Management / Project Management: Why it pays to be agile

Project Management: Why it pays to be agile

Imagine that you have to build a railway bridge. You draw up blueprints for the bridge, start welding and, just as you near the other side of the river, you realise that the bridge is not strong enough. Oh, and it should be carrying cars instead. And the bridge has gone way over budget already. Not so much a bridge, more of a pier.


Agile is a project management methodology originally developed for computer programs but increasingly being used in aviation, construction, pharmaceuticals and the financial sector. The US Department of Defence is using Agile for procurement.

Rather than building a bridge, an Agile approach would be to say, let’s get people to the other side of the river. So you start with a rowing boat, and then a ferry and finally a toll bridge for cars. Crucially, it takes the highest-value part of the problem – in this case transporting people – and starts making money from it – getting people to buy tickets – right away.

This methodology has become the de facto way of developing IT software. Its supporters say that it can be applied to all sorts of problems, involving stakeholders, getting feedback early on as opposed to presenting a fait accompli.

Agile divides the project into vertical slices, repeatedly going into the process again and again in various iterations. Rather than delivering a behemoth of a project by deadline, it delivers a project in tranches that work.

“It’s not a silver bullet but it works,” says Richard Stobart, CEO of web developer Unboxed Consulting. “You fail faster because you get feedback faster. You can apply it to most things because it’s just a way of addressing risk.”

The problem with other project management methodologies, Agile proponents say, is that all lights are green at the start of a project but they turn red towards the end as you run out of money and time. Agile turns this on its head by tackling the most difficult part of the problem first, and then iterating as you go along.

Older methodologies such as Prince 2 (a civil service methodology used in the public sector) and Waterfall, runs the argument, are too legacy-focused without the flexibility of Agile. All their milestones are established at the outset.

Amy Hutton, editor of Project Management, says: “Agile is absolutely the buzzword because of the debate about project failure. Agile means breaking down a project into digestible parts. It’s a methodology that allows people to react much more quickly and learn lessons along the way.”

Steve Messenger, chairman of Agile standards body DSDM, says: “Agile takes a more fundamental approach to problems, enabling you to move forward with versions as you go along. Rather than try to design everything upfront, your experience and knowledge will increase as you go.

“Agile is a mindset. It’s a natural way of thinking. If you have complex problems, you don’t try to solve them all at the same time. It could be used in industry because you try and deliver value early – planning so you can deliver in smaller revenue-creating chunks.”

Stobart says that the problem with Prince 2 – which has been successfully used on big infrastructure projects such as the Port of Amsterdam – is that it depends on accurate estimates and, in his experience, people are not very good at estimates.

The more variances there are between the estimates and the actual, he says, the worse the slippage. “There’s a cumulative effect of variances, and the effect of the delay is increased cost,” he says.

“What you’re trying to do is reduce risk. Prince 2 tries to reduce risk by reducing the variables. Agile reduces risk by taking the biggest risks up front.”

Stobart is an award-winning mentor when it comes to applying Agile thinking to government projects. Given that civil servants themselves developed Prince 2, does he face resistance in government circles to adopting Agile?

Stobart shrugs, “Agile is just common sense. You don’t try to control all the variables at the same time. It’s difficult for project managers who’ve learned Prince 2 to let go but we’ve moved on. We used to have the horse and buggy and now we have the car.”

However, the government has caught on to the benefits of Agile thinking and is now incorporating it into the next version of Prince 2.

In 2013 the government and outsourcing giant Capita established Axelos as a joint venture. Axelos promotes Prince 2 as a standard for project management – it is currently used by more than a million professionals worldwide.

There is something glittery-eyed and evangelical about Agile proponents. The detractors of Agile say that you cannot just keep endlessly iterating – at some point a project has to be delivered.

Prince 2 Agile, due to launch in July, will blend the best of both Agile and project management disciplines. Peter Hepworth, CEO of Axelos, says: “What we’re in the business of doing is making organisations more effective, and we believe Prince 2 can make Agile more effective.

“There are a lot of positives in an Agile approach – it is about breaking a project down into manageable stages, going after the highest-value elements first. It’s about keeping your mind open to change.

“Equally, there’s a danger with Agile that you keep iterating with no end in sight. You can’t go completely away from having plans. Prince 2 Agile keeps your eye on the prize.”

Prince 2 Agile will be aimed at organisations throughout the private and public sector, and not just people who normally regard themselves as “project managers”.

Says Hepworth: “Project management is relevant for whatever you’re doing. For example in marketing, any product launch is a project. Equally, for those working in construction the ability to remain ‘agile’ is key. In fact Agile has its roots in ‘lean’, which in turn has its roots in manufacturing. So it’s very much about building things.”


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