09 Feb 2021

What’s holding Agile methods back?

Project management insights
What’s holding Agile methods back?

If there was ever a year in which agile ways of working should have shone, it was 2020. So what should we make of AIPM research showing that less than one third of project managers are seeing good results from agile methods?

Agile methods have spread far indeed from their start in the world of software development two decades ago. And with 2020 causing unprecedented disruption, it could have been seen as the perfect proving ground for a manifesto that embraces decentralised decision making, embracing change and rapid evolution in the face of changing needs.

And yet when AIPM partnered with KPMG to survey almost 500 Australian project managers for the annual Project Delivery Performance in Australia report, the research found that just 28% of project managers feel the adoption of agile methods has improved overall success rates.

Nonetheless, adoption continues to grow, with AIPM’s research finding close to half of all surveyed organisations are deploying agile methods in some fashion, up from one quarter in 2018 (although just one in 50 have abandoned traditional approaches entirely).

So what is keeping many organisations from realising the potential benefits of agile methods?




 

MAKING IT WORK

James Bawtree, a Director of the AIPM Board, sees two key obstacles:

  • a lack of training; and
  • a lack of systems-based thinking.

“Unfortunately, when organisations hit hard times, like with COVID-19, the first thing to go is the training budget,” he says, adding that this inhibits staff as they seek to do things differently in times of change or crisis. Bawtree says agile training is imperative and advocates action-based learning, along similar lines to an apprenticeship system, in which people are constantly learning on the job.

The difference now is that organisations need to foster knowledge workers rather than process workers because automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing the latter cohort. “These knowledge workers need training that is just in time, and it needs to be on the job as well,” he says.

Previous AIPM research has found low levels of agile training for project managers themselves, and significant levels of concern over this fact. Another point of failure for many companies or groups, Bawtree says, is that internal teams may try to adopt agile practices in isolation rather than as part of an organisation-based approach. “So, they think they can just deliver agile projects and everything else continues as per usual. If they do that, they’ll fail.”

In assessing their project management strategies, Bawtree says organisations must distinguish between agile methods and agility. The former is a framework that is iteration based and allows teams to quickly design, develop, test and implement projects. The latter more broadly refers to an organisation’s ability to respond to a fast-moving environment. “There’s a lot of confusion with executives thinking they’re one and the same, and they’re definitely not,” Bawtree says.

When a group of rebel software developers gathered at a ski resort in Utah, the United States, in 2001 and laid the foundations for the Agile Manifesto, they wanted a better way to plan and deliver new products and projects than the more rigid, sequential and documentation-heavy waterfall methods that became popular in the 1970s. Their blueprint has complemented development approaches such as Scrum, Extreme Programming, Dynamic Systems Development Method, Feature-Driven Development and Pragmatic Programming.

Although Bawtree acknowledges such history, he believes agile approaches actually started much earlier without being branded as such. Henry Ford’s development of the Model T Ford, for instance, involved using innovative and entrepreneurial farmers on production lines who were used to working in iterative ways to deliver their projects while following strict processes to reduce variation. “I’d suggest that agile methods are actually older than waterfall methods.”


AGILE IN PRACTICE

Telstra is one organisation that had agile abilities built and operational before 2020’s crisis, and has seen the benefits that can be had. Chief Project Officer Peter Moutsatsos says agile practices have enabled the telco giant to react faster to challenges from smaller, more nimble competitors. “It lets us respond to disruption quickly,” he says. “You can’t spend two or three years in deep planning and building projects, and then come to the market with a big shiny product. The market has already moved on.”

Much of Telstra’s success with agile methods can be attributed to the widespread use of agile coaches. Teams are then partnered with business leaders to act as accelerated change agents, Moutsatsos says. “Those coaches also work with our teams to embrace agile team practices.” In addition to facilitating practical measures such as adopting new technology systems, Moutsatsos says the coaches work on forging strong mindsets and behaviours.

 

NO MAGIC PILL  

Although Moutsatsos is an advocate of the methodology, he cites three reasons why agile approaches may struggle to deliver. First, he believes some entities adopt agile as a “veneer” that cannot mask internal deficiencies related to culture, leadership engagement, executive buy-in and a toxic workforce.
 

“A methodology such as agile is often rolled out as a magic pill,” he says. “Then when it doesn’t work, because those root causes aren’t addressed, the project and the framework are simply marked as failures without any real investigation,” Moutsatsos says.


Second, there is often a misconception that agile projects require less planning and coordination. “It’s actually the opposite.” Why? Moutsatsos says with practices such as agile and Scrum, project leaders need to be involved almost daily for a short period of time to ensure that initiatives maintain momentum.

In acknowledging this factor, the telco has switched from annual planning to quarterly planning, and it sets fortnightly priorities for teams so they can quickly identify the need to change, pivot and execute. “That extra engagement is the trade-off for shrinking and compressing the work into a shorter period of time.” Third, Moutsatsos says senior leadership teams sometimes fail to sponsor agile teams or empower project managers. “Without active sponsorship, the project is more likely to fail.”



 


RESET AND RETHINK

Many organisations are poor at setting priorities, suggests Bawtree, which hinders their ability to change course during challenging times. He says ‘T-shirt sizing’ – that is, quickly assessing whether a user story or requirement is small, medium or large – can make a difference. “Leveraging these techniques is a very effective way of continuously making sure you’re working on the most important things.”

At Telstra, Moutsatsos says agile methods have helped the telco quickly launch new 5G-related products for households during the pandemic in response to more people working from home. “It would have been difficult under traditional ways,” he says. Although he hopes the impact of COVID-19 will ease in 2021, Moutsatsos says Telstra remains conscious of being able to pivot quickly at any time using agile methodologies. “We think this is the new normal for us. Disruption is here to stay.”

Learn more about the state of project management in Australia. Download our report now.