Improving Team Performance – How Do You Improve Team Performance in a Project Environment?

A number of people have asked questions related to improving team performance. It takes some skill to do that – “How do you improve team performance in a project? 

Improve Team Performance

Improving Team Performance

How to Improve Team Performance

It is very common for project managers to over-manage teams and I think that is a mistake. A team is like a dynamic organism:

  • Rather than simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance, a better approach is to understand the dynamics of how a team performs. You can then work on the factors that impact improving performance
  • An even better approach is to help the team become self-organizing and take responsibility for improving their own performance

What is a Self-organizing Team?

Here’s a good definition of a self-organizing team from the Scrum Alliance web site:

“A group of motivated individuals, who work together toward a goal, have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands”

The diagram below shows a comparison of a traditional project team and a self-organizing team:

What is a Self-organizing Team

Does This Mean Abdicating all Responsibilities to the Team?

The principles behind empowered teams can be used in any project. It is just different levels of empowerment.  The diagram below shows a comparison of different levels of empowerment:

How Do You Improve Team Performance

Here’s a description of each of these levels:

LevelDescription
Manager-led TeamThe lowest level of empowerment is a “manager-led team”. In that environment, the only responsibility delegated to the team is for managing the execution of tasks that they are responsible for.
Self-governing TeamAt the other extreme is a “self-governing team” where the team takes complete responsibility for their operations including setting their own direction. It would be unlikely to find that level in a project team but you might find a senior management leadership team that operated that way.
The two levels below are more typically found in an Agile environment:
Self-managing TeamA “self-managing team” takes responsibility for monitoring and managing work process and progress.
Self-organizing TeamA “self-organizing team” goes beyond that and takes responsibility for designing the team including defining roles within the team and defining the organizational context of how the team operates.

An important point is that “self-organizing” does not mean that a team does not need any direction at all. Self-organizing teams should not be used as an excuse for anarchy.

What Are the Advantages of Empowered Teams?

There are a number of advantages of empowered teams:

  • Empowered teams more fully utilize the capabilities of the people on the team
  • They reduce the need for someone to directly manage all aspects of how the team operates
  • They improve team performance because the team takes more responsibility for managing its own performance
  • Team performance is more sustainable because the performance of the team is more self-correcting
  • It encourages creativity and innovation and enables the team to quickly adapt to new problems and challenges

Comparison of Agile and Plan-driven Approaches

There can be a big difference between an Agile environment and a traditional plan-driven environment.

1. Traditional Plan-driven Projects

In a traditional plan-driven project team, a Project Manager or Team Leader typically provides direction to the team:

  • The project manager is the one who is held responsible for the performance of the team and the results that they produce, and
  • Some level of control may be needed to manage conformance to the project plan

However, even in that kind of environment, it is essential to delegate some level of responsibility to the members of the team.

2. Agile Projects

In an Agile project,

  • There is a much higher level of emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than conformance to a plan
  • In that kind of environment, it is very important to fully empower all the members of the team to actively contribute to the solution as much as possible

In an Agile environment, there may not be a project manager involved at all at the team level:

  • If a project manager is involved at that level, he/she needs to be more of a coach to help the team improve its own performance.
  • However, there is no reason why the idea of empowered teams is limited to an Agile environment
  • The same ideas can be applied in a traditional plan-driven environment; however, it may involve somewhat less empowerment

Overall Summary

Project Managers have a tendency to over-manage the performance of teams because the perception is that is what a Project Manager or Team Leader is supposed to do.

  • However, in many cases, simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance may not be effective
  • A more proactive and more sustainable approach is to better understand how the team functions as a dynamic organism. You can then work on the factors that drive performance.

Additional Resources

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

What Is Servant Leadership and How Does It Relate to Agile?

“Servant Leadership” is a commonly-used term in an Agile environment. However, if you asked people what it means, I’m sure you would get a number of different responses. For that reason, I think it is worthwhile to discuss “What Is Servant Leadership?”

What is Servant Leadership?

What Is Servant Leadership?

“Servant leadership” sounds like a manager who does nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the Agile team. Is that what it really is? (I don’t think so). The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970 long before Agile came into being.   Here’s a definition of “servant leadership”:

“Servant leadership is characterized by leaders who put the needs of a group over their own. These leaders foster trust among employees by holding themselves accountable, helping others develop, showing appreciation, sharing power and listening without judging. While serving and leading seem like conflicting activities, these leaders are effective initiators of action.”

http://www.ehow.com/list_6753156_servant-leadership-games.html?ref=Track2&utm_source=IACB2B

A “servant leader” doesn’t necessarily completely abdicate the leadership role and do nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the team.  He/she recognizes the importance of working through others and engaging and empowering others to use as much of their own capabilities as possible.  Here’s an excellent quote on that:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong”

Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

What is Servant Leadership?

What Does it Really Mean to be a Servant Leader?

