Skip To Content

Why Lean-Agile is relevant to all Project Managers | Project Research Institute

Why Lean-Agile is relevant to all Project Managers

Governance, uncertainty and complexity, under estimation and empowerment. All issues that concern project managers, at least judging by recent PRI blog entries. In this and subsequent posts I will attempt to show how the principles and practices of Lean-Agile Software Development offer creative solutions to general project challenges such as these, and thus are relevant to all project managers.

Lean-Agile advocates and project managers don't always see eye to eye. As an example from the PM side, Michael Hatfield says on the PMI website "Agile and scrum were developed to allow IT projects to indulge in all the scope creep they wanted.". On the other side of the fence many agilists are anti-project management. Often quite strongly anti-pm. For example, the agile consultant and Certified Scrum Trainer Tobias Mayer believes that "Project Management is a mindset that needs to be torn down". Strong language representing fundamentally different world views.

I hold a middle ground in this debate and disagree with both Michael and Tobias. There is no arguing that Lean-Agile people approach delivery quite differently to traditional project managers, but I see this as an opportunity for creative tension rather than conflict. Lean-Agile and project management can happily co-exist in the form of Agile Project Management, i.e. doing project management in an Lean-Agile way. Returning to the project management issues I mentioned above - governance, uncertainty and complexity, under estimation and empowerment - here is a quick outline of the issue and the Lean-Agile perspective.

Governance: OJK recently observed that governance is the "alignment of projects with the organization’s goals. Above all, governance is about creating value". Most agile advocates would be confused if asked about project governance, but all of the Lean-Agile methods have practices for delivering value, quickly and often. And they have a role that is responsible for alignment with organizational goals; the title varies depending on the Agile method but I call it the product owner.

Uncertainty and complexity: Terry Williams suggests the strong emphasis that traditional project management gives to managing scope, planning and control is inappropriate when uncertainty affects a complex and very time-compressed project. He argues that project managers change their approach in this situation. Uncertainty and time pressure were the drivers that created the major Agile methods Extreme Programming (XP) and Scrum. In fact the title of the original XP book was called "Embrace Change" (Beck, 2000).

Under estimation: In another post Terry Williams commented that "underestimating at the planning stage is one of most common triggers for cost escalation as we try to chase an increasingly impossible target". The planning and estimating process from XP reduces both the risk of underestimation and also the potential impact.

People in Projects: T Mengal's post on The value of values – A fresh look at the people side of Project Management demonstrates an interest from the wider project manager community on the people aspects of work. Yet Agilists often equate project management with command and control, and, they say, that is bad. Tobias Mayer outlined the common Agile view on Command and Control: "In the corporate world the term has become synonymous with a style of management where the manager attempts to both instruct the workers and then attempt to control how they do their work. So terms aside, it is this style of management that Agilists are railing against". The Agile approach is people centric and empowerment of one degree or another is intrinsic to all of the Lean-Agile methods. At the extreme end of the spectrum Scrum puts empowerment front and centre by advocating self-organising teams (Schwaber & Beddle, 2002).

In subsequent posts I will revisit these project management issues and expand on how they are handled within the Lean-Agile world. Despite my belief in Agile Project Management and despite the fact that Lean-Agile has been used outside software development - semiconductor development, in a Sales Team, House Renovation, and the US Military - I am not advocating the wholesale adoption of Agile by all project managers. My aim with this series of posts is merely to offer up a different perspective to that of main stream project management. Armed with this perspective project managers from other domains may be better placed to face their own challenges.

References and Further Reading

Beck, K. (2000). Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Cockburn, A. (2006). Interview with Alistair Cockburn - Agile and House Renovations. Agile Advice.

Hatfield, M. (2009). Taking on Project Management Myths, Part 5. PMI.

Johnson, N. (2009). The Challenge of Adopting Agile Outside Software Projects. Calgary APLN.

Lucca, C. (2010). You’re So Agile! Implementing Agile… in a Sales Team?. AccuRev.

Mayer, T. (2011). Scrum is not project management. Agile Anarchy.

Mengal, T. (2011). The value of values – A fresh look at the people side of Project Management. PMRI.

Mezick, D. (2010). The "Command and Control" Military Gets Agile. InfoQ. OJK (2011). Clarity in the governance of projects: is it possible?. PMRI. Schwaber, K., & Beddle, M. (2002). Agile software development with Scrum. NJ: Prentice Hall. Thomas, S. (2008). Agile Project Management. It's a Delivery Thing.

Williams, T. (2011). The complicated world of under-estimation. PMRI.

Williams, T. (2011). What's the reach of BoKs in understanding what management a project needs?. PMRI.

The Institute

The newly created Project Management Research institute provides a focus on collaborative research excellence in project management. Read more..