In this article we are going to explore the things we can learn from Agile for our Conventional Projects and if the agile methodology and stage-gate methodology can coexist.
Table of Contents
- Our Agile
- Stay Sequestered in the Project Manager’s Cube
- Detailed Planning Horizons
- The Power of Focus
- Empower versus Dictate
To hear agile folks (Agilistas) talk, one could come away with the idea that they have all of the answers, and that any stage-gate approach to project management is a recipe for failure. An Agilista, according to defininithing.com, is a practitioner of agile software development who is fanatical about hewing to the agile manifesto (coined by J.F. Kelley for a keynote address given to the world usability day conference in Dayton Ohio, November 20071) We do not believe either of these two ideas. Comparing agile to poorly executed stage-gate projects is not productive and proves nothing.
Agility suggests the reason why they are successful is that the project or the work has close and continuous contact.We have read nowhere, in any project management literature or in general guidance documents, that the project manager should remain sequestered (perhaps quarantined is a better word given the present state of the world) in their cube while the project is underway. In fact, most effective project managers understand the need for being with the team beyond any regularly scheduled project meetings. The team is where the work is performed, and spending time with those that are doing the work provides an opportunity for the anticipation of those things that may go wrong. A central theme of lean is known as the Gemba Walk. The Gemba (means the real place – where the work is performed) Walk – means go to where the work is performed.
Gemba Walk is akin to Managing By Walking Around or MBWA, a business management technique that takes managers into the team’s work areas, allows observation of the processes being used, and help resolve or at least reduce obstacles and problems that arise. It is appropriate for the project manager to spend time with the team while the work is being performed. We can learn about the difficulties in the work, potential risks, help ensure our collection of individuals are moving toward a team, and many other positive opportunities and outcomes.
There is no prescription in project management of which we are aware, which dictates detailed planning of the project from day one through the duration of the project. This is true especially when this comes to dates for the schedule months or even years into the future. There are so many things that may not be known at the beginning of the project and task variation. This does not mean to forget all of these future activities, but apply the focus on what is known. Additionally, spending time planning has importance beyond the plan itself, that is, there is more to the plan than the execution of the plan. The act of planning is learning, if we are doing the planning well enough. This learning comes easier when we are not under duress, or in the middle of the execution of the project. We think this the reason for the quote below.
Planning is everything, the plan is nothing ~ Dwight Eisenhower
Agile tout the plans and strategies originating from those doing the work, hence the pig and chicken tale from the initial days of the Scrum (a version of agile). The tale is below2:
A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.
The Chicken says: “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”
Pig replies: “Hm, maybe, what would we call it?”
The Chicken responds: “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”
The Pig thinks for a moment and says: “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”
Agile stress adapting to circumstances as presented. Stage gate projects also benefit from this approach. Any successful project manager has had to
No matter how good the plan, things happen that were unanticipated or misunderstood.
No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. ~ Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
The quotes above confirm the rule of thumb of the project plan is a living document. This is true with either Agile or stage-gate project management. In both, the project plan evolves. With stage gate approaches, the project plan is focused on a ‘complete’ outcome. Whereas, the Agile the plan matures as it advances over the increments and iterations.
One of the big benefits of agile is that the team members are common and ideally work on only one project. The team members are not swapped out or distracted by other projects. This focus keeps things moving and the consistency of team members comes with many benefits. One of which is communications channels are shorter and constant. Carrying one project provides a great deal of concentration of effort.
Read any business magazine or book on employee development and we think you will find Empower beats Dictate every time. The complexity of modern-day work as well as the desire to create an environment where our team is engaged and motivated. Agile stresses the involvement of the team, in fact, the team sets the pace, and how the work is going to be performed. This stands in contrast with the extreme alternative position, which perhaps agile folks believe to be quite common, of the strategies and plans originating from on high, from the executives.
Plans must be simple and flexible……. They should be made by the people who are going to execute them. ~ George S. Patton
To help the conversation, we will take a moment to develop a common lexicon around the three concepts. These three:
Empower – give the power or authority to do something
Agency – is about being active rather than passive, of reacting effectively to the immediate situations and planning effectively for your future. When you become too overwhelmed and lose your agency, you can no longer evaluate your circumstances, reflect on the challenges and opportunities you’re confronted with, make creative decisions, and then act in ways that open up possibilities for a meaningful life on your own terms.3
Dictate – speak authoritatively, domineering, direct
Stage gate project approaches have, in recent years, adopted the Empowerment ‘model’ of Agile, this is more about the organization’s philosophy rather than project-centric. It has taken some time because project management grew out of a time when managers managed like dictators or paternalistic. Teams were directed by project managers to execute projects a certain way and by the book. Fortunately, as some of those team members who worked under dictators gained experience, a softer more empowering project leader evolved. These project managers learned to delegate, ask questions, and provide support for decisions made by teams.
Studies have shown that empowered teams are better prepared, engaged, happy on the job, and improve customer satisfaction. Why wouldn’t any project management methodology embrace empowerment?
While studies have shown that Agile projects have a slightly higher success rate than Stage gate approaches, there are industries that Agile may not fit. In addition, there are industries that suit Agile very well. Twenty years ago, the average success rate of a Stage gate project approach was about 70%, which is close to where it is today. Agile is about at that mark today, just slightly higher. So, an Agile methodology and stage-gate methodology can coexist.
Not sure if components of each could coexist on the same project (but maybe so), but it might be an interesting experiment. At the very minimum, Stage gate approaches to project management can benefit substantially from adopting some of the principles of agile. Specifically, planning, monitoring, and controlling (adapting) from focus and the constant connection to the team and the project objective will stand any project well. It is time to stop thinking about only this way or only that way, but what practices can be applied in this specific project that will be beneficial.
 https://definithing.com/agilista/ last accessed July 6, 2020
 https://www.visual-paradigm.com/scrum/scrum-pig-and-chicken/ July 6, 2020
 Napper, P., Rao, P. D., & Anthony Rao, P. D. (2019b). The Power of Agency. Zaltbommel, Netherlands: Van Haren Publishing. Page 6