A major leadership principle that is applicable to any leadership role is that there is no single leadership style that works in all situations. A good leader should be capable of taking an adaptive and situational leadership approach that is appropriate to the people and the environment he/she is trying to lead.

With regard to servant leadership, the way the servant leader role is implemented will be very dependent on the capabilities of the Agile team you are leading and the environment you are part of. The goal should be to maximize the utilization of the capabilities of the entire team. However, that doesn’t mean a servant leader completely abdicates a leadership role and turns over all responsibility to the team. Determining the most effective servant leadership role requires some judgement:

  • If the team is very strong and very capable, the role of the servant leader may be limited to a facilitation role
  • If that is not the case, a more active leadership role may be needed by the servant leader

Basically, the servant leader needs to “fill the cracks” as much as possible to help the team become fully effective on their own.

Why Is This Important in Agile?

The idea of “servant leadership” is particularly important in an Agile environment because an Agile approach is best suited for projects with a high level of uncertainty.  In that kind of environment,

  • A lot of individual creativity may be needed to find an optimum solution and
  • Maximizing the creativity of the team requires that the team be empowered as much as possible.

It is basically a softer leadership style that puts an emphasis on empowering others over a more controlled approach.  It is ideal for a highly uncertain environment that requires an adaptive Agile approach.  Naturally, it probably would not be so ideal for a more plan-driven environment where conformance to a plan is important.

Additional Resources

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

What is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important?

I recently created a significant training module on Agile Leadership. One of the key topics in that module is “Emotional Intelligence”.  I’m sure some people are wondering “What is emotional intelligence and why is it important?”  I’d like to summarize some of that here.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

First, here’s a definition of “emotional intelligence”:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills:

  • “Emotional Awareness
  • The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and
  • The ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/emotional-intelligence

What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important?

Why Is It Important?

Emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills of an effective leader. The reason that emotional intelligence is so important to leadership is that if you can’t control your own emotions; it will be difficult, if not impossible to be an effective leader.

Here’s a quote that sums up the value of emotional intelligence very well:

“We probably also know people who are masters at managing their emotions. They don’t get angry in stressful situations. Instead, they have the ability to look at a problem and calmly find a solution. They’re excellent decision makers, and they know when to trust their intuition.

“Regardless of their strengths, however, they’re usually willing to look at themselves honestly. They take criticism well, and they know when to use it to improve their performance.”

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_59.htm

What Are the Benefits of Emotional Intelligence?

Here are some of the key benefits of developing emotional intelligence:

AreaImpact
Increased Leadership AbilityYour leadership approach will be based on sound, rational principles rather than being dominated by emotional responses
Increased Team PerformanceTeam members will feel much more comfortable and secure in a non-threatening team environment with no hidden agendas
Improved Decision-makingDecisions are made more objectively and rationally
Decreased Occupational StressThere will be less emotional tension involved in the work environment
Reduced Staff TurnoverThere will be fewer emotional flare-ups
Increased Personal Well-beingLearning to accept yourself and gain control of your emotions can lead to a much happier life

How Do You Improve Emotional Intelligence?

The following tips have been reproduced from the Mind Tools web site:

1. Observe How You React to People

“Do you rush to judgement before you know all the facts? Do you stereotype? Look honestly at how you think and interact with other people. Try to put yourself in their place, and be more open and accepting of their perspectives and needs.”

2. Look at Your Work Environment

“Do you seek attention for your accomplishments? Humility can be a wonderful quality, and it doesn’t mean that you’re shy or lack self-confidence. When you practice humility, you say that you know what you did, and you can be quietly confident about it. Give others a chance to shine – put the focus on them, and don’t worry too much about getting praise for yourself.”

3. Do a Self-Evaluation

“What are your weaknesses? Are you willing to accept that you’re not perfect and that you could work on some areas to make yourself a better person? Have the courage to look at yourself honestly – it can change your life.”

4. Examine How You React to Stressful Situations

“Do you become upset every time there’s a delay or something doesn’t happen the way you want? Do you blame others or become angry at them, even when it’s not their fault? The ability to stay calm and in control in difficult situations is highly valued – in the business world and outside it. Keep your emotions under control when things go wrong.”

5. Take Responsibility for Your Actions

“If you hurt someone’s feelings, apologize directly – don’t ignore what you did or avoid the person. People are usually more willing to forgive and forget if you make an honest attempt to make things right.”

6. Examine How Your Actions Will Affect Others

“Before you take those actions. If your decision will impact others, put yourself in their place. How will they feel if you do this? Would you want that experience? If you must take the action, how can you help others deal with the effects?”

Why Is This Particularly Important to Agile Project Management?

Check out my previous article on Agile Leadership and I think you will understand why effective leadership is extremely difficult and so important in an Agile environment with high performance teams.  Agile is based heavily on transparency and openness and if you can’t be open and transparent about who you are as a person, you will have a difficult time being effective in an Agile environment.

Overall Summary

Self-awareness is one of the biggest components of emotional intelligence.  Many people aren’t even aware of who they are as a person and don’t reveal that to others.  They live their lives behind a facade that is based on projecting an image of who they are to others that may not be very genuine and others can employees can see through that easily.

