Is Agile a planning-free approach?

The introduction of Agile as a software product development approach is having a significant and positive impact upon the way IT projects are delivered. However, in our coaching interventions, we are finding some confusion among project managers. Some experienced project managers quickly learn how to adapt and integrate Agile practices into their toolset. It is just another approach, which used appropriately in the right projects increases their ability to deliver. Others move straight to denial; change-weary, they avoid or downplay the usefulness of the Agile framework– “It’s nothing new.” That is their loss! Of greater concern are the more junior project managers who, faced with Agilists, lose their bearings. “What is my role in this?” “How does the governance work?” “How do I plan?” And most worrying–“Do I need a plan?”.

We recently attended an Agile coaching session where one of the coaches consistently contrasted Agile techniques against ‘plan-based’ techniques, which begs the question, “Do projects run under the Agile framework not need plans or planning? According to Mike Cohn in his excellent book on Agile planning, while plans may be out-of-date by the time we commit them to paper, the process of planning is essential.

“Estimating and planning are critical to the success of any software development project of any size or consequence. Plans guide our investment decisions…Plans help us know who needs to be available to work on a project during a given period. Plans help us know if a project is on track to deliver the functionality that users need and expect. Without plans, we open our projects to any number of problems.”

Planning in Agile projects

Today if you ask a project manager what the most important skill they require for their job is, they are likely to refer to areas such as stakeholder management, communications, leadership, or behavioral competencies. Is this because it is assumed that planning is important and does not need to be mentioned or is it that project managers believe that with the right leadership style, communications and engagement they don’t need planning? Do approaches such as Agile, which expound people over process deliberately or inadvertently, promote this view of the obsolescence of planning?

Cohn describes planning in Agile projects as:

“Planning is an attempt to find an optimal solution to the overall product development question: What should we build? To answer this question, the team considers features, resources, and schedule. The question cannot be answered all at once.”

That “The question cannot be answered all at once.” is new and different, and not what a traditional project manager planner would think to say. What has Agile lighted on that makes this sensible? Many projects, and particularly software development projects have been plagued over the years by poor requirements. A particular strength of Agile, where its delivery is at its best, and traditional project management disciplines are distinctly less successful, is its use of techniques that allow requirements to emerge, and resources are then organized to find solutions.

This leads to some interesting insights from a planning point of view. In Agile approaches, change is not regarded as a failure; rather it is a signal that a new approach needs to be taken if the desired result is to be achieved. To interpret this propensity and ready acceptance for change as an excuse not to plan is to misunderstand planning. Planning is about the management and containment of uncertainty, so it matters in Agile projects too. They also have to give answers to questions like “What will be tackled first?” and “Can we release the test rig in April?”

Any plan is only one forecasted view of the future.  There are others, and with the passage of time, they may be more relevant. (Cohn,2005)

That a plan is only a snapshot – valid at a point in time – has to be factored into the way planning is done, and plans are communicated.      There are, necessarily, governance differences between Agile and more traditionally conducted projects. For a start, Agile planning activity is spread across the life of the project, rather than primarily focused at the front end. That leads to the need for planning documents to be easy to amend. That means structuring your plans to make the more volatile parts easier to change.

Planning should anticipate change, with change viewed as the positive consequence of having learned something and avoiding the mistake of doing something that is not wanted. As changes are discovered, plans are updated.  In much the same way as innovation and other exploratory projects, the planning is carried out, not in one go, but tranche by tranche, as positions clarify and options become available.

So does planning matter in Agile?  We argue, very much so.  What is different is that how you go about planning and what is an acceptable output from planning, varies.  What’s your view?

References

Cohn, M. (2005) Agile estimating and planning. Pearson Education.

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When failure is not an option

When fix-on-failure is not an option

There are projects in which some, maybe even most, of the possible outcomes are so threatening that their occurrence cannot be tolerated. Should something go wrong–should it not go to plan–there is no mitigation available. If you are driving a car and the engine malfunctions, it can be annoying, even frightening, but it’ll be a whole lot more final if the engine malfunctioning is in a spacecraft!

There are degrees of criticality, ranging from safety-critical performance in a nuclear power station to life-and-death rescue missions, to correct compliance to regulations set out in legislation–and in each case project failure always incurs severe penalties.

In these projects, the avoidance of risk drives the planning. This forces a modification to the usual planning process. The focus is to avoid the possibility of events occurring that cannot be managed; it is on the use of processes where the known performance indicates very high levels of reliability with no surprises.

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Are projects the right vehicles for innovation?

One of the most interesting changes is the growing involvement of project management with the delivery of innovation. It’s not that innovation within projects is new. Far from it! What is becoming more prevalent is the deliberate use of projects to create and manage innovation.

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Stop looking for a superhero project manager

I have a memory passed down via family members that as a 9-year old when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded that I wanted to be an expert!   I’m sure my parents find it a very irritating response and would have preferred an answer like doctor or engineer or lawyer!

