Project Management

When “Hybrid” = “Danger!”

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Excuse me for asking the most obvious question in the room, but I simply must. Consider Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP. Would you invest in a company that stated in its prospectus that it had adopted a “hybrid approach” in developing its profit and loss statement?

Of course, Management Science in general, and PM in particular, is always changing, evolving in ways to deliver the structure that will change perspectives, update managers’ points of view, and enable (in our cases) the optimal PM strategies that will maximize the odds of bringing in our work, on-time, and on-budget, and I am absolutely not positing that this type of scholastic/intellectual churn should cease, or even become less brutal. That’s the way of business. But what does alarm me is when combinations of such structures or strategies are furthered with little more than a tentative claim to being a “hybrid” of already-established approaches representing their claims to legitimacy. Let me explain by picking on a favorite target, our friends the risk managers (no initial caps).

From my perspective the risk management afficionados made a huge splash around the turn of the millennium, claiming that their approaches to quantifying managerial decisions through statistical analysis of sheer speculations projections of possible future events would enable a significant leap forward in effective PM. My takeaway from the literature at the time was not so much that they were presenting a “hybrid” approach as much as they were positing that an overlay of risk management onto existing PM structures would represent a dramatic improvement. In a Point/Counterpoint article that appeared in PM Network[i], I pointed out to David Hillson that, by his definition of the term, nothing that occurs within the management world could be said to fall outside the purview of “risk management,” a position I maintain to this day. (If any member of GTIM Nation looks up the article, the photo of me is atrocious. Yeah, I must have provided it, but still. Fortunately, has a far better picture, up and to the left of this blog.)

It didn’t take long, however, for several of the guidance-generating organizations to develop a “risk-based” approach to PM, and for this dribble to gain traction in the business publications world. And what was the ultimate effect of “risk-based” PM hypotheses? That, if your project could be classified as “low-risk,” you had license to dispense with several traditional, yet indispensable, aspects of setting up your Project Management Information Systems. Did this qualification of PM information system rigor lead to a noticeable uptick in the number of projects that came in on-time, on-budget, with risk-based PM being the proximate (or even material) cause?

No. No, it did not. In fact, quite the opposite happened, as many environmental projects that should have been conducted with a fairly robust PM information systems were allowed, instead, to report using fairly basic ones, leading to a net loss of PM capability maturity across this particular portfolio. Flash forward to today, and a similar effect appears to be underway with respect to addressing the question of required PM information system rigor by pointing to an approach that represents a “hybrid” of traditional PM and Agile/Scrum, should the subject project have anything at all to do with Information Technology, or IT. The Agile/Scrum approach to PM, of course, was developed specifically for software engineering work, where the particulars of some parts of the scope were either unknown (or even unknowable) or too imprecisely defined to be properly managed, and would require a faster resolution to updating or refining than the traditional Baseline Change Control Board could provide. This approach appears to be working: according to PMI® research, software projects coming in on-schedule have jumped from just 55% in 2013 to 80% in 2018.[ii]

But when the discussion turns to creating a viable ”hybrid” PM approach, flanging up “traditional” with Agile/Scrum, this sets off alarm bells in my head. All too often there’s no precise delineation of the particulars of which aspects of cost or schedule performance will be conducted by which approach. To move from the abstract to the more concrete, consider the following example. If you are the PM of an IT Project, a good way of portraying a hybrid approach would be to start with a few definitions, as in:

  • A “daily sprint” is analogous to an “activity,”
  • A “sprint” will be treated as a traditional “Work Package,”
  • An “increment” is essentially a “Control Account,”
  • And an “epoch” will function the same as a “Major Task,” or even the total product.

As long as each of these components retain their established (or establish-able) parameters of a clearly-defined scope, budget, and time-frame, this can work. One more indispensable piece will need to be developed: In the Work Breakdown Structure, identify which WBS elements will be managed via which structure, and ensure no mixed-approach Increments or Control Accounts exist (i.e., when viewing the WBS, no “traditional” Control Account has children identified as “sprints,” and no “Increment” is parent to a Work Package). This approach-identifying WBS is going to be the best guarantor that a given piece of scope is not being given short-shrift in its level of PM rigor. The reason for forbidding cross-approach Increments or Control Accounts is to ensure that, when cost/schedule performance data is being rolled-up through the WBS, that information doesn’t become muddled or confusing, and therefore misleading.

At its core, PM Information Systems exist to show how specific parts of the overall project are performing, so as to provide an indication where finite managerial attention needs to be focused. So, as long as these “hybrid” approaches don’t interfere with that basic function, I’m completely good with the introduction of such mixed structures.

However, whenever they do not do so, then “hybrid” equals “danger.”

[i] Hatfield, M. & Hillson, D. (2008). Danger ahead?: Some project managers contend there's a silver lining in risk management; others say it's called opportunity. PM Network, 22(3), 76–80.

[ii] Retrieved from on September 7, 2020, 17:42 MDT.

Posted on: September 07, 2020 10:15 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Very interesting, thanks for sharing

Thanks Michael. In wrap up you nicely show that terminology is just that (same actual "thing" can be given different labels) and that any project still needs to be controllable and trackable. As an aside, I think that the whole point of the "Disciplined Agile" approach is also to try ensure that appropriate controls and boundaries are still where they need to be and are built in to the overall approach.

Thanks Michael,
As an accountant, t'was nice seeing GAAP here!!!
Very insightful piece

Thanks alot.

Mike, I read through this with interest due to my current pursuit to approach agile in a waterfall environment. My question is, why go hybrid without the incrementally usable iteration or the product manager's backlog priority to determine the next release? Perhaps that is the work package that matters?

Good afternoon, Darren.
My answer to your question is: a PM interested in cost/schedule performance transparency wouldn't go hybrid without an incrementally usable iteration. If that's the behavior being observed, my guess is that there's something else going on here, and it's probably not good.

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