Tech Skills

How to Transition Your Project Managers to be Agile in the Digital Age

Chuck Cobb

Udemy for Business instructor

October 18, 2018

The world we work in today is changing rapidly. In response to this new norm, companies are shifting to a more agile management approach. In my blog, I will explain what Agile project management means and how organizations can adopt this new approach to keep pace with today’s fast-paced environment.

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First, it is not necessarily as simple as just “becoming agile.” The challenge many companies face is learning how to adopt a more agile approach without losing control of their business.

Agile vs. plan-driven “waterfall” project management

Developing and implementing a more Agile project management approach is critical for any company to successfully grow and thrive in today’s fast-paced environment.

Traditionally, project management has emphasized a heavily plan-driven approach that involves planning and control to achieve predictability over project costs and schedules. With this approach, a project was deemed to be successful if it delivered some well-defined requirements within a given cost and schedule. This model is loosely referred to as the “Waterfall” because projects might go through phases where the outputs of one phase flow to the next.

However, there are some problems and limitations with the “Waterfall” approach in today’s ever-evolving environment:

  • Since solutions are becoming more complex, it becomes much more difficult to define the requirements for the solution in detail upfront before the start of the project.

  • With technology constantly changing and evolving, a higher level of flexibility and adaptivity is needed to take advantage of these changes.

  • Higher levels of competitive pressure in the business environment require more emphasis on creativity and innovation over the traditional emphasis on planning and control.

Agile project management for the iPhone

Imagine, for example, developing a highly innovative product like the next generation of the iPhone:

  • It would be almost impossible to develop a detailed project plan with firm and detailed requirements of what the finished product would ultimately look like.

  • The creativity and innovation required to develop a truly leading-edge product would likely be as important, if not more important, than whatever level of planning and control might be used to manage the project.

It’s easy to see that if you tried to force-fit a highly innovative project into a traditional plan-driven project management approach, it would not work well.

  • The approach would likely be too rigid and inflexible to adapt to rapid changes and new ideas.

  • The emphasis on planning and control could easily stifle the creativity and innovation needed to maximize the value of the final product.

Agile doesn’t necessarily mean loss of control

The word “Agile” is used a lot these days, and there are many myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about it. Agile started as a revolution by software developers against traditional plan-driven project management approaches that were perceived to be very cumbersome and bureaucratic. That has created a pendulum effect and has led to a popular but misguided belief that it’s a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between adopting a more flexible and adaptive Agile approach versus continuing to maintain a traditional plan-driven (“Waterfall”) approach.

The truth is that you don’t have to completely throw out a focus on planning and control in order to adopt an Agile approach. In reality, there is a spectrum of approaches ranging from heavily plan-driven at one end to heavily adaptive at the other end.

Adapt project management to the problem you’re trying to solve

“Agile Project Management” involves learning to blend traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices with Agile in the right proportions to fit the situation. Instead of force-fitting a project to some predefined approach, a better approach is to fit the methodology to the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve. This requires a lot more skill, but it definitely can be done. Agile project management is very different than a traditional project management approach:

  • It’s not restricted to a focus on planning and control—instead of attempting to control and limit all changes as the project is underway, changes that add value to the solution are welcomed.

  • Many of the project management functions that might be performed by a project manager have been distributed among the members of the team—that leads to a much more dynamic and adaptive form of project management.

  • There is a much more collaborative relationship between the client and the project team—instead of an arm’s-length, contractual relationship; it is more of a spirit of trust and partnership to work together closely for the mutual success of the project.

3 steps to implementing Agile at your organization

Implementing Agile project management practices in your organization is not a trivial task. It can be a significant and gut-wrenching change to the way the company operates and may even require some cultural changes as well. Here are some key steps to consider:

1. Develop a unified, enterprise-level management approach for the whole company that blends the right level of flexibility and adaptivity with an appropriate level of planning and control that is well-aligned to fit the company’s business.

2. Break down some organizational barriers if necessary to develop a more collaborative, cross-functional approach and implementing organizational changes if necessary to support the approach. For example, if there is a Project Management Office (PMO), the role of the PMO may change.

3. Train project managers to see Agile and traditional plan-driven project management as complementary rather than opposing and teach them how to blend the two approaches in the right proportions to fit the situation.

Training is essential to becoming Agile

Successfully implementing this kind of transformation in your organization requires some level of planning and skill to develop an Agile approach that is well-aligned with your business. Although much of the training is focused on project managers who can take a leadership role in helping the company implement this Agile approach, others in the organization need to understand the overall enterprise-level vision to help implement it.

Training for project managers

Many project managers have been very heavily ingrained in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management and this requires a new approach that will likely change the role of the project manager significantly. We’ve developed a complete online training curriculum that consists of seven courses on Udemy for Business designed to help project managers make this transition.

These courses are very challenging and substantive and have evolved from a graduate-level course in Agile Project Management created initially for Boston University. Online courses include Understanding Agile at a Deeper Level, Introduction to Agile Project Management, Mastering Agile Project Management, and Advanced Agile Project Management.

Training for executives

This effort is not limited to project management. It will also likely require some level of transformation at an enterprise level. For that reason, it is essential for business leaders within the organization to develop an understanding of how to adopt an Agile Project Management approach in the business. We have designed an online training course Agile Project Management for Executives specifically for that purpose. The course helps business leaders work collaboratively with project managers to jointly define an Agile Project Management approach for the organization.

Agile management will keep your business thriving

As organizations navigate technology disruption, Agile management approaches to develop future-oriented products, services, and processes will be vital to thriving. Retraining both your project managers and your executives will be the first important to step to becoming a more agile organization in the digital age.

Chuck Cobb is a Udemy for Business instructor and Founder of the Agile Project Management Academy. He is author of the recent, best-selling book The Project Manager’s Guide to Mastering Agile as well as two other books on Agile Project Management and two books on Business Excellence. He is one of the most popular instructors on Udemy with over 50,000 students. He was formerly Adjunct Professor at Boston University.

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in the digital transformation of the workplace by offering fresh, relevant, and personalized on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

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