are easy to implement.

    4. Integration with Project/Program Management

    An Agile/Scrum approach may not be totally appropriate for projects that require a more plan-driven approach to achieve some level of predictability. However, there are many ways to create a hybrid approach that blends a traditional plan-driven approach and an Agile/Scrum approach in the right proportions to fit the situation

    Overall Summary

    Agile is not a “silver bullet” and it is not a solution to every problem you might have. However, if Agile is applied intelligently in the right situations, it has huge advantages and the advantages can easily outweigh the disadvantages.

    Additional Resources

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

    Blending Agile and Traditional Project Management