When I was a young manager many years ago, self-awareness training was a standard part of many companies’ management training curriculum.  

  • The idea was that, to be an effective leader, its important to be genuine and open with others and you can’t do that without self-awareness
  • Unfortunately, over the years, companies have cut back on that kind of training.  It was seen as frivolous and not essential and as pressure has mounted to reduce cost of operations, a lot of that kind of training has been cut

Additional Resources

I can’t really directly help you develop emotional awareness in my online training; however, I’ve added two new sections and twelve additional lessons on Agile Leadership and Emotional Intelligence in my online training that I think will be helpful to you to better understand how to develop an effective leadership strategy.

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

What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?

I just finished developing some online training on Agile Leadership and What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership? This article is a brief excerpt of that training.

Agile Leadership

Leadership Stereotypes

They’re are lots of stereotypes and myths in this area – here are a few of them:

  • Project Managers only know how to do a “command-and-control” style of management
  • Agile requires a “servant leadership” approach which means that you completely abdicate the leadership role

Those stereotypes generally follow many of the stereotypes that people have about “Agile” and “Waterfall”. They see them as binary and mutually-exclusive choices with nothing in the middle of those extremes.  Instead of force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, the right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem. Sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

Instead of force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, the right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem and sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

Agile Leadership – Fitting the Leadership Style to the Nature of the Problem

You can make some similar observations about leadership style:

  • A good leader doesn’t have one well-defined style of leadership that he/she force-fits all situations to.
  • A good leader recognizes that different styles of leadership are needed in different situations. That’s what “situational leadership” is all about

Another important observation is that the leadership style that is most appropriate in a given situation is directly related to the nature of the project and the problem solving approach.  Here’s how I see the relationship:

What's Really Different About Agile Leadership?

The nature of the problem shapes the management objective and

  • The management objective shapes the problem solving approach
  • The problem-solving approach  determines the leadership style that may be most appropriate

Comparison of Different Environments

The table below shows some important differences between a traditional plan-driven environment and an Agile environment. The table shows the characteristics in each environment that might have some impact on the overall leadership approach.

General Characteristics and Problem-Solving Approach

<
AreaPlan-driven EnvironmentAgile Environment
General Characteristics Projects that have a relatively low level of uncertainty and require some level of predictability might lend themselves to more of a plan-driven approach to project management.

An important characteristic that differentiates this kind of project is that it is assumed to be possible to define the general solution to the problem with some level of certainty prior to the start of the project.

Projects that have a higher level of uncertainty typically require a more flexible and adaptive approach to arrive at the solution as the project is in progress.>

In an Agile project, both the solution and the process for finding the solution might evolve as the project is in progress.

Problem-Solving Approach A defined problem-solving approach is what is typically used. The solution to the problem is generally well-defined in advance and the general approach for implementing the solution is also fairly well-defined. An Agile project uses a empirical process control approach. The word “empirical” means “based on observation” which means that both the definition of the solution as well as the process to discover the solution will evolve based on observation throughout the project.

Management Objective and Leadership Approach

AreaPlan-driven EnvironmentAgile Environment
Management Objective Predictability is normally important. Achieving predictability requires a well-defined plan and conformance to the plan and some level of emphasis on control are also important. Arriving at an effective solution is far more important in this kind of project than predictability. Therefore, innovation and creativity would generally be emphasized more than control.
Leadership Approach The style of leadership naturally might be a bit more directive in order to remain on track with the project plan. You certainly don’t want members of the project team running loose in all different directions without some kind of plan that integrates all of their efforts together that is consistent with the overall plan. A different leadership style is typically called for. If you want to encourage creativity and innovation, you don’t want to emphasize control, you want to empower people and give them some flexibility to use their own intelligence and judgement to explore alternatives as necessary to find the best solution.

Polarized Viewpoints

There are a lot of very polarized viewpoints in this area that go something like this:

  • Agile is good and
  • Waterfall is bad

Or alternatively:

  • Command-and-control management is bad and
  • Agile Servant Leadership is good

Those polarized points of view tend to over-simplify what is not quite so simple. It not as simple as drawing a black-and-white comparison between two extremes. 

  • There are lots of “shades of gray” in both the problem-solving approach and the leadership style that is most appropriate for a particular situation. 
  • An effective leader should be able to adjust his/her leadership style and problem-solving approach as necessary to fit any given situation.

Overall Summary

Here’s a summary of some key points:

  • There is not just one leadership style that fits all situations
  • Leadership styles are not necessarily good or bad. Saying a particular leadership style is good or bad is like saying “a car is better than a boat”.  Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment you’re in.
  • Agile leadership is not really a radically different style of leadership. It is not totally separate and mutually-exclusive with other leadership styles. However, it significantly expands our definition of what “leadership” is.

Additional Resources

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

Free Agile Webinar for Project Managers

Transform yourself into a high impact Agile Project Manager!

