Can traditional project management and agile development coexist?

Are traditional project managers and agile practitioners fundamentally at odds? Or can they live together and even complement each other?

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Are traditional project managers and agile practitioners the Felixes and Oscars of the IT world? Are practices outlined in the Project Management Institute's PMBOK Guide in conflict with the Agile Manifesto and agile best practices?

While it may seem like an odd coupling, industry observers say the two methodologies don't have to be mutually exclusive, but rather can live together and in fact complement each other.

In his research on project teams, analyst Dave West with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research has found this commonality: "A smart agile project manager does a lot of things the PMBOK talks about without calling it PMBOK, and a smart PMBOK project manager does a lot of agile things without calling it agile."

In Forrester's recent report, The PMBOK and Agile: Friends or Foes, which West co-authored, the recommendation is to use the strengths of both approaches to boost project success. More importantly, the report recommends that

More on agile and project management
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 organizations tap into the specific practices and methodologies that work best for them and for particular projects, rather than taking a one-methodology-fits-all approach.

Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group, a project management consultancy based in Boston, concurs. "You need to look within your own organization and environment, and understand what parts you want to keep and will work within your process as you move forward. The whole project management thing is just doing the right things right," Johnson said.

There are some misconceptions around both Agile and PMBOK that have led people to believe they are incompatible, West said. One is that traditional project management is highly structured and inflexible and agile is highly unstructured.

"Agile projects are a lot more structured and disciplined than people would expect," West said. "With continuous planning and sharing transparently, there's a lot more control in agile than most people appreciate. And PMBOK is not robotic. It's a series of good, sensible milestones and techniques."

Of course, there are some key differences. For example, according to the Forrester report, traditional project management has a more "command and control" style, with the project manager ultimately responsible for the project, while agile teams are self-managing and empowered. Work is also organized and assigned differently, with agile teams deciding among themselves who will do the tasks, as opposed to a PM schedule of assignments and tasks.

Also, in traditional PM, project managers disseminate status reports to team members and project stakeholders/customers, while in agile the status is transparent to all team members and stakeholders/customers are part of the team. Documentation -- how much or how little -- is also a difference.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point is the perception that PMBOK prescribes a waterfall method, which West said is another misconception. "PMBOK has fantastic content, but you read it in a sequential way, and then you apply it in that way, so you assume it's waterfall, but it really doesn't advocate a particular process flow." However, he acknowledged, "at the moment the [PMBOK] literature and material doesn't dissuade you from that."

Michele Sliger, consultant and co-author of The Software Project Manager's Bridge to Agility, said the Project Management Institute (PMI) "recognizes agile is not a fad; it's a valid approach to software project management." As such, PMI is creating a forum to help its members learn more about agile, and Sliger is part of the steering committee. She said she expects PMI's agile program to launch in the second quarter of this year.

According to Forrester, PMBOK does bring some strengths to the table where agile is lacking. It provides:

  • Clear guidance on project initiation and closure.
  • Communications management and project integration management.
  • Project cost management.
  • Risk management.

On the other hand, agile also has some strengths PMBOK does not have. It promotes:

  • Cross-functional, empowered teams.
  • Flexibility and adjustment throughout a project.
  • Encouragement of strong working relationships with customers.
  • Just enough rigor and documentation.

While the role of the project manager does change in an agile environment, agile does not obviate the need for project leadership, according to both Johnson and West. "I think the role of the project manager is an important role. The project management profession and techniques have been worked on for years and have validity," Johnson said. The role is somewhat different, however, he added. "The project manager needs to be more of a pipeline manager, to keep the flow going. The role is to make sure the pipe doesn't fill up and get blocked. Basically it's just a faster way of doing things."

According to West, "The majority of agile projects have someone in a PM role even if they're not calling themselves that; it may be the scrum master or a product owner, but you definitely have some people involved in leadership. The difference is how you do leadership. Agile doesn't support command and control. Projects tend to be self-directing, so the project management role is more a coaching model or a mentoring model."

At Vignette, an Austin, Texas, Web content management company that has moved to agile, there are program managers, "but their role has changed slightly," said Subu Subramanian, senior director of engineering. "They're not as involved in the planning and coordination of the product development activities, except in cases of large, multi-scrum projects, where they coordinate across the teams."

He said their primary responsibilities are "managing the software release process, including early release/beta programs; managing the technical enablement of our sales, service and support organizations; and coordinating with external vendors such as for localization."

Basab Dattaray, engineering manager for new business initiatives within the TurboTax group at Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit, said the need for project managers is less with his group's move to agile. "We do have a project manager whose primary work has been designing the user experience. We also have rotating scrum masters. We usually spend only a small percentage of our time on project management. With agile I feel that the individual team members feel empowered and take ownership, and hence the need for project management is somewhat mitigated."

But in the end, West said, "Every project has somebody who worries about the things project management classically worries about. The difference is how you execute on those concerns."

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