Traditional versus Agile — false war?

On this theme of Conventional Wisdom…. Not too long ago I was hearing lots of things about Agile.  Most of it was coming from my software development colleagues, but also from project managers in other disciplines.  There seemed to be a significant amount of intellectual intensity (which I interpret as emotion, but would not get that admission from the participants — we’re a very rational bunch).

"No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"At that time, there seemed to be two major camps:  the “new lighters” and the “protectors.”  The new lighters had seen the truth and seemed to feel a mixture of disdain and pity for those of us not yet onboard.  The protectors seemed to feel it was almost a duty to point out the failures of Agile and to prevent the chaos (which is evil) from coming into our midst.

If this sounds too simplistic and melodramatic, I won’t disagree.  And yet… a lot of the tone of the “arguments” did strike me as more than mildly like a kind of religious war.  Some of the words in the debate struck me as boiling down to “heretic,” “blasphemer,” “zealot,” “luddites,” “inquisitors,” and (horrors!) “old-fashioned.”

Of course, much of the public displays are made by those with the strongest sense of mission — most of us were not directly involved in the war.  Yet, one of the unfortunate outcomes of that conflict was, in my mind,  the notion of the Agile versus the PMBOK.  I would like to point out that the title is: “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge”  — it is not THE guide.   For the new lighters to say that PMIers are blind and misguided, the “proof” being that Agile ideas are not explicitly stated in the Guide was , to me,  just as unjustified as the for protectors to say that since Agile ideas aren’t in the “book” they should not be part of what we do.

What I see today is quite different.  There are still some doctrinal debates going on, but I see a more integrated approach.  I hear a lot more statements like, “We’ve been doing these things that are not in the Guide for years… we just never called it Agile before.”   To be sure, not all of these statements are backed up in fact.  It doesn’t mean that Agile ideas have usurped the “traditional” PM tools and ideas.  I believe that it does indicate that the new lighters and the protectors have both failed and succeeded.  The new lighters have succeeded in that the ideas of creating customer value early and often are being baked into more projects.  The new lighters really haven’t succeeded in completely overturning the old order, which is a win for the protectors.  Yet, the protectors have also failed because agile ideas have breached the walls, and for many of us our projects will never be the same as before.

Richard Wysocki’s book: “Effective Project Management: Traditional, Agile, Extreme” (ISBN: 978-0470423677) looks at projects as needing a spectrum of approaches.  One of our founding bloggers here, Kimberly Wiefling, gives us very real-world (and non-dogmatic) ideas in: “Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces” (ISBN: 978-1600050510) (although, I do find it fascinating that there are 12 pitfalls – a deeply mystical number!).

While some of the debate seems in retrospect to have been a lot of posturing, perhaps it was inevitable and even desirable to have a somewhat religious fervor — these are important ideas that can cut into some deeply held ideas that,  when re-examined, will yield valuable fruit.

We’ll look at some specific ideas that go beyond the Guide (or, at least are between the lines).

(note: apologies for the mixed metaphors – some intentional, some probably not)


1 thought on “Traditional versus Agile — false war?”

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    Yup, I started leading and managing projects over 20 years ago, and we did plenty of what is now collectively called “Agile. In fact, a couple of years ago I wrote an article for called “Agile: Age Old Ideas in Fancy New Clothes”. Check it out if you’re interested. I really don’t care what people call “common sense” as long as it becomes common practice! And as for the PMBOK, some faculty who are teaching project management classes have assigned both the PMBOK and my “Scrappy Project Management” book to be read by their students. One wrote to tell me he felt it was like combining matter and anti-matter. Annihilation is sure to follow!

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