This free Agile webinar will help project managers understand how to dramatically transform themselves into a very high impact Agile Project Management role!

Free Agile Webinar

Why This Agile Webinar Is Important

This Agile Webinar is very important for project managers. Agile is having a very significant impact on the project management profession:

  • Traditional, plan-driven project management has not changed significantly since the 1950’s and 1960’s
  • Many projects are moving rapidly to an Agile approach

Weaknesses in Traditional Project Management Approach

Agile addresses several major weaknesses in a traditional plan-driven project management approach:

  • It is not well-suited for an environment with a high level of uncertainty
  • The emphasis on planning and control can stifle creativity and innovation
  • Unnecessary overhead can increase costs and slow progress

The Challenge for Project Managers

Traditional, plan-driven project management is still useful if it is done in the right context; however:

  • Any  project manager who only knows traditional plan-driven project management and force-fits all projects to that approach will have limited success
  • Project managers need to learn how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices in the right proportions to fit any given situation

That is exactly the challenge that this webinar will help you understand.

Agile Webinar Summary – What You Will Learn

Here’s a summary of what you will learn in this Free Agile Project Management Webinar:

1. Learn to Fit the Approach to the Nature of the Project

Agile and traditional plan-driven project management (what many people loosely call “Waterfall”) are seen as binary and mutually-exclusive choices:

  • As a result, many people tend to think they need to force-fit a project to one of those extremes
  • The right solution is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the project
  • That can require a lot more skill to do that but it definitely can be done

2. Develop a More Adaptive Approach

In the world we live in today:

  • Technologies tend to be much more dynamic and rapidly-changing and projects may have very high levels of uncertainty
  • That makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully apply a traditional, plan-driven project management approach in many situations that call for a much more adaptive approach

3. Understand the Convergence of Agile and Traditional Project Management

The convergence of these approaches raises the bar for the project management profession and will likely have a significant impact on the careers of many project managers.

4. Learn Where PMI-ACP Fits In

PMI® has recognized the importance of Agile and has created the PMI-ACP® certification. PMI-ACP is a step in the right direction; however it has several limitations:

  • PMI-ACP doesn’t address the challenge that many project managers face of learning how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven project management
  • Agile and traditional, plan-driven project management are still treated as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two
  • It is also a general test of Agile and Lean knowledge and doesn’t focus on a specific real-world job that a project manager might play

Overall Summary

This Agile webinar will help you:

  • Better understand the challenges Agile presents to project managers, and
  • The impact on your career as a project manager
  • It will help you begin to develop a broader, high-impact view of what “project management” is

What are the Most Practical Ways to Do Project Planning?

I recently participated in an online discussion in response to a question that was asked on “What are the most practical ways to do project planning?” It’s a critical issue and it comes up a lot so I thought I would share some thoughts on this subject.

Ways to do Project Planning – Factors to Consider

In my opinion, there are two very significant factors in determining what planning approach would make the most sense for a particular project:

1. Level of Uncertainty

The level of uncertainty in the project is probably the most important factor. 

  • If there is a high level of uncertainty that cannot easily be resolved, it would probably be foolish to try to develop a highly-detailed, plan-driven approach. 
  • An example would be attempting to find a cure for cancer.  It would probably be foolish to try to develop a detailed plan for that effort. There’s just way too much uncertainty.

That doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t do any planning at all:

  • You would take stock of what you know and don’t know and try to develop at least a cursory plan based on that information and then
  • Continually revise the plan based on what you learn as the project is in progress

2. Customer Relationship

The second major factor is the relationship with the customer.  

  • If you have a contractual relationship with the customer where the customer is expecting a firm set of deliverables for a given schedule and cost, you might be forced into a planning model to try to effectively manage and satisfy those customer expectations. 
  • If there is more of a collaborative relationship with the customer, you probably have a lot more ability to optimize the approach based on the level of uncertainty in the project.

Ways to do Project Planning – Planning Quadrants

Obviously, there may be a conflict between these two factors.  I’ve created a diagram below to show some of the possible combinations of these two factors:

Ways to do Project Planning

Lets look at each of these quadrants individually:

1. Low Uncertainty, Contractual Relationship

This is the area that most project managers are most familiar with.

  • It is the area that is most well-suited for a traditional plan-driven project management model. 
  • In this area, the level of uncertainty may be low enough to permit developing a detailed plan.
  • That plan would be consistent with managing customer expectations in a contractual relationship model.

2. Low Uncertainty, Collaborative Relationship

If the level of uncertainty associated with a project is low, you might develop a more collaborative relationship with the customer; however, that might not be the most efficient way to do the project. If the level of uncertainty is truly low and it is relatively easy to define the project requirements upfront,

  • it may not make too much sense to engage the customer too heavily in a collaborative relationship
  • There is less of a need to further define detailed direction for the project as it is in progress.

