Can a lean, agile development environment really work well alongside the structure and constraints of a project management operation? There often exists a tension between these two groups that Rick Freedman, a technology blogger, described in a recent blog post. Freedman wrote, “Many firms have committed so completely to PMBOK process flows and CMM best practices that many of the core concepts of agile development [...] seem like heresy. In fact, I’ve had people in my agile project management classes tell me that their perception of agile is that the key message is 'everything you know about project management is wrong.'”
Despite the challenges, bridging the gap between these two very important groups can actually help companies to manage resources and prioritize projects much more effectively. Here are some of the reasons why each group is necessary, as well as tips on how to keep both happy while leveraging the strengths of each.
Agile development has become very popular for a number of reasons. First, it emphasizes constant communication with the end client throughout the development process, helping to limit scope-creep and increase customer satisfaction. An executive at a major financial institution recently told me that he supports agile because it allows developers to build and demo often. Customer advocates can then keep tabs on development throughout the cycle, enabling you to correct as needed. (This may sound like more work; but in the end, it is infinitely less than if you wind up with the completely wrong thing and have to either do it over or count it as a loss.)
Because customer needs are constantly a factor in agile environments, development teams are extremely reactive, which helps them to not only adapt to the needs of the customer but also to the market at large. In 2008, Tamara Sulaiman, a project management consultant, wrote an article entitled, “The Agile PMO Role” in which she asserts that “agile teams are cross-functional, self-organizing and self-managing.” With characteristics such as these, it's no wonder that agile teams are so successful.
The project management office also brings key benefits to the company. Project managers tend to focus on metrics and progress tracking, which provide data that is crucial to the health and success of a project portfolio. They can also help facilitate communication between developers, managers and executives. In the previously mentioned article, Sulaiman writes:
Let’s say you are a manager or leader in an agile company. Your development teams have implemented Scrum and are now working toward release. You’ve got the Scrum of Scrums working so that teams can communicate with each other about cross-team dependencies and impediments on a daily basis. But there’s a gap, isn’t there? As a manager, how do you effectively and efficiently measure progress, manage risk and keep your eye on the big picture across these agile teams? Wouldn’t it be great to have an easy way to communicate budget and schedule information at the program level to the company?
Because agile workers often find themselves needing to adjust their plans based on customer feedback, the PMO can play a key role in keeping the rest of the company informed as to what is going on. Scope changes, delays or quality issues can arise at any time; and when they do, they must be communicated to all of the stakeholders who can adjust expectations accordingly and take the appropriate course of action.
In addition, some activities that large corporations participate in are much more likely to be successfully managed by standard PMBOK methodologies (e.g., compliance management). I recently spoke with an executive at a large grocery store chain who emphasized the legal necessity of meeting deadlines and not allowing any deviation from scope. While agile is all about discovery – discovery of what the customer really needs and discovery of what is possible – it does not always meet the needs of project-oriented organizations with specific requirements. For example, if you have to meet a new HIPAA regulation right away, you don't have much use for discovery. This is where the PMO can be a major asset.
Combining the strengths of these two groups is a strategic move that will help companies reach new heights of profitability that they never thought possible. Project risk can be more effectively managed when the PMO is keeping an eye on things, and agile teams can achieve greater levels of transparency than before. In addition, the PMO can benefit from increased flexibility and dialogue with the customer. Evan Campbell, CTO and agile devotee, explained these benefits in a recent project management article called “Agile Rising.” Campbell said, “A strategic PMO can be a great asset to agile teams [… by] working with the product owner and scrum master to make sure the metrics of projects are assessed and value is delivered.” He also spoke about increased transparency and the benefits associated with it:
[Transparency] can dramatically affect project initiation decision processes, project performance measurement, and best of all, ensuring that the project portfolio is maximizing business value and ROI delivery. It can simultaneously increase agility and market responsiveness, it can enable higher productivity, improve customer alignment and dramatically lower the risk of your IT portfolio.
How to Create an Agile PMO
One of the best ways to get people to work together is to highlight their similarities instead of their differences. The agile team and the PMO have several things in common. For instance, both are interested in prioritizing projects to ensure that the company is investing time and money in the right ones. In “The Lean-Agile PMO: Using Lean Thinking to Accelerate Agile Project Delivery,” Sanjiv Augustine and Roland Cueller write, “A lean organization does not waste resources starting projects faster than it can complete them.” The PMO can help recession-struck companies cut out unprofitable projects. Even as the economy improves, this is something that companies must continue to do. Both agile teams and project managers can work together to achieve this.
Eventually, a difference of opinion will come up, and this is when the hard work of compromise begins. Creating an agile PMO takes both diplomacy and mediation skills. The executive I spoke to at the financial institution warns managers against being either “pure agile or pure PMI.” Instead, they should find ways to help each team to compromise for the greater good. Agile developers can do so by tracking their time to task in order to keep project managers and other stakeholders updated on progress as they go. Project managers can compromise by being flexible and open to altering plans and schedules as necessary. If a project tracking system is in place, a work request module will provide a feedback loop that lets developers suggest changes for the project managers to approve and implement.
Companies that contain both agile development teams and project management professionals will miss out if they do not find a way to get these two talented groups to work together. With the right management processes in place, including frank open discussion and compromise, managers can capitalize on the strengths of each group for successful project execution and increased ROI.
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