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Beyond the Agile vs. Waterfall Debate—A More Holistic, Common-Sense Approach

The Agile vs. Waterfall debate is helpful in the sense that it encourages intelligent, diligent practitioners to challenge many key assumptions that may not always be true. Here are two quick examples of such goodness—one from the Waterfall or “Predictive” PM world, and the other from the Agile world:

Waterfall or “Predictive” Assumption: We can develop a sound, stable understanding of a project’s high-level scope and schedule before we kick it off.

This is of course not always true—we may only have a sound, stable understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve, or of the opportunity we’re trying to exploit, and may need many iterations of trial-and-error before developing a clear sense of scope.

Agile Assumption: Time-boxing work into sprints is a great way to instill a sense of urgency, set and follow a stable cadence of execution, deliver regular increments of value, and obtain feedback frequently.

This is also not always true, as sprint end dates often interrupt focused execution, sprint commitments can encourage “pacing” instead of acceleration, value-delivery increments do not always fit nicely into fixed time boxes, and feedback might sometimes be needed more frequently, and sometimes less.

While perhaps healthy and useful, such assumption-challenging and ensuing point-counterpoint debates can confuse those of us who are just trying to keep things simple and do the right thing. To clear some of this confusion, the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Guide to the PM Body of Knowledge – 6th Edition (PMBOK v6) does an admirable job of trying to help the average practitioner decide when to apply which approach.

A Universal Approach?

What is still sorely needed, however, is a sound, holistic, and universally applicable set of guiding principles and techniques—ones that would genuinely help the PM world “move the needle” on its most persistent and intractable problems underlying subpar value delivery. After all, according to PMI’s annual (and free!) Pulse of the Profession survey of global project performance, the PM world has been stuck with 60-70% project success rates for more than a decade—in spite of the fact that rates of Agile adoption have gone way up over that span.

This article offers a foundation of universally applicable principles and corresponding techniques that have been proved out in dozens of real-world project environments—the table below offers four such principles & techniques:


Guiding Principles & Foundational Techniques

As an example of these Guiding Principles and Foundational Techniques in practice, one client applied the four shown above and also a few more. Their results? A doubling of their throughput of project completions, a jump in due-date performance from 50 percent to 90 percent, and a quadrupling in ROI of their project portfolio investment overall—all in less than one year.

There are certainly other Guiding Principles worth incorporating—such as those related to prioritizing & selecting the highest-value portfolio of project investments—but for most project-centric organizations we’ve supported, focusing on the four in the table above seems to help move the needle the most.

So, for those looking for a simple, focused way to deliver lots of impact quickly, these four techniques are often more than enough; in fact, some of our clients have doubled the number of projects they complete using just a single technique. In one such case, they employed a continuous-flow model designed to promote single-task focus, and achieved a doubling in productivity in just two months. In a separate example, the client simply paused half of its projects and reassigned the freed-up project-team resources from the paused projects to the live ones; this resulted in all projects getting completed twice as fast as originally planned.

As powerful as these specific examples may be, we strongly encourage everyone to experiment with your own techniques that might help apply one or more Guiding Principles in practice. For our consulting clients, for example, we pull from a total of eleven techniques, spanning four separate bodies of knowledge, and call the resulting method “ACCLAIM,”™ an abbreviation for Accelerated Critical Chain, Lean, Agile Integration Method. For those who may be curious to learn more, we discuss in greater detail nine of these techniques in our best-selling book, The CIO’s Guide to Breakthrough Project Portfolio Performance.

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