3.. High Uncertainty, Collaborative Relationship

This is the area where an Agile approach makes most sense. In this area, instead of trying to develop a highly-detailed upfront plan prior to starting the project, you would probably:

  • Reach agreement with the customer on at least a vision for the project and at least some higher level objectives and requirements that the project must meet, and
  • Then further elaborate those requirements and the plan for meeting them as the project was in progress

It’s easy to see how this kind of planning model may not work well unless there’s a collaborative spirit of trust and partnership with the customer since:

  • It may be almost impossible to accurately define the costs and schedule for completing the project prior to starting the effort; and

  • Further defining the plan as the project is in progress requires a close working relationship with the customer.

4. High Uncertainty, Contractual Relationship

This area is the quadrant that is likely to be most problematic:

Impact of Uncertainty

The level of uncertainty will have a big impact. Attempting to do an Agile project with highly uncertain requirements without a collaborative relationship with the customer is not likely to work very well:

  • The customer may not be committed to actively engage in the project as it is in progress to help elaborate and resolve questions related to the requirements; and,
  • As a result, the project may either get stalled or go off in the wrong direction
Impact of Customer Relationship

Attempting to apply a contractual, plan-driven approach in this kind of environment is also likely to be problematic. There would likely be a very high risk associated with trying to develop a firm, plan-driven contractual relationship based on highly uncertain requirements. What is likely to happen is:

  • The project meets the defined requirements but the defined requirements were wrong, or
  • There are so many changes as the project is in progress that the scope of the project winds up being completely different from what the customer was expecting

It’s easy to see how either of these scenarios might present a very high risk.

Of course, this is somewhat of an over-simplification and all projects don’t fall very neatly into one of these quadrants.  There is a very broad range of scenarios in the middle of this diagram that call for some kind of hybrid approach.

What are the Most Practical Ways to Do Project Planning?

There are a number of conclusions that I think we can draw from an from understanding of this model:

1. There Is Not Just One Way to Do Project Planning

There is not just one way to do project planning. Project Managers who have been heavily indoctrinated in a traditional, plan-driven model and attempt to force-fit all projects to that kind of planning model are likely to not have optimal results.

2. This Is Not a Simple Binary and Mutually-exclusive Choice

This is not a simple binary and mutually-exclusive choice between an Agile and traditional plan-driven planning model. It is much more complicated than that.  There’s a whole spectrum of different possible scenarios and it is a multi-dimensional problem

3. Fit the Planning Model to the Nature of the Problem

The right approach is to fit the planning model to the nature of the problem based on the level of uncertainty and the relationship with the customer.  Attempting to use a single “one size fits all” planning model for all projects is not likely to work very well.

Overall Summary

This creates a big challenge for project managers to learn how to blend an Agile and traditional plan-driven approach in the right proportions to fit a given situation.  That’s not an easy thing to do. PMI still treats these two areas as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two.  This is exactly the challenge that my Agile Project Management training is designed to address.

Additional Resources

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

What is a “Hybrid Agile” Approach? Is There Such a Thing?

What is a hybrid Agile Approach? Is there such a thing? I recently came across an article on the Internet that was posted in several places entitled “The Moment of truth: There Is No Hybrid Agile“.

  • This article is so full of stereotypes and misconceptions about “Agile” and “Waterfall” that I felt that I had to respond to it. 
  • It is typical of many articles that position “Agile” and “Waterfall” as two binary and mutually-exclusive alternatives with no middle ground between the two.

What Are the Flaws in This Thinking?

Treating Agile and Waterfall as Discrete, Binary Opposites

The biggest flaw in this thinking is that this article and many others like it treat “Agile” and “Waterfall” as if they were individual, discrete methodologies. They also position “Agile” and “Waterfall”  as diametrical opposites of each other.  That’s not very accurate.

“Agile” and “Waterfall” are not really discrete, individual methodologies at all and both of those terms are used very loosely.  In common usage. Neither of those are individual, discrete methodologies:

  • Many people  may think of “Agile” as being synonymous with Scrum but that is not really accurate.  “Agile” is much broader than Scrum – it is a way of thinking defined by the Agile Manifesto
  • “Waterfall” is also not a single, discrete methodology. In today’s world, many people use the term “Waterfall” for any plan-driven methodology that is not Agile.  What about RUP and other iterative approaches that probably wouldn’t be considered to be Agile?  Is that “Waterfall”?

A Better Way of Thinking

Instead of thinking of what people commonly call “Agile and “Waterfall” as individual discrete methodologies, it is more accurate to see it as a continuous spectrum of approaches from heavily plan-driven at one extreme to heavily adaptive at the other extreme like this:

What is a hybrid agile approach?

If you think of it in that way, it is much easier to see the possibility for lots of approaches in the middle of that spectrum that blend the right level of plan-driven principles and practices with more adaptive principles and practices to fit a given situation.