Whatever I meant at that time, I am pretty clear now, that this is just not possible. Today there is so much information, so many insights and experiences that we need access to as project managers–this cannot possibly dwell in the body and spirit of one person. Karen Stephenson captures it perfectly in her phrase,“I store my [know-how] knowledge in my friends”.

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Are PMOs killing the role of the project manager?

With the Future PMO Conference coming up in London, I think it is worth considering just how far the role of the PMO should go.  I have been involved in the PMO competency development work with the Flashmob team and at times it concerned me that we were in danger of defining the PMO as a monster which inappropriately seizes responsibilities from the project manager.

As Collin Ellis, remarked in his great article on Agile PMOs “The fact of the matter is, if you need a central ‘unit’ to tell a project manager to follow a process to build a plan to deliver a project, then you’ve already failed.”

The PMO must be an empowering influence in the project community, not a disempowering one.  Earlier this year Richard Hendrickse talked on “Developing PMO Servant Leaders”.  Surely this is the style and culture that the PMO must seize if project management and project managers are to remain relevant in our organisations?

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Renewing your PMO

If you are lucky enough to have attended the PMO conference in London on 13th June 2018 then you may be already be reflecting on:  How could the PMO improve?  How can we increase the value of our PMO?  What kind of PMO should we be?

A view that PMOs should not be permanent structures has gained ground recently.  Todd Williams, in his insightful book on “Filling Executive Gaps”, suggests that PMOs are perceived as essentially bureaucratic and they all tend to outlive their usefulness.  The need to re-invent and re-align the PMO every few years to remain valuable has almost become a mantra in PMO circles.

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When the budget really matters: A church restoration with lottery funding

When Ian Cribbes, took over the project management of the St Edburg’s church conservation work in Bicester he had not quite realized how different it would be from the projects and programmes he had managed for over 30 years for BAE Systems.    The project had a £205,500 budget – somewhat smaller than the multi-million-pound projects he had been involved in his professional career.  This budget came in two phases; phase 1 was for £19,500 and was allocated for the carrying out of development work (the production of plans and reports); phase 2 was for £186,000 and was allocated to the actual works to be carried out.  But, as he is the first to admit, this project proves the point that being small does not necessarily make it simple.  Sometimes tight constraints demand higher levels of capability and attention to detail from the project manager.

The St Edburg’s work was a conservation project to restore its Grade 1 listed building, parts of which date back 900 years and was funded by the Heritage Lottery.  (In the UK work on a Grade 1 Listed Building is categorized as ‘conservation work’ when its purpose is to retain what is there for future generations.  Renovation and restoration, on the other hand, is when work is carried out to take things back to what they were.)

Ian is an experienced project manager and knew he had things to learn as the construction domain, and in particular heritage conservation, was new to him.  What he hadn’t foreseen was how the difference in the funding and the stipulated budgetary control processes would affect the planning and every aspect of the execution of the project.  The budget constraint was absolute – it was this amount and not a penny more!  While the control of spending on commercial projects is important, with most, especially larger, budgets there are usually opportunities for virement – moving costs between account categories.  It is also often the case that there isn’t an absolute cost: when push comes to shove – more money can be found.  This was very much not the case on this project.

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Culling projects: A critical portfolio process

With most organisations reporting more projects that they can resource, stopping projects which are addressing yesterday’s problems may be even more important than not starting those projects designed to address today’s.

In a 2011 review of 15 client portfolios, the UK project consultancy group, CITI reported that in annual portfolio prioritisation more than one third of the projects and programmes approved were carried forwarded from previous years, with 20% having survived two annual review processes.  The question perhaps to ask is – does this reflect a real need for long-term projects or is it that management decision making around stopping something is just so much harder than approving a project to start?

Significant portfolio management attention has been paid over the last few years to developing improved governance processes around the front-end selection and prioritisation of projects.  But portfolio monitoring and control is a much greyer area and often confusion arises between the governance responsibilities at the portfolio and project sponsorship levels. Continue reading “Culling projects: A critical portfolio process”

Top tip for 2018: Be a Modern Professional Learner

How to make this year successful

Late in 2017, Elizabeth Harrin, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, asked me to contribute to her Top Tips for 2018 blog.  These blogs are available in an e-book on Elizabeth’s site.   Here is the long version of my thoughts.  Many thanks to Elizabeth for inspiring me to take out the time to reflect and gather my thoughts.

As a project coach, I get many opportunities to ask the question,” What did you learn from most over the last few years?”                 So far no one has ever answered; “There was this great course” or even, sadly; “There was this great presentation you did on…”.

Most adult learning comes from relevant experience: challenges faced on a project, interactions with peers, or opportunities which force reflection upon and make sense of our experience.

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The myths of stakeholder management

Project stakeholder management has borrowed many of its concepts from other discipline areas. This cross-usage of wisdom is helpful but its application in projects is still to be proven and bedded-in to the way we do things.  After all, it’s only in the last few years that stakeholder management has been recognised in project management bodies of knowledge.  In the meantime trial and error application has resulted in a number of myths about its application to projects.

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