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What Projects are Suitable for Agile?

Many Agile practitioners and advocates claim that Agile methodologies and tools improve the outcome of every project. Is this true? To address this matter scientifically, Dr. Kevin Thompson, Agile Project Lead at cPrime, ran an in-depth statistical study. He definitively compared a range of projects with identical requirements and recorded how they progressed using Agile methodology and tools, as well as classic plan-driven methodologies. The results are interesting and eye-opening.

The Agile study methodology and result parameters

Dr. Thompson’s study, How Agile Should Your Project Be?, initially discusses the effectiveness of traditional project management methods (like waterfall) that attempt to fully plan out a project before beginning it. Historically, this method worked well in many industries, but showed less than optimal results in the software development industry. When the Agile Manifesto was published in 2001, it introduced a viable alternative to the plan driven process that proved to be effective for software development (and other industries as well.)

Comparing Waterfall and Agile project management

As noted in the table below, the two methodologies are quite different when applied to software development and project management: agile vs waterfall (This comparison) suggests that the greatest challenge to successful software projects is uncertainty, which impacts the project in many ways. Thus our Gedanken Experiment will assess the impact of uncertainty on two projects that are designed to produce the same deliverables, using identical teams. One project will follow a plan-driven process, while the other will follow an Agile process. To make the comparison as simple as possible, we will focus on only one of the distinguishing characteristics of the two processes—the length of the development cycle—and ignore the others. We will then subject both projects to the same set of unexpected problems, and see how the impact of uncertainty differs between them. (How Agile Should Your Project Be? pg. 7)

The results

The end result of this experiment was a decided, “It depends.” A mathematical analysis of the effects of uncertainty on Agile and plan-driven projects shows that an Agile process is more likely to deliver value when uncertainty is high, than is a plan-driven process. However, since the short iterations of an Agile process impose more overhead, relative to a plan-driven process, the latter is likely to cost less and complete more quickly for projects where uncertainty is low. The concluding recommendation is to understand each project’s characteristics, including its level of uncertainty, and choose a process that is well-suited to its characteristics.(Dr. Thompson, white paper pg. 15) To take Dr. Thompson’s concluding recommendations a step further, understanding each project’s characteristics also requires a level of in-depth study specific to your organization’s unique project types, management philosophies, and other factors that can’t be predicted or assumed without actually looking deeply at the historic and current statistics. And before we suggest diving in fully to any methodology, another important question must be considered:

What projects are suitable for Agile… in YOUR organization?

While we certainly are proponents of Agile methodology and tools, and encourage companies to consider training and coaching options to better equip them to implement Agile development practices and project management, we will not tell you that there’s one set-in-stone answer to this question for all companies and all circumstances. If anyone tries to do that, run away quickly. They’re wrong. Review the study results with your own company in mind and consider how to apply the basic Agile principles to your own situation. Will it be a perfect fit? Not likely. But will it shed light on your own situation? Definitely. If you need some help implementing this kind of study of your project management environment and deciding how Agile your projects should be, we’re delighted to help. For instance, we highly recommend downloading the white paper outlined in this post, along with a complementary webinar that will teach you how to measure and study your organization’s Agile output.
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