Here’s what some methodologies would look like plotted on a spectrum of heavily plan-driven versus heavily adaptive:

Adaptive vs Plan-driven

As you can see from this diagram, “Agile” is not a single approach and there is not just one way to do “Agile”:

  • Kanban is more adaptive than Scrum, and
  • Even within Scrum you will find different styles of implementation from
    • Simple team-level projects which may tend to be more adaptive to
    • Larger more complex multi-team projects which may tend to be somewhat more plan-driven

Putting It Into Practice

The most important point to get out of this is that there is not a clear and well-defined boundary line between “Agile” and “Waterfall” as many people seem to think.

Fitting the Approach to the Nature of the Problem

Many people make the mistake of performing a methodology mechanically. They think they need to do it religiously and “by the book”(That’s true of both Agile and other non-Agile methodologies)

  • The right approach is to fit the methodology to the nature of the problem rather than force-fitting all problems to a given methodology (Agile or non-Agile)
  • It takes more skill to do that but it definitely can be done.
  • It requires understanding the principles behind the methodology and why they make sense in a given situation rather than doing a given methodology mechanically

If you think of methodologies as being rigid and prescriptive,

  • It will be difficult to see how two seemingly disparate methodologies could be blended together in the right proportions to fit a given situation.
  • On the other hand, if you understand the principles behind the methodologies at a deeper level, it is much easier to see how they could be complementary to each other rather than competitive.

Learning to be a “Chef”

It can take a lot more skill to learn how to blend different approaches together in the right proportions to fit a given situation. In my book on Agile Project Management, I use the analogy of a project manager as a “cook” and a project manager as a “chef”.

A Good “Cook”

“A good ‘cook’:

  • May have the ability to create some very good meals, but
  • Those dishes may be limited to a repertoire of standard dishes.
  • And, his/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals may be primarily based on following some predefined recipes out of a cookbook”.
A “Chef”

“A ‘chef’, on the other hand,

  • Typically has a far greater ability to prepare a much broader range of more sophisticated dishes using much more exotic ingredients in some cases.
  • His/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals is not limited to predefined recipes, and
  • In many cases, a chef will create entirely new and innovative recipes for a given situation
  • The best chefs are not limited to a single cuisine. They are capable of combining dishes from entirely different kinds of cuisine.

That’s the challenge for project managers and agile practitioners in today’s world – we need more chefs and fewer cooks.

What is a Hybrid Agile Approach?

In simple terms, a hybrid Agile approach is one that blends the plan-driven principles and practices with Agile (adaptive) principles and practices in the right proportions to fit a given situation.

Managed Agile Development Framework

An example of that is the Managed Agile Development framework that I created. It simply wraps an outer layer of project-level planning around an Agile development process.

Managed Agile Development Framework

The outer layer can be as thick or thin as necessary to fit the situation.

The Origin of This Approach

I originally developed this framework when I was managing a very large government program for a US government agency.

  • The government agency had to have some level of predictability over the costs and schedules of the program.
  • The program was so large that it actually had some level of congressional oversight so some level of predictability and control was essential
  • However, within that outer envelope, the government agency customer wanted to have flexibility in many of the detailed requirements.
  • We were able to find the right balance of control and flexibility to satisfy both needs.

What Are Examples of Hybrid Agile Approaches?

Some of the most common examples of hybrid Agile approaches are:

Agile Contracts

  • The government program I mentioned is a good example
  • I also have a case study in my book on General Dynamics UK, Ltd. They successfully used a hybrid Agile approach to manage a large defense contract for the ministry of defense in the UK
  • I just finished building a new house. I naturally had a contract with the builder that defined the cost and schedule for the home. However, the builder offered a lot of flexibility to make changes even as the construction of the house was in progress (He charges for changes, of course)

Large, Enterprise-level Projects and Programs

It’s almost impossible to successfully implement some large complex enterprise-level projects and programs without integrating some level of project and program management.

  • A good example of that is the Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare case study that is written up in my latest book.
  • The project involved over 100 Agile teams and involved replacing almost everyone of HPHC’s most critical business systems over a period of time
  • The whole effort involved a lot of moving parts that had to be carefully planned and synchronized. It’s impossible to imagine how that could be done without a sufficient level of project and program management to guide and manage the overall effort

Other Business-driven Initiatives

Many people have the mistaken belief that you need to force the entire company to be agile in order to adopt an Agile development approach. That isn’t necessarily true.

Fitting the Approach to the Business

A business has to be designed around whatever critical success factors are most important for the business that they’re in. Becoming agile may not be the only factor and may not even be the most significant factor.

  • For example, some companies are in very cost-competitive industries and succeed primarily based on operational excellence to lower their costs as much as possible
  • Becoming more agile may play an indirect role in that but it isn’t necessarily the most important factor
Product Development Companies

On the other hand, in a company that is technology-driven that succeeds on bringing leading-edge products to market as quickly as possible, it’s much easier to see how a pure Agile approach might be a very strong and direct driver of the business

  • Agile was originally developed for companies that do product development and that’s where it works best.
  • In companies whose primary business is not developing products per se, there is typically more of a project-oriented approach.
  • The company has to typically evaluate a potential portfolio of projects to determine what mix of projects and programs is going to have the greatest impact on their business.
  • Then they need to monitor the execution of those projects and programs to determine if it is really delivering the expected returns.

