In 2015 I wrote an article intending to debunk some common myths about project management. Like many of you, I spent a reasonable amount of time during my first few years participating in online forums correcting agile misconceptions. Unfortunately, just like lopping heads off the Hydra, every time I'd address one myth, a short time later it would re-emerge. Recognizing the futility of trying to permanently suppress fallacies, I stopped responding to such discussions. However, as I would still like to help, writing an article on five of the most common agile myths will give me a reference to provide to folks in the future.
Agile projects and agile methodologies
There's no such thing. You can have projects which get delivered by teams using an adaptive life cycle or in which the team elects to use certain agile tools and techniques but unless the project itself is suddenly going to become sentient, it can't be agile. Agile is not a method (which is what most folks mean when they use the word "methodology"). A team or a company can create a delivery method based on agile values, principles and practices but that is just a single instance of an infinite variety of ways of delivering projects.
We need to do agile
Agile is an adjective, not a noun. Becoming (more) agile should also never be the goal of a team or organization but rather a means to achieving one or more goals. Make it a goal unto itself and the downstream impacts might result in worse outcomes than your current state.
Agile started with the Manifesto
The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is a curation of specific software delivery values and principles. None of these values and principles were revolutionary or novel in 2001 as they had all been identified before in one body of knowledge or another. Concepts, tools and techniques associated with agile have been used for decades and many popular delivery frameworks such as Scrum and XP were published before the Manifesto was written.
To be agile, you must be/have/do "X"
Whether it is sprints, story points, user stories, product owners, servant leadership or any one of a myriad of other roles, tools, techniques and buzz words, the agile community has become really efficient at dividing and conquering itself. Being agile needs to be assessed by outcomes and not merely by how those outcomes were achieved otherwise you risk sliding down the slippery slope to cargo cult.
Agile delivery is better (or worse) than waterfall
Context counts. There is a wide range of possible life cycle choices from fully adaptive to full predictive and very few projects fit cleanly at one end or another of the spectrum. Profiling a project to learn where it falls along this continuum is a critical step for teams to take when tailoring their approach to find better ways of delivering that specific project.
Any others I've missed? Feel free to respond in the comments and I'll add them to the list!
After daily coordination events (a.k.a. Scrums, standups or huddles), velocity might be the most misused tool by teams new to agile and the stakeholders supporting them. Used appropriately, it can help a team to understand how much work they can complete in a fixed amount of time and thus could be used to forecast when they might be done with a release. However, being able to do so requires that three critical prerequisites are met. If any of these are not, velocity is irrelevant.
The first requirement is that the team composition and capacity should be relatively stable. You might argue that if capacity has decreased, one could pro-rate velocity based on the decrease. This assumes that we have enough capability (skills and experience-wise) across the remaining team members to complete work items, albeit at a slower pace. In the real world, teams often rely on specialists and if any of those are missing, it might not be possible to complete certain work items.
The second prerequisite is that the team needs to be working on the same product. Change those and there is no guarantee that they can continue to complete work at the same pace unless the two products are very similar.
Finally, the relative uncertainty of upcoming work items should be less than or equal to that of recent previously completed work items. If complexity or uncertainty increases over time, velocity cannot be relied upon.
So assuming these three conditions are met, can we breathe a sigh of relief and freely use velocity?
Unfortunately there are still three ways in which velocity data can be abused by stakeholders.
Just as with any tool, there is usually one right way and many wrong ways to use velocity.
Articles have been written about the importance of doing just enough planning to develop confidence in what we are proposing to do as well as the perils of either too much or too little planning.
But even a good enough plan can become obsolete at some point and we need the wisdom to know when it is time to jettison it.
A common portfolio management anti-pattern is the inability of gatekeepers to terminate low value projects in a timely manner. There are many causes for this, but one is the inability to easily write off project sunk costs. The same can be said of plans - some teams and especially their leaders can become so enamored with their plans that their confirmation biases cause them to ignore clear evidence that those plans are no longer valid.
So what are some signs that a project plan needs to be punted?
But is it sufficient for us to recognize that a plan is no longer valid? No, because this realization needs to be effectively communicated in a timely manner such that a new plan can be formulated. Doing this requires not only courage but also a sufficient level of psychological safety within the team to reduce the likelihood of team members choosing short-term conflict avoidance over long-term pain. Naohiro Masuda's management of the crisis at the Fukashima Daini nuclear plant in March 2011 provides a good example of how leaders might behave when planning under pressure.
Planning is essential, the value of plans is ephemeral, so let's treat them that way!
Does your Product Owner have a high OQ?
An article from Harvard Business Review reminded me that becoming an effective Product Owner (PO) requires a lot more than interpersonal skills, empowerment, capacity and even product knowledge. In the article, the authors explained that leaders having a high level of Organizational Intelligence (OQ) stand a better chance of getting the organization to do what they want.
How can having a high OQ help a PO?
This is one of the reasons why it is can be extremely difficult to fill the role well with someone who is external. A consultant or new hire might possess deep knowledge of the product and business domain, they should definitely have sufficient capacity to handle the heavy workload and they might even be exceptional at soft skills, but if they lack sufficient awareness of how things get done within their client's organization, they are unlikely to be as effective as someone internal who might be lacking in the other areas.
Sometimes there may be nobody internal available who has sufficient capacity. If so, it is better to bring in an external player to back fill the "right" PO's normal responsibilities. And what if you don't have anyone with sufficient product knowledge which could be the case if the product or service is new to the organization? In such cases, it might be better to have an external player to support an internal PO while they are developing the necessary domain knowledge.
Building the right product requires a coalition of support across an organization, so don't skimp on OQ when it comes time to pick a PO.
The original seven Disciplined Agile (DA) principles were recently refactored and as part of this refactoring, a principle was added: "Organize Around Products/Services".
While it is just one of the eight principles, this new one aligns very well with lean thinking. It also addresses many challenges which leadership teams experience with agile transformations. Such transformations require change to happen in not only the delivery teams within an enterprise, but also supporting functions such as finance, human resources, operations and procurement.
Some benefits of a product or service-centric organization include:
This is not to say that organizations don't need project management as the hard and soft tools of the profession are still critical to implementing successful change. There will always be some changes which are "one and done" and those will remain fair game for project teams. Nothing would prevent product/service owners from organizing the allocation of funds within their annual allotment to projects if that makes the management of this funding easier for them.
But if we are looking to increase alignment, organizing around products or services is a good way to cut through the silo thinking which develops when we are organized by function or capability.