Project Management

Agility vs. SOPs: Finding the Right Balance

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By Lynda Bourne

Organizational agility is being promoted as the silver bullet to create value and eliminate project failures. However, decades of research show that factors like methodologies and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are essential underpinnings of consistent success.

Are these mutually exclusive propositions? Or is there a more subtle answer to this apparent contradiction?

First a bit of background: There’s decades of research looking at various maturity models, ranging from the old CMM (now CMMI) to PMI’s OPM3. The consistent findings are that investing in creating organizational maturity demonstrates a strong return on investment. Developing and using a pragmatic methodology suited to the needs of the organization reduces failure, increases value generation, and outcomes become more consistent and predictable. These findings are supported with studies in the quality arena, including Six Sigma, which consistently show that good SOPs reduce undesirable variability and enhance quality.

But given that every methodology consists of a series of SOPs, where’s the room for agile? In fact, you can get the best of both worlds by embedding organizational agility into your procedures, methodologies and management.  

Solid Standard Operating Procedures

Getting your standard operating procedures right is a good starting point. SOPs should define and assist project teams in the performance of standard processes. SOPs also should provide templates, guidelines and other elements that make doing the task easier and quicker.

Key success factors for SOPs are:

  • Team members need to know there is a SOP and when to apply it
  • SOPs need to be easy to locate
  • The SOP must be in the right format and meaningful
  • The information must be accurate and up-to-date
  • The SOP must reflect current work practices: the what, how and why
  • The SOP must be lean, light and scalable so it can be used in different circumstances
  • The SOP must demonstrate a clear purpose and benefit (saving time, quality, safety, etc.)
  • Leaders must be seen using the SOP
  • SOPs must be consistent across the organization
  • Team members must have the opportunity to improve the SOP, embedding lessons learned and agility in the process

The enemy of useful SOPs is a dictatorial unit focused on imposing its view of how work should be performed in a bureaucratic and dogmatic way.

Flexible Methodologies

Methodologies combine various SOPs and other requirements into a framework focused on achieving project success. A good methodology must also be lean, light and scalable so it is fit for use in different circumstances. Every project undertaken by an organization is by definition unique, therefore the methodology used by the organization must allow appropriate flexibility—one size does not fit all, ever! 

The PMBOK® Guide describes it this way: “Good practice does not mean that the knowledge described should always be applied uniformly to all projects; the organization and/or the project management team is responsible for determining what is appropriate for any given project.” A good methodology incorporates agility by including processes for scaling and adjusting the methodology to fit each project.

Management Agility

The final element in blending agility with sensible processes is an agile approach to management. But agile doesn’t mean anarchy. It means the flexible application of the right processes to achieve success.

The so-called military doctrine of command and control is outdated. The rigid, process-oriented concept was replaced by the idea of “auftragstaktik,” or directive command, in the Prussian army following its defeat by Napoleon at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806.

The core concept of auftragstaktik is “bounded initiative.” Provided people within the organization have proper training and the organizational culture is strong, the leader’s role is to clearly outline his/her intentions and rationale. Subordinate personnel can then formulate their own plan of action for the tasks they are allocated and design appropriate responses to achieve the leader’s objectives based on their understanding of the actual situation.

But the process is not random. SOPs define how each specific task should be accomplished, and bounded initiative allows team members to optimize the SOP for the specific circumstances to best support the leader’s overall intent.

Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian army for 30 years, believed in detailed planning and rigorous preparation. But he also accepted that change was inevitable, famously saying, No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

Projects are no different! Both the methodology and the project management plan need to encourage bounded agility to lock in opportunities and mitigate problems. Effective military leaders were doing this more than 150 years before the Agile Manifesto was published. It’s time for project management to catch up!

How much bounded initiative does your methodology allow?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: October 05, 2015 11:37 PM | Permalink

Comments (14)

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I like the key success factors for SOPs. People talk about SOPs more than use them. Very good article.

Excellent article, thank you. I, too, like the key success factors for SOPs and I guess while they are all important, my top 3 would be:

•The SOP must demonstrate a clear purpose and benefit

•Leaders must be seen using the SOP

•Team members must have the opportunity to improve the SOP

Without those, culture will quickly start to decay.

Good post! There is lots of discussion around the topic of Agile vs. traditional PM, but I hadn't thought about Agile vs. SOP's specifically before.

As far as the place of SOP's in the organization, I think that Thilo's selection of his top 3 are all excellent, but I also like the one about SOP's being accurate and up to date. Sometimes SOP's are created in a flurry of enthusiasm, and then sit on the shelf to collect dust and become out-dated--not good!

Thanks for the thoughts, Lynda (and I love the cartoon)!

Thanks for the feedback - SOPs really are underrated and misused - they should be just a routine part of doing a good job. We don’t step out of the office to set up a training course without running through a checklist to ensure we have everything (including the teaching plan) - its routine but avoids embarrassing errors.

Excellent article! SOPs are so important and are really underrated.

No doubt, SOPs are important; however, we come across managers who are overzealous in their strict implementation, often forgetting the real objective the SOPS were started with. The healthy balance of Agile approach and SOP implementation is crucial, as proposed in this posting.
A successful Project Manger is the one who strikes that balance effectively without challenging the existence of SOPs and their masters.

Agree Rajinder, as is stated in the article: "The enemy of useful SOPs is a dictatorial unit focused on imposing its view of how work should be performed in a bureaucratic and dogmatic way." Change 'dictatorial unit' to 'manager' and we agree completely. But this raises a much bigger issue - the counterproductive approach by many bad managers focused on the outdated concepts of 'command and control'. Command and control was valuable in the first half of the 20th century but was seen to be a flawed approach to managing knowledge workers in the 1950s (Peter Drucker and others). 65 years later and in some places nothing has changed.

Been there, done that!
I completely agree.

excellent article, many thanks. personally I think the first step is that Project manager UNDERSTAND the project which he manages!! in other words before to plan, to apply methodologies etc. it is strongly needed to deeply analyze the project for detecting the critical elements. Agile approach vs.traditional one, this is no the matter. we need to understand if, on behalf on our project, is more appropriate an agile approach or a traditional and this election should be based on the principal characteristic of the same project. we need naturally flexibility but this one should accompanied by a good deal of critical analysis

Agree Fosco, but this type of decision is not a decision for the PM alone - the strategic approach to the work has to be agreed by the sponsor and client at least. The role of the PM is to recommend the best options (with reasons) and make sure consensus is achieved. these are vitally important considerations too often ignored, for more on this see:

in addition other consideration, why not apply agile approach in some circumstances/ parts of the project and in the other ones a more classic approach?

Agree - common sense is always desirable over dogma.

I agree with you strategic approach must be agreed with sponsor and clent at least, but the PM analyze is fundamental for recomending the best option

SOP would be more useful to the companies who are in their early stage where defining and following standard procedure helps to create ground-rules, guidelines for building robust framework. SOP do create desired maturity and identity.
Agile could be practiced for improvement, acceleration with ensuring strong Framework is in place.
SOP and Agility - Hybrid combination would be an amazing combination utilized in RIGHT way at RIGHT time.

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