Additional Resources

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

Why Are Agile Tools So Important?

Have you ever thought about “Why are Agile Tools So Important?”.

  • We all know that one of the very important values in the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”.
  • Some people might interpret that to mean that tools aren’t necessary or appropriate in an Agile environment.
  • I don’t think that is the case but it’s important that they be used in the right context

For more on Agile Manifesto values, check out this link:

https://agilemanifesto.org/

Why Are Agile Tools So Important?

What’s the Right Context for Agile Tools?

  • In a traditional plan-driven environment (aka “Waterfall”), the process and the tool manages the efforts of everyone on the team
  • In an Agile environment, a lot more flexibility and adaptivity is needed so any tool that is used should play a supporting role rather than a controlling role

It’s important to understand that context in order to use tools appropriately in an Agile environment. The key idea is that:

“You should manage the tool rather than
the tool managing you”

Why Are Agile Tools So Important?

As long as they’re implemented in the right context, I believe that tools are very important in an Agile environment for several reasons:

  • Agile projects are very dynamic and fast-moving and coordination of the efforts can be a challenge especially with distributed teams
  • Scaling Agile projects to large, complex enterprise levels and keeping the projects well-aligned with the business objectives they are intended to support can also be very challenging

How Are Agile Tools Different?

It’s also important to understand how Agile project management tools are very different from traditional plan-driven project management tools like Microsoft Project.

Traditional Plan-driven
PM Tool Emphasis
Agile PM Tool Emphasis
Structure of the project (WBS, Gantt, Pert, etc.)Maximizing flow of work and efficiency (Structure is considerably simplified, much more fluid, and not as important)
Tracking conformance to a plan baselineMuch more dynamic environment; plan is continuously being updated and refined
Tracking completion of tasksTracking delivery of value against a high-level road map
PM is the primary user of the toolThe entire team uses the tool and the tool supports team communication and collaboration
Information in the tool is updated periodically by the PM for reporting purposesInformation in the tool is updated in much more continuously by everyone on the team for coordination and tracking progress
PM prepares and distributes progress reportsAnyone can view progress any time
(Information Radiator)

Overall Summary

Tools can be very important in an Agile project. However, the role of tools is very different and they need to be used in the right context.

Additional Resources

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

What’s Next After PMI-ACP Certification and What’s the Future Like?

What’s next after PMI-ACP certification? Over the past few years, I’ve been progressively developing a new approach for PMI-ACP training:

  • It goes well beyond other training programs and
  • Lays the groundwork for what I see as the future of project management.
What's Next After PMI-ACP Certification?

Agile Project Management Training Objectives

When I set out to develop this training, I wanted to

  • Try to anticipate the future of the project management profession and
  • Take a different approach to Agile Project Management and PMI-ACP Certification training

There were several objectives that were important goals:

Not a Typical Exam-prep Course

There are a lot of courses out there that are based on what I call an “exam cram” approach:

  • The course design is focused on passing the PMI-ACP exam and not much more than that
  • It involves a lot of memorization of information. That doesn’t generally lead to a deeper and lasting understanding of the material

Go Beyond the PMI-ACP Exam

Although the PMI-ACP exam is a challenging exam, it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion:

  • It is primarily just a test of general Lean and Agile knowledge
  • It doesn’t address one of the biggest challenges that a project manager faces of learning how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven project management in the right proportions to fit a given situation
  • The individual project manager needs to figure out how to put the two together

Design the Training Around a Real-world Role

The PMI-ACP certification is a good certification. However, it is not designed around preparing someone for a particular job role:

  • It’s important for a project manager to have a clear idea of what role that he/she might play in order to prepare him/herself for that role.
  • The role of an Agile Project Manager is not well-defined. It is even somewhat controversial among some people that there is a legitimate role for a project manager to play in an Agile environment.

Avoid the Limitations of Some Typical Agile Training

A lot of Agile training that is out there (like the typical CSM training) is very superficial in my opinion. The typical Agile training focuses on the “mechanics” of how to do Agile and really doesn’t go into the principles behind it very much at all

  • Agile is intended to be adaptive
  • In order to take an adaptive approach, you have to understand the principles behind it 
  • Doing it very mechanically is not very adaptive.

Future of PMI-ACP Certification – What’s the Future Like?

Agile is having a significant and profound effect on the project management profession. We need to make some assumptions and develop a vision of where the future of the project management profession is heading.

  • The new vision of “project management” is not limited to taking a project with well-defined requirements and planning and managing it to meet cost and schedule goals. 
  • This new vision of Agile Project Management includes:
    • Taking on an effort with some very broadly-defined business objectives in a very dynamic and uncertain environment and
    • Leading a project management approach that is designed to maximize the business value of the overall solution

Overall Summary

PMI-ACP is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. To some extent, it still treats Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two.

