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Agile Project Management vs. Traditional Project Management

17 Apr 2019

Effective project management is integral to a successful process, regardless of the type or size of the project.

There are many ways to go about this, but the choices usually boil down to one dilemma, at least these days - whether to go for Agile or traditional project management.

We are seeing a proliferation of agile project management in all kinds of different industries, but we have to also be very aware of the fact that this is often ill-advised or at least handled wrongly. These are the dangers that come with hype.

One more mistake to avoid is trying to get the best of both worlds. This is a treacherous path because the two models are largely incompatible. Agile brings about a paradigm shift, a change of how we perceive project management.

The takeaway is that you are probably better off fully committing to one of them. And before you do that, you have to understand both styles have pros and cons you need to weigh. There are also some major differences you would be wise to note.

So, let the agile project management vs traditional project management battle begin.

agile vs traditional

Traditional Management in a Nutshell

The traditional model is built on a structured groundwork for development projects.

It involves a fixed chain of stages: feasibility, plan, design, build, test, production, and support. They take place in a linear sequence.

You can think of this approach as a rigid, top-down system. Standard PMBOK methodology contains defined tools and techniques.

Everything is planned ahead of time and communicated to the team. In other words, analysis and design phases of the project set the stage for everything that is to come.

While time and costs fluctuate, user requirements are a fixed variable. Wiggle room for changes is rather minimal. One stage must finish before the next one can begin. You follow these steps with little guidance or chance to make alterations.

Check-in occurs only when team members report and escalate issues. The reality is they often shy away from doing this.

And that’s precisely why traditional management fits only projects likely to have few changes from start to end. Sticking to the plan and set goals is a good thing in most of those cases.

Alas, things just go south sometimes and traditional arsenal provides poor tools for dealing with this situation.

How is Agile Different?

With Agile methodology, nothing is set in stone.

Big projects are broken down into small, bite-sized bits. Development is executed in short iterative bursts called sprints.

Teams are self-organized and they working simultaneously toward the same goal. They follow an iterative process with regular checkpoints.

The steps are known in advance, but they don’t have to be performed in a strictly sequential manner. The focus is not really on tools and processes.

What Agile puts emphasis are lively teamwork, open communication, and customer collaboration. Team members can experiment and figure out better alternatives as they go.

There’s no need to spend a lot of time planning upfront. Planning is done just in time and just in the amount needed to provide a rough idea of where the project is going. Combined with a variety of estimation tools and techniques, this can lead to more precise estimations for delivering value.

Furthermore, users play an important role. Their feedback is considered for the Product Backlog and features serve as focal points of development.

This setup allows for process fine-tuning and product optimization. High-value features are instantly prioritized. One can make corrections as soon as faults and risks are identified. This cannot be said for conventional management wisdom.

Weighing the pros and cons

pros and cons agile vs traditional

The traditional model emphasizes the sequentiality of phases. For instance, in software development, testing is done only after the features are completed. These processes are not carried out at regular intervals. There is no continuous release of improvements.

The ownership belongs to the Project Manager who has overwhelming authority in pretty much every respect. This individual maps out and records the product’s whole journey.

The consequence of all this is that it is hard to adapt on the fly to shifting environments and requirements. You are ill-equipped to overcome budgetary and timeline issues before they can cause any real harm.

In addition to this, the client involvement is minimal and restricted to the pre-development or requirements gathering stage. Any change of heart on their behalf means copious amounts of backtracking and, ultimately, waste.

A sudden change can bring the whole development process to a halt.

Contrary to that, Agile is superior in terms of ability to respond to change. The minimal planning and the various events and artifacts are meant to assist teams and organizations recognize the need for adaptation and act on this new information.

Agile project management also puts emphasis on communication and collaboration, allowing teams to self-organize and call the shots more freely. Through increased communication with the customer, agile project management also enables quicker responses to marketplace changes and product vision pivoting.

Final Considerations

That being said, Agile is not a one-size-fits-all solution and it does have certain drawbacks.

For this kind of framework to give results, your organization has to be fully committed to it. Adopting certain tools and practices while still relying on the old command and control processes gives birth to a stressful and chaotic environment for everyone involved. Some people are stripped of much of their authority, and this is not something everyone is keen on.

Moving on, agile project management introduces more complexity to large projects with numerous teams and business groups. Due to its incremental and quick-change nature, coordinating large projects can become noticeably complex with agile project management. This can be done, but it has to be done carefully so as not to suppress everything advantageous to agile.

Agile project management is also not best suited for certain types of projects that have to be completed in phases. For instance, construction projects have to be done in clearly defined phases. There may still be certain aspects of agile that can be applied to construction, but you will need to be extra careful not to introduce confusion just for the sake of doing agile.

Furthermore, agile has very little sense if you cannot engage the customer. If the customer insists on handing a requirements document, expecting a finished product regardless of anything and you cannot get any feedback from them, agile project management will only have limited effectiveness.

The Verdict

verdict agile vs traditional pm

The agile project management vs traditional project management debate is a heated one and it features a lot of noise that often doesn’t feel too constructive.

While it can be a great way to tackle projects, agile project management is not without its prerequisites, drawbacks and traps. You always need to take into account project complexity, organizational infrastructure, corporate culture, leadership style, and other variables.

The ultimate trick is to do what makes sense for your organization, not what is trendy and buzz-worthy.