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What is Agile and Why is it Important to Project Managers?

What is Agile?

The PMI® is introducing Agile into the 6th Edition of its Project Management Body of Knowledge, the PMBoK®. But there are still a lot of people who are uncertain about ‘What is Agile?’ and why it is important to project managers.

This is made worse because the word Agile has many different connotations. And many project managers still think it is something that only applies to software development. So, it doesn’t apply to them.

They are wrong.

So we invited Agile expert Chuck Cobb to take you through the basics. Chuck has authored three serious guides to Agile. These include the best-selling: ‘The Project Manager’s Guide to Mastering Agile‘ (US|UK). He also runs the Agile Project Management Academy, with a comprehensive range of online training.

So, What is Agile?

‘Agile’ means a lot of different things to different people:

  • To some people it means just developing software faster
  • To some people, it means creating a more people-oriented project environment
  • And to others, it means making the project management process a lot more efficient. It does this by streamlining the whole process and eliminating unnecessary documentation

But these are only a few of the many different connotations. There are many, many more flavors and interpretations. Consequently, there are also many stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about what Agile is.

The Essence of Agile

All of these things are potential outcomes of an Agile process. But they are not the fundamental essence of what an Agile process is all about in my opinion.

The fundamental essence of an Agile process is adaptivity.

What’s Wrong With the Typical Project Management Approach?

What is Agile?

What is Agile?

Let’s start with the project management processes that you are probably familiar with. Generations of project managers designed these around a ‘traditional plan-driven project management’ model.

This is what many people loosely call ‘Waterfall’. This approach prioritizes predictability. It uses estimating, budgeting, planning and controls to predict costs and schedule. Therefore, it is also  important to have clearly defined requirements. These are the basis for planning the project.

That’s the predominant way that project management has worked since the 1950s and 1960s. A project is successful if it delivers the requirements within the defined budget and schedule. This kind of predictability can be important. For large investments, it allows a company to:

  • Calculate an expected return on their investment from a project, with some certainty
  • Make a go/no-go decision about whether to fund the project  or not based on that information

This has worked magnificently. But the approach is not without problems. The primary problem is that it requires a fairly detailed plan for the project upfront. And that is very difficult at the best of times.

It becomes near impossible to do, in projects with very high levels of uncertainty. Particularly, when that uncertainty relates to the outcome that is desirable. And that is the case when technology, markets, and society are changing rapidly and unpredictably.

Why Is Adaptivity Important?

We live in a different world today from the world that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet that’s when formal project management approaches were first defined.  There is a much higher level of uncertainty:

  • Technology is fast-changing,
  • Solutions are much more complex, and
  • Our business environment is dynamic and subject to constant change

When you develop a detailed plan for a project with a lot of uncertainty, it needs a lot of assumptions. In today’s kind of environment, those assumptions will often be wrong. As a result, your project will need significant re-planning; and possible rework later.

So does it make sense to force-fit a project with a high level of uncertainty into a traditional plan-driven approach?

Surely it’s better to fit the methodology to the nature of the project. And that’s where a more adaptive approach makes a lot of sense.

This does not mean that you don’t do any upfront planning. It means that you use a level of planning that is appropriate to the level of uncertainty in the project.

Comparison between Traditional and Agile Project Approaches

Comparison between Traditional and Agile Project Approaches

What’s an Example of a Project Requiring an Adaptive Approach?

I use an example in my Agile Project Management training that is  somewhat extreme. But it gets the point across.

Suppose I gave you the task to find a cure for cancer. And I asked you to outline:

  • what the solution will be,
  • how long it will take to develop it, and
  • what the total cost of the research will be to develop the solution

In that situation, it would be ridiculous to attempt to develop a detailed project plan. You can’t make accurate cost and schedule estimates. There are just way too many uncertainties to resolve.

So what would you do?

Give up and do nothing? That doesn’t make sense either.

In this situation, we do know some things about finding a cure for cancer. we have years of research into that area. But there are still way too many unknowns to develop a detailed project plan for a solution.

So, what you would do is take as much advantage as possible of what we know. Then you would take an iterative, trial-and-error-and-learn approach to find a solution.

That’s the way Edison invented the light bulb…

Here’s a quote from Edison on that subject:

I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently to be true. 

Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty, as perhaps you know, was in constructing the carbon filament, the incandescence of which is the source of the light.’

(1890 Interview in Harper’s Magazine)

In a 1910 autobiography of Edison, Edison’s friend and associate Walter S. Mallory is quoted as asking:

‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’

The book goes on to say that ‘Edison turned on him like a flash, and with a smile replied: Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!’

What Makes This Kind of Project Different?

There are two things that make this kind of project fundamentally different:

  1. The level of uncertainty is very high. This makes it impractical or impossible to develop a detailed plan for the project upfront.
  2. Creativity and innovation are necessary for finding a good solution. They are far more important than predictability.

How Does an Agile Approach Solve This Problem

An Agile process is built on an ‘Empirical’ Process Control model.

The word ’empirical’ means ‘based on observation’.