The big challenge for project managers that goes beyond the PMI-ACP certification is learning how to blend Agile and traditional plan-driven principles and practices in the right proportions to fit a given situation

  • The online Agile Project Management training is designed around that objective
  • This training will be of benefit to all project managers even if they are not involved in an Agile project. The training will broaden the range of project management capabilities that he/she has to offer.

Additional Resources

Check out this new training curriculum in The Agile Project Management Academy.

What is the Real Essence of Agile? What Are the Real Advantages?

It’s apparent to me that a lot of people have gotten so heavily focused on the mechanics of how Agile is implemented that they’ve lost sight of the big picture of what the real essence of Agile is all about. 

  • The term “Agile” has taken on a number of different meanings today that are largely based on how it is implemented
  • For many people, “Agile” has become synonymous with Scrum and if you’re not doing Scrum and doing it “by the book”, you’re not really Agile at all

I think it is useful to step back and take a look at “What is the real essence of Agile”?

What is the Real Essence of Agile?

What is the Real Essence of Agile?

The real essence of “Agile”, in my opinion, is that:

  • It puts an emphasis on being adaptive to customer and business needs in order to maximize the value of the solution; rather than
  • Following a rigidly-defined plan with an emphasis on managing costs and schedules of delivering the solution.

For that reason, I like to use the terms “adaptive” and “plan-driven” rather than terms like “Agile” and “Waterfall”.

What’s the Truth About “Agile” vs “Waterfall”?

There’s a lot of myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about “Agile” and “Waterfall” that we need to get past:

Are Agile and Waterfall Distinct and Unique Methodologies?

The terms “Agile” and “Waterfall” make it sound like you’re comparing two specific methodologies:

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

and that’s not really accurate: 

  • “Agile” is not really a specific methodology or framework like Scrum;
  • It is much broader than that – it is a way of thinking defined by the Agile Manifesto

In It a Binary and Mutually-Exclusive Choice?

The “Agile versus Waterfall” kind of thinking leads people:

  • To think that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between those two approaches and
  • That causes people  to try to force-fit a project to one of those extremes. 
  • The right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem and sometimes that requires a blending the two approaches in the right proportions to fit the problem

Choosing the Best Approach

Here are some guidelines for choosing the best approach.

When Does Agile Work Best?

Agile works best in situations that have a high-level of uncertainty where it isn’t practical or possible to define the solution to the problem upfront.  In that kind of situation, it is much more effective to use an adaptive approach to incrementally and iteratively define the solution in more detail as the project is in progress rather than attempting to define detailed requirements for the solution upfront.

The example I like to use to illustrate this is finding a cure for cancer.  

  • If you set out to define a project to find a cure for cancer, it would be ridiculous to try to define a detailed plan upfront; there’s just far too much uncertainty. 
  • The only approach that is likely to work is an iterative, trial-and-error approach to find a solution.

Agile is based on what is called an “Empirical Process Control” model.  The word “Empirical” means “based on observation” and that means that in an Agile project, both the requirements for the solution AND the process for developing the solution are continuously refined as the project is in progress.

When Does a Plan-driven Approach Work Best?

That kind of empirical process control model approach is naturally not the most efficient approach if there is a low level of uncertainty and it is possible to easily define detailed requirements for the solution prior to the start of the project. In that situation, a trial-and-error approach really isn’t necessary and a plan-driven approach is much more appropriate and much more efficient.

The example I like to use to illustrate this scenario is building a bridge across a river. If you were defining a project to construct a bridge across a river, it would be ridiculous to say “we’ll take an adaptive approach, build the first span of the bridge, and decide how we will build the rest of the bridge after we’ve completed the first span. That wouldn’t make any sense.

This kind of situation calls for a plan-driven approach that is based on a defined process control model.

  • The key advantage of a defined process model is that it is predictable and repeatable and it is probably more efficient for projects with a low level of uncertainty.
  • If you designed a process for building a bridge and it has proven successful once, the same process or a variation of that process is likely to work in another similar situation with somewhat predictable results.

What if it is Between Those Extremes?

Very few real world situations are as extreme and clear-cut as the ones I’ve used of finding a cure for cancer and building a bridge across a river.

  • Most real-world situations fall somewhere between those two extremes.
  • There is some level of uncertainty but it’s not complete uncertainty.
  • You rarely start any project without at least some idea of what the solution is going to look like although the solution may be progressively refined in more detail as the project is in progress. There’s a range of approaches that look something like this:
Range of Agility

In this kind of situation, you have to tailor the approach to fit the nature of the project:

  • One of the biggest factors to consider is the level of uncertainty associated with the solution.
  • That requires more skill but it definitely can be done
  • It requires knowledge of a broader range of methodologies (both plan-driven and adaptive (Agile))
  • It also requires a deeper knowledge of the principles behind the methodologies in order to know how to tailor them to fit a given situation.
  • You can’t just force-fit a situation to some predefined methodology (whatever it might be) and do it mechanically.

Additional Resources

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