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How to Determine Projects Fit for Agile

Organizations commonly adopt new processes / approaches that have proven to reach markets faster, realize quicker returns and minimize costs. Agile is a set of values and frameworks geared to shift efforts toward efficiency and continuous value delivery. Although Agile is a relatively new way of thinking, it’s rolling success in delivering more within the challenges of the triple constraints (scope, schedule and budget) has gained it popularity and wider adoption in the project management world. Yes, depending on the scenario, plan-driven, traditional project management or “waterfall” can provide a higher likelihood for projects’ success.

So, what drives the decision to go with one or the other? What are the factors to consider when selecting the approach that best meets the needs of the organization?

The Nature of a Project/Product

A good starting place is to examine the three important aspects of a project: Scope, schedule and cost. In order to determine the best approach, consider these factors against the specifics of the project / product in question. Below are sample real-life project scenarios that could be considered during this process.

Important Factors Product/Project Scenario Methodology
Requirements (Scope) There is an idea for a new, complex product and specific requirements will surface through small experiments, based on market/user needs (e.g., starting a new product line or a new marketing campaign). Agile
Requirements (Scope) The project has a checklist of requirements with predefined stages that must be completed in a predictable sequence. The list must be completed to deliver the final product (e.g., hardware installation or bridge construction project). Waterfall
Time/Schedule The product/project needs to meet an aggressive tiemline even with limited features or functionality (e.g., showing available product samples at a bazaar or expo). Agile
Time/Schedule The product requirements and functionalities are fully defined up front, regardless of user needs, uncertainity, and risk. A full set of these requirements are required to be delivered within a set deadline (e.g., implementing a new regulation that becomes effective on a specified date). Waterfall
Cost While traditional project management is optimized for efficiency and direct project success, Agile frameworks respond to non-traditional success factors such as speed and delivering a product that maximizes business value (even at a higher risk). The spending in Agile can not be measured by minimizing direct project costs, rather, through the cost savings realized through fast delivery of solutions that meet the business needs and succeeding more quickly. Applying the right balance of cost and resources in relation to the above scope, risk, and schedule factors is what will ultimately lead to optimal cost saving. Unlike the above elements, it may not be reasonable to make an equivalent comparison on the cost factor. When considering cost, it is important to note that one approach is not inherently always cheaper or more expensive than the other.

It is also important to highlight that there are times when Agile approaches can be applied to facilitate transparency and communication at team-levels even when the nature of the project is best suited for waterfall approaches. A good example here would be a construction team that adopts Scrum practices, such as daily stand-ups for their daily check-ins, sprints to break down their work, and Kanban boards to visualize progress and track the work in queue.

The Project/Product Environment

Another vital element that can inform or influence approach selection is the project / product delivery environment and life-cycle. Factors to consider here include:

Important Factors Environment Scenario Methodology
Customer/User Engagement Customers and users are able to engage throughout development or will need to provide feedback on an ongoing basis Agile
Customer/User Engagement The project/product has customers/users that have provided defined requirement steps and are interested in seeing the final product only Waterfall
People & Skills The proejct team is very familiar with the product/project. For instance, building a new version of an existing product Waterfall
People & Skills Cross-functional teams (that occupy multi-disciplinary roles) are fully committed to reach quick decisions and complete the project Agile
People & Skills Individuals wearing multiple hats or using shared resources in the project. Team members are required to meet the ongoing daily needs of the organization. Waterfall
Third Party Engagement (Contracting Model) Contract engagements are based on fixed scope and fixed budget where requirements are defined upfront Waterfall
Third Party Engagement (Contracting Model) Frequent delivery of usable capabilities are required from vendor/contractor to accommodate customer feedback Agile

Overall, supporting data suggests that not all Agile projects succeed and not all “waterfall” projects fail. Organizations can identify the most fitting approach that helps accelerate delivery, minimize risk, save costs, and ultimately present a higher likelihood of success by carefully analyzing the nature of a product or project and having a good strategy that creates the enabling environment.

Further, if the decision is to transition to an Agile approach, similar to any new process or change initiative, Agile adoption requires a supportive environment that spans beyond a given project / product to an organizational transformation. An Agile implementation must be supported by change management activities that foster buy-in and ensure the Agile vision and goals are clearly communicated across the enterprise.

Additional Reading / Office of the CTO

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