How I learned the term ‘agile’
My first memory of the word ‘agile’ was not in a classroom; rather it was while listening to football commentary of the English Premier League!
One of the commentators described David de Gea as an ‘agile’ goalkeeper – yes, I have been an ardent fan of Manchester United (‘Man Utd’) for the past two decades! – and I came to understand agile as meaning pace and swiftness. His agile style has been compared with Edwin Van der Saar’s more ‘traditional’ style (an older but wise Man Utd goalkeeper with a highly successful track record and career).
Different styles – but both achieved results. The same can also be said when it comes to project management.
A paradigm shift in thinking
Prior to starting my MBA at Newcastle University Business School, I worked on more than 10 large scale infrastructure projects. During this time, I was largely exposed to traditional project management. Although this management style inherently served its purpose, it was highly rigid and hierarchical in nature. This rigidity created a sense of antagonism for me towards project management.
Therefore, although I knew that my MBA course included a module on Project Management, I was not initially thrilled about starting this, due to my previous experience. However as the module progressed, I learnt that project management is not all about traditional project management! This understanding in itself created a sense of deep relief, and furthermore, I learned that project management is not all about hierarchy either, breaking one more personal notion.
Agile project management
The agile style of project management is fundamentally built on an iterative process, unlike traditional project management where the highly rigid process means any modifications or alterations require a separate process.
Because of these fundamental differences, agile provides several advantages in project execution:
- The agile approach is quick to adapt to change. In agile project management, the assumption is that project requirements can be developed during the project execution which is again radically different from the traditional approach.
- The most interesting feature of agile is that it takes a collaborative approach with the client, unlike the traditional approach where the client is more confined to the review process. This is very beneficial to the client who is always well informed and remains in close contact with the project, meaning that client satisfaction will be largely positive.
- Since it is an iterative process allowing a lot of changes in the project execution, agile inherently reduces the cost arising from risks or radical changes proposed by the client, after completion of a milestone in a traditionally managed project.
- On the whole, agile project management can be aligned under several methodologies including Scrum, SAFe and Kanban (the prominent ones deployed across industries) and many more. In contrast, traditional project management is always based on the project life cycle parameters in a very structured and methodical manner.
Is agile the future?
My hands-on experience of traditional project management, combined with my relatively new interest and learning from the MBA programme on Agile Project Management, made me curious to delve into and learn more about the application of agile in a more traditional industry (construction).
As my research went deeper, I learned that agile might not fit well into all types of industry. For example, the construction industry predominantly works on the concept of cycle time. In other words, it focuses on the time required to complete tasks, for example, the time required to construct a slab or pier.
Agile project management, on the other hand, is very much open to change. This approach, in a construction project for example, might only delay the cycle time as any change in sequence will not move towards a positive gradient i.e. the defined project completion.
Therefore rather than reducing costs, it would inherently increase the cost if constant iterations and changes were allowed since most of the construction sequence is standardised. In addition, if constant changes were allowed, this would create an issue in governance (with most stakeholders being Government bodies.
Furthermore, large construction projects are fundamentally risky in nature, whereas in agile management, the approach towards risk is largely embedded, thereby the chances of not capturing the exact impact of risk could be fatal.
Is agile always the best approach?
On the whole, the project management approach taken depends a range of factors including requirements, costs and timescale.
We can use the goalkeepers as an analogy, with Van der Saar representing the traditional approach, and de Gea the agile approach:
- It is evident that de Gea’s agile approach between the goalposts, while effective, is not always better (for example, Man Utd lost the Europa League 2021 in the shootout and hasn’t won any major shootouts with de Gea).
- In contrast, Van der Saar’s more traditional and experienced approach enabled Man Utd to win trophies (11 straight clean sheets with 1032 minutes without conceding a goal) and the Champions League 2008 in the shootout.
Eventually, my question on agility as THE parameter for a goalkeeper was answered: not always!
Similarly, agile project management is not always the most pertinent approach: rather, several factors should be analysed before deploying the framework for management. Agile might not work in all projects and industries – the most obvious subjective description being “it depends”. However, it can be referred to, or applied to certain areas of the project
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