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A New Trend in Agile - Incorporating Program Management

Dec. 06, 2016
Brian D. Egan


How can organizations take advantage of the benefits of both traditional (waterfall) and agile project management techniques? The answer is simple: through clever program management. Agile program management is designed to encourage adaptation to change – just like Agile project management.

We have all heard about how agile practices are rapidly penetrating the IT project management world. However, classical Agile project management techniques are not suitable for every situation. How can organizations in diverse industries continue to use familiar waterfall practices and at the same time be more agile? The answer is to use program management that is designed to be agile.

There are two components:

1. Shorter planning windows (more frequent, smaller projects)
2. Lighter documentation. With this approach, short projects are strategically linked together to deliver benefit instead of large projects being rigidly planned out long into the future. This involves detailed planning in the near term and big-picture planning in the longer term.


How can an organization reap the benefits of both traditional (waterfall) and more flexible (agile) project management techniques? The answer is through program management designed to deliver enhanced agility.

Agile project management practices are being widely adopted in the IT project management world. But classical agile methods were created for software development and are therefore not suitable for every situation and industry.

If classical Agile techniques do not work for every situation, how can organizations in diverse industries become more agile? The answer is by replicating the features of Agile software development techniques (the ones that contribute most to agility) and combining them with conventional project management practices.

Agile program management is structured to coordinate and direct projects with short planning windows, lighter documentation, and higher degrees of customer involvement. The result is a hybrid system of project delivery that is more agile than a traditional (waterfall) approach.

Avoiding Destination Fixation

A common failing of long, waterfall-style projects is that these projects often develop “destination fixation.” They emphasize the work that has been planned rather than building what is best for the organization. The waterfall approach encourages the team to follow the original plan (through destination fixation) rather than adapting to what the customer actually needs.

In waterfall, changes to the project are integrated into the project’s plan through formal change controls. However, change controls are generally unsuccessful at managing substantive or continuous change because of the documentation involved and the effort required to obtain approvals.

The inertia in the waterfall approach is to “stay on plan,” which prevents effective adaptation to changing realities. It is easier to follow the original, formally approved plan than it is to alter it. Enhanced agility breaks the cycle of focusing on long-term plans and allows the organization to focus on delivering benefits.

Separating Agile Methodologies from Agility

Implementing a full suite of classical Agile project management methodologies would require radical changes in the way projects are approved and managed in most organizations. As a result, many of the organizations that are attempting to “go Agile” are simply picking and choosing a few Agile-related techniques (such as daily scrums and the use of user stories) rather than converting to a full Agile methodology. The result is a blend of old and new techniques but not necessarily a more agile project management organization.

To be more agile is to be able to change direction, to react to reality, and to be responsive to discoveries. An agile project management organization is one that can pivot as needed in response to changes in technology and market forces.

Agility is the ability to rapidly change execution strategy. Trains running on railway tracks are not agile. Rabbits are. A project management organization is agile if the systems employed to authorize and manage projects are responsive to change.

An organization becomes more agile if the systems that support projects allow for more frequent re-evaluation and alteration of a project’s execution strategy. Increased agility is not simply a consequence of adopting a few Agile project management tools. Agility is determined by how responsive or adaptive to changing conditions the overall system of project management is irrespective of the techniques employed.

To be more agile is within reach of any organization with or without the use of classical Agile software development techniques. Agility comes from having a responsive, flexible system of project management.

When considering whether to become more agile, the question an organization must answer is not whether they should adapt classical Agile software development methodologies but rather, what is the right level of agility to aspire to and how to achieve it? What is the best way to become suitably agile?

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