Is Agile Project Management a paradox?

published on 01 November 2022

Agile Project Management is a term that you have probably heard before, you might even have worked with an Agile Project Manager. However, for a lot of people the words agile and Project Management don't sit all that comfortably together.

In order to explore this potential paradox it is important that we have a shared understanding of Project Management and agility.

Project Management has existed as a discipline since the 1950s, and it has been instrumental in countless significant organisational accomplishments over time. It requires the alignment of context specific details with the application of planning, processes, people, and power. 

Project Management involves taking sole ownership of team coordination in order to deliver something. This includes adopting responsibility for planning how others will deliver the scope that has been defined, as well as liaising with other groups of people, including colleagues, to make sure that everyone gets what they need from the project.

Agile is a people-focussed, iterative approach to work that is applied in order to achieve strategic goals.

A good starting point to learn about agility is the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This document emerged in 2001 when a group of seventeen people met to discuss the future of software development and the challenges presented by existing ways of working. In only sixty-eight words, this group made a significant contribution to the way that countless people now work.

The manifesto states: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. 
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation. 
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. 
  • Responding to change over following a plan. 

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Agile Project Management attempts to bring these two concepts together, however, even in these shorts descriptions you can probably see a degree of misalignment. Can defined scope fit neatly together with responding to change? Does sole-ownership of work enable effective interactions? Does the application of power support collaboration?

In Project Myopia, Allan Kelly suggests that the goals and aims of Project Management and agility are surprisingly similar, but their underlying management models are radically different. As such, both have different, almost contradictory, definitions of success and failure that create a difficult tension to reconcile.

While projects aim to deliver a whole, agile seeks incremental value. Scope creep is feared in projects, while agile accepts complexity and change. Projects see anything undelivered as failure, but agile sees something useable being delivered as success. One creates temporary structures, while the other encourages long-lived teams.

Kelly concludes that it is inevitable that agility or projects will dominate; either projects neuter agility, or agile makes projects redundant. They cannot co-exist. The tension between the two can be managed for some time, but at what cost? What level of excess cognitive load is too high to tolerate?

So what does this mean for Agile Project Management? Well, ultimately it either has to be defined as a new construct entirely, or it has to accept an exhausting existence between two conflicting realms that will both suffer as a result of being stitched together.

However, any new definition will always be hampered by semantics. Therefore, any discipline that wishes to embrace Project Management cannot necessarily apply the word agile, and anything that aims to be agile probably can't be twinned with Project Management, unless this new definition had significant caveats.

Perhaps an entirely distinct discipline could resolve this problem?


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