A couple of months ago the following statement was made at a conference by a business manager: “We want better projects, so the management of our company has decided that everyone will start working agile from January 2015”.

I was puzzled. Very puzzled. Did he honestly believe that the whole company would wake up one Monday morning in January 2015 realizing that a whole new era had begun, and everyone would leave all their old habits, attitudes and approaches behind and start being agile?

It made me wonder. Several things, actually:

“If the decision is already made, why don’t they start their agile journey today?”

“Do people really think that transforming a business from a traditional to an agile approach to projects will happen just like that?”

“Have they realized that the decision to work agile means that the management will also have to change their ways?”

“Do they know that doing agile is not the same as being agile?”

Making the transformation to becoming an agile business is a significant endeavor that will not happen overnight and just because top management gives the order. There are too many old habits to be broken, and many agile principles are counter-intuitive compared to traditional ways of managing projects, people and teams.

Once the decision has been made:

It requires determination

It requires training

It requires a will to change at all levels

The Managers’ Contribution to Successful Agile Implementations

One thing is, however, certain – an agile transformation is only likely to succeed if heavily supported on an ongoing basis by the management. It is also a prerequisite for a robust agile implementation that managers too are acting according to agile principles.

This means among other things:

  1. Being available for timely strategic decision-making when required
  2. Providing the frame for true delegation of operational decision power to the operational level
  3. Accept that errors will happen (and understand that they always did)
  4. Fostering an environment of trust at all levels in the organization

Only 4 points – how difficult can that be?

If (agile) project managers were managing their projects in an environment that lived these 4 points, it would result in a significant leap forward to increased project success. So why not just do it?

Well, mainly because it is not that simple. Organizational culture is a powerful thing that is not easily changed. Working agile will impose significant changes to the organization that may have worked according to traditional principles for maybe 10 – 20 years or more. It may look simple but it is not.

The Price of Becoming Agile

There are many good reasons for wanting to get more agility into organizations. First of all the numbers are very convincing. Check the agile communities or Project Management Institute’s annual “Pulse of the Profession”. Research shows that project success rates are significantly higher in agile projects.

Who would not want that?

However, everything comes with a price.

The price for a robust agile implementation is a change in the behavior towards projects throughout the organization, but changes in organizational behavior will usually not happen until managers make the move and change their own behavior:

  • Managers must accept that supply and demand must be balanced, and they should only start as many projects as the organization is able to handle.
  • Spreading key resources (bottlenecks) over too many projects only makes matters worse. Stop starting and start finishing projects rather than having them drag on due to lack of resources. Stop multitasking. It generates enormous waste.
  • Make the organization’s priorities clear to everyone. When help is needed on projects from other departments, is this more important than their “real” job? Has time for project work been prioritized and allocated so other tasks are not suffering?
  • Delegate operational decision power to the (agile) project managers, Product Owners, etc. Waiting for decisions generates lots of wasted time, and the decisions will usually be better when made by those that are directly involved in the projects.
  • Be ready to make strategic decisions on an “on demand” basis, but understand that good decisions require a deeper understanding of the projects. Don’t just scratch the surface, and be a Project Sponsor not only by name.
  • Understand that projects are complex and are taking the organization to new places. Therefore, the project team will most likely make mistakes. However, it is better to make mistakes, correct them and progress, than making no mistakes and stand still.

Once the above is in place, trust will automatically grow in the organization.

Most of the above concerns organizational agility and not what method is used on your projects: Scrum, Kanban, PRINCE2, PMI etc. The agile transformation can be started any time, but will only work if you are ready to make the necessary investments on the management level.

The result will be healthier projects and fewer failures, and since projects are such a big part of the work done in organizations, why not gain the benefit sooner by starting from the top-level with the agile journey today?