In the context of an Agile development process, it at the heart of the approach. During the course of a project, both the product and the process to produce the it are subject to continuous refinement.  We adapt what we are doing, to produce the right product and to optimize the value of the product we are creating.

Continuous Improvement Cycle of Adaptive Project Management

Why Is This Important to Project Managers?

You might ask ‘Why is this important to project managers?’ Isn’t Agile something that only applies to software development?

This is a common misconception.

It is true that Agile methodologies have been most closely associated with software development. But it is also true that all projects have some level of uncertainty associated with them. So, if you try to force-fit all projects into a traditional plan-driven project management approach, it won’t always work.

Imagine, for example, trying to develop the next generation of the iPhone. Or pick any other new and innovative product. In that kind of project, creativity and innovation are as important, or more so, than predictability.

Go one step further. Imagine trying to create the iPhone 8 back in 2006. Impossible. What you’ need is a series of incrementally improving, but stable models.

What are Scrum and Kanban?

Agile is an approach to delivering projects. But it does not tell you how to do it. Project managers have developed many ways to handle projects in an adaptive way. These are the Agile methodologies.

Most of them have their grounding in software development. But that does not mean they cannot be adapted to a host of project types. Two of these methodologies as Scrum and Kanban. Scrum is probably the most widely used today. Tomorrow? Who knows?

However, whilst their use in project management started in software development, there’s a deeper story. Their roots lie elsewhere. Kanban comes from Japanese manufacturing. And Scrum originated in a new model for product development. And then there is Scrumban – a hybrid of the two.

Other methodologies have stronger roots in software projects. There’s also:

  • Extreme Programming
  • Adaptive Software development
  • Feature-Driven Development
  • Dynamic Systems development Method

A wise project manager will draw on the wealth of ideas to find the right solution for your project.

So, I do Need to Be Concerned About Agile?

Most project managers today are well-trained; in a traditional, plan-driven approach. This hasn’t changed significantly since the 1950s. Its emphasis is on planning and controlling the costs and schedules. Projects have needed to meet well-defined requirements.

We have seen that now, this won’t do.

In this new environment, a project manager who only knows a traditional approach will be at a serious disadvantage.

It is not Either / Or

What makes this more difficult is that this is not a binary choice between ‘Agile’ and ‘Waterfall’. Many people seem to think the two approaches are  mutually-exclusive.

They are not. Although there are some people who promote a purist attitude. That seems foolish.

If you want to get the best results, you must understand the situation. You need to figure out how to blend a traditional plan-driven approach with an adaptive (Agile) approach in the right proportions.

This requires a lot of skill. But if you understand both approaches, you definitely can do it.  And that is exactly what Chuck designed the Agile Project Management Academy training to address.

The Business Decision

;Many businesses and project managers face a choice. Do they continue to choose a traditional plan-driven approach? Or do they opt for a more Agile approach? Or should they synthesise a hybrid model?

For critical projects, this can be a very important decision. It can have significant business impact.

This is why you need to see Agile and traditional project management as complementary; not competitive. Project managers must learn how to blend the two approaches in the right proportions to fit the situation.

Where Does PMI-ACP® Certification Fit In?

Over the past few years, PMI® has recognized the need for project managers to be aware of Agile. So they created the Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP®) accreditation.

This is definitely a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion.

It’s just a general test of knowledge about Agile and Lean principles. Yet, as I’ve said, the real challenge is learning how to blend Agile and traditional project management. And todo so in the right way for the situation.

The certification also is not aligned with preparing you for a particular role. Indeed, the role of an Agile Project Manager is not well-defined.

For these reasons, you shouldn’t set your goals on simply passing the PMI-ACP exam. Because that may not be enough in itself to advance your career. And it certainly won’t prepare you for the challenges of real projects.

The Agile Project Management Academy

That’s exactly the challenge the courses in the Agile Project Management Academy address.

The curriculum is an excellent preparation for the PMI-ACP exam. But it also goes well beyond that. It will help you put that knowledge into practice, in real-world Agile Project Management situations.

It perfectly complements the training on the Traditional Approach at OnlinePMCourses.


‘I have been a Waterfall guy for many years and found it difficult to make the transition to Agile. Never occurred to me that I could start with a hybrid approach. This course got me started and already applying some of the principles outlined in it. It is an excellent way to jump into agile bandwagon and get your clients to the same.’

Course Participant

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What’s your Attitude to Agile?

  • How do you assess the importance of Agile to Project Managers?
  • What do you think of PMI’s decision to include Agile in the PMBoK and in its PMP qualification?
  • What questions do you have about Agile?

We look forward to reading your points of view and responding to them, in the comments section below.

About the Author Chuck Cobb

Chuck founded The Agile Project Management Academy. He offers a full Agile Project Management curriculum to over 34,000 students. It prepares project managers for PMI-ACP® certification and to take on Agile Project Management roles . Chuck is an Adjunct Professor at Boston University, and is an Agile PM coach, instructor, and mentor. His five books on Agile PM and business excellence include his recent best-seller: 'The Project Manager's Guide to Mastering Agile'. Chuck speaks at PMI Chapter events, agile groups, universities, and workshops throughout the US.

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