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How to help agile projects gone awry

Blog posted by: Julie Hendry – Agile Delivery Experience Director, Cognizant Microsoft Business Group & Tim Basford, Project Manager, Cognizant Microsoft Business Group, 18 October 2021.

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To what extent do agile advocates anticipate that agile projects can go awry?


Now that agile practices have almost grabbed “centre stage” (where project management tended to remain in the background) there is commonly little consideration of the question: “is Agile the best choice given this situation?”.

Agile, in recent years, has become more focused on the process of implementing a framework while foregoing measurement of real outcomes with proportional governance and rigour. My own observations over 15 years are that Agile projects fail as often as any others do, although for different reasons. And “Agile transformations” have cost many organisations in lots of ways, with little measurable benefit to their bottom line, business or people.

How and why agile projects go awry? 

A failure to consider the bigger project picture is a common reason for Agile project problems.

Agile enables businesses to commit to fixed costs and timelines but with variable deliverables. Often though, businesses try to deliver a fixed set of deliverables iteratively using an Agile-based framework. This will often fail as delivering fixed deliverables is much better suited to a PRINCE2® approach.

Agile focuses on delivering small increments in an iterative way – useful for innovating, responding to feedback, dealing with high rates of change, risk or complexity. However, this can often lead to considering only parts and not the whole.

Conversely, project management typically insists on understanding the scope of what must be achieved, so most projects in 2021 require big picture knowledge.

When Agile focuses on showing something for feedback early on, the necessary infrastructure and data is often neglected, providing wireframes with little meat on the bones. One example I was involved in faced a regulatory deadline, had already cost several million and it was discovered no-one had planned for infrastructure with only a few months to go. The first quote from the incumbent was years and millions to provide. We overcame in the end, however it continues to happen to others today.

Likewise, having more than one team involved can result in overlooked dependencies, platform consistency and integration because everyone is so busy focusing on “delivering value” iteratively.

Why do these problems arise in agile projects? 

Agile isn't always the answer and rarely the answer on its own.

Oversight and governance are seen as something negative and unnecessary in Agile. However, as it’s about enabling teams to focus on continuously delivering value, it’s always necessary to both support and direct iterations of value in relation to the whole.

Sometimes, an organization’s internal process, capability or capacity simply aren’t ready to engage in the way Agile projects require. The resulting conflict can easily be accommodated through a mixed methods approach that leverages continuous improvement to adapt collaboratively and as needed.

Even if MoSCoW (must-have, should-have, could-have, won’t-have) prioritisation is used, it is often mistaken for a task list of M followed by S followed by C etc. If all the deliverables are fixed, then prioritization is futile and the dependency mapping seen in PRINCE2 is much more useful.

How can project management support agile projects? 

There are several key elements in project management that can help minimize the risk in agile projects:

  • Communications plan

Having a clear plan to establish what the entire enterprise needs in terms of communications and who are the right people to get involved is, to some degree, “baking in” governance. Agreeing a cadence, approach, necessary meetings, attendees, observers, facilitators, scheduling and purpose is critical in Agile projects as these can take up to 30% of capacity every iteration.

  • Understanding the bigger picture

Where there is a need for greater clarity on scope, an established tool like a PRINCE2 project initiation document (PID) assists in understanding and planning for the bigger picture beyond the iterations.

  • Strategic risk management 

Using a RAID log – to organize risks, actions, issues and decisions – may also help manage longer term risks rather than just immediate issues. This is especially true in risk-averse organizations or those already using such an approach. PRINCE2 Agile® combines the control and governance of PRINCE2 with an appreciation of agile delivery methods. This approach recognizes that running projects should balance agile and waterfall approaches.

For a more traditional organization just embarking on an agile journey, this knowledge helps them to navigate how to leverage each approach. In addition, it can help close the gap in the languages of different methods.

Today, it’s rare that one framework will provide all the answers. PRINCE2 Agile offers a stepping stone between them.

Supplying appropriate governance and working with Agile teams to build a capability ensures that everyone has a greater awareness of what the organization needs outside a limited agile focus.


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