Article overview

There is no perfect approach to managing a project. You might choose agile or iterative methods, or take the best of both of those for a hybrid approach. Let’s look at what hybrid project life cycles are.

Table of content

Back when I first did a project management course, agile wasn’t even an option. The company I worked for (despite having a large IT team with switched on people) didn’t use agile approaches for managing work. In a way, we had our own version of hybrid back then: we did the things that worked and never worried about not following the textbooks exactly. As long as the work got done to the right standard, the IT team had a pretty open brief as to how the tasks were tracked, managed and carried out. 

These days, it’s not even necessary to label the approach you follow. You don’t have to be ‘Team Agile’ or ‘Team Gantt chart’. You can blend the best of both predictive (i.e. waterfall) and iterative (i.e. agile) to create an approach that works for your team. That’s to say: more and more teams are using hybrid life cycles to manage their projects.

What is a hybrid life cycle?

A hybrid life cycle is one where the team takes a pragmatic approach to delivering the project, using the techniques that are best going to work for each phase. Perhaps you are working in a broadly predictive way, with a Gantt chart and various phases, and a defined end date in sight. 

Within that, you choose to use rolling wave planning or using prototypes, mockups and pilots to test out ideas before committing to a full delivery. That would be a hybrid approach. Techniques commonly associated with agile delivery are blended with techniques common associated with the waterfall way and the result is a happy mix of best practices that supports the way your team wants to work. 

Hybrid life cycles allow you to take the best pieces of any project management methodology and apply them to your environment. Let’s say your project director wants to see a Gantt chart-style timeline. You can do that. But they want an information radiator and Kanban-style progress tracking on a board in the office for everyone to see? You can do that too. With hybrid, any tool is available to you, and there’s no restriction on what you can use.

How does it work in practice?

The important thing about hybrid life cycles is that they can be totally bespoke. So how it works in practice is very individual too: you can basically shape it to be whatever you like as long as it serves the needs of the project team.

You might use agile approaches to elicit requirements at the beginning of the project, during a timeboxed phase, before moving on to more predictive ways of planning to do the delivery parts. 
While you might then move to a project schedule that does not use timeboxes, you may still stick to phased planning and iterative development, which reduces the overall risk so it’s more likely the end result will be fit for purpose.

Agile approaches can be used to deliver interim work packages so value is seen more quickly, for example. This is a good way of delivering benefits earlier in the full project life cycle so you can start to see the impact of the work without having to wait until project closure.

A hybrid life cycle isn’t simply about putting bits of agile into your “ordinary” way of managing projects. It works both ways. Teams using a predominantly agile approach may choose to adopt governance models more commonly seen in teams using predictive methodologies, like project boards or formal monthly reporting to stakeholders.

The challenges of hybrid working

As you can tell, I think hybrid ways of working are a great idea. You get to pick and choose project management approaches that are tailor-made to give your project the best chance of success. What’s not to like? However, there are some challenges with working in this way, not least having to marry up the expectations of stakeholders who are used to doing things differently.

If you are going to bring new elements into how your projects are led, then consider the impact on the team and stakeholders so you can make sure the communication is adequate. They should be on board with what you are suggesting and open to new ways of working, willing to collaborate with each other using different approaches and perhaps trying things they haven’t before. As long as that open attitude is there, and the willingness to experiment, you’ll find it easier to adopt the hybrid life cycle you have planned.

Which life cycle is right for you?

The right life cycle for your project is going to depend on:

  • What you are trying to achieve
  • What’s most important to you and the client/customer/internal stakeholders
  • The complexity of the work being done
  • The uncertainty levels around what should be delivered and the expected risk levels during the project.

It also depends on the expectations of your team and client and how they feel comfortable working: this isn’t just about the project manager’s choice. The whole team has to be on board with whatever life cycle you are using.

In my experience, that’s normally a pretty easy sell. If you tell someone that incremental delivery will help them realize the benefits more quickly and see results from their investment without having to wait until project close, while still getting all the structure of the governance model they know and love, then they’ll be happy. 

Have a chat to your team before you start to see what elements you could adopt for your project. What life cycle do the default to as their ‘go to’ preference? Does everyone agree? And what would the benefits be if you started to use different tools?

When you have answered those questions, you will be on the way to developing a set of best practices of your own that will shape how your team delivers their next project.