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Agile: Not a Methodology

Agile gets a bit of a bad reputation for only having utility in software projects. For a time, I used to think it was just for IT projects until a friend of mine opened my eyes to… well, my “agility.” Though never realizing it, I was suddenly “woke” about what agile really is. In simple form, it is the adoption of the agile mindset, regardless of the methodology (Scrum, XP, Kanban, Lean) you choose to use.

Deciding to use agile or adaptive project processes has more to do with the work being done and how you want to accomplish it. Take image below as example. Definable work such as building a house or manufacturing a product are served best by predictive project methods due to how they are planned. High-uncertainty work (fancy way of saying, “we don’t know a lot of stuff about this yet…”) is best suited for work that has a need for experimentation and a high rate of change.

Predictive versus Adaptive Image

Agility is not based in a methodology, though the methodologies (the most common are shown below) are likely the first thing people think of when they hear the term. Instead, think about how Agile projects are planned and executed in comparison to predictive or “waterfall” projects. In predictive projects, you will create a plan for every aspect of the project in terms of what needs to be done, how much time and money will be needed, what resources are needed and how many, etc.

Most Common Agile Methodologies Image

Agile, on the other hand, looks at the future and realizes that there are too many variables to fully plan, so they provide a list of things that need to be done at a very high level, and as the value proposition shows it needs to be defined further to be delivered, deeper planning is performed for that ‘slice of work.’

Agile’s Core Principles

When “agilists” talk about agile (and they will), most often they refer to the Declaration of Interdependence (DOI), The Agile Manifesto, and Agile’s 4 values. You may have heard of them or maybe not, so let me sum them up in a couple of quick bullet points.

  • Welcome change

  • Work in small increments/iterations to deliver value

  • Create feedback loops for quality control and customer feedback

  • Learn through discovery

  • Develop only what is valuable

  • Fail fast and learn

  • Continuous delivery or value

  • Continuous improvement

You could probably sum that up even faster by simply stating that agile principles are “to deliver value incrementally and quickly by experimenting, improving, and applying feedback.” Without putting any kind of rules or processes to this, I would be willing to bet that most of you do this on a continuous basis in your jobs.

Why Add Agile to PMP?

Today’s business world is advancing quickly into areas where traditional project management methods (waterfall or plan-driven) are not advantageous to the organization or their customers. As such, PMs need to be familiar with agile methodologies to help the organization meet their project goals. Depending on which methodology is being used, you will need to understand how to best facilitate those projects. In one organization I worked with, they were using a hybrid of multiple methods to develop the product (“Scrum-ban planning and execution, but using XP as a guide for their software development team) and then using a predictive model for the delivery.

Being a PM in a world with that much complexity is incredibly challenging. PMI® has recognized these challenges over the last few years while conducting the Pulse of the Profession® surveys and in independent job analysis of PMs in several different types of organizations. As more organizations adopt agile practices and methods, more PMs are exposed to the differences in agile and predictive projects. PMs need to understand and embrace agile principles and the agile mindset to maintain their legitimacy and relevance in the organization.

As we begin to return our world to the new ‘normal’ after COVID-19 shutdowns, let’s take a look at some sectors that will need agile projects as they reopen and recover from recent events and conditions.

Higher Education

Due to the rapid change in delivery, enrollments, and even graduations, Universities and Colleges across the United States are seeing massive loss of revenue from increasing technological footprints to deliver classes virtually, refunds for room and board and tuition, and new initiatives to strengthen their financial positions if anything like this ever happens again.

In an interview with NPR, the University of Michigan has stated that they could lose up to $1B (yes, with a ‘b’) by the end of 2020 due to reductions in enrollments and additional technology expenses. There is not much planning that can be done early on in this type of environment to stop the financial hemorrhaging and recover simply due to the quantity of unknowns. They know the final goal in most cases, but not necessarily the full path to get there. This means experimentation, processes being improved, failing fast and adjusting, etc. Remember those principles from above? If they do not know what their “next” is going to be, an agile project to determine that would be perfect here.


In the wake of COVID-19, AP News reported US retail sales fell almost 17% in April alone. Looking at the numbers for US shopping habits, in-store clothing sales dropped almost 80% overall since March, though not surprisingly, online sales grew almost 22%. Interestingly though, even grocery stores took a hit of 13% in March and April as well.

So why do I bring this up? Just like the Internet and online marketplaces like Amazon did to behemoths like Walmart, JC Penney, and Sears, COVID-19 is going to force almost every business to adjust how they deliver their products to customers. This means there will be a lot of ‘fail fast and adapt’ projects getting initiated to try and compete in a hugely saturated market.

Industrial Sector

On May 15th, AP News also reported that Industrial production dropped by over 11% in April as well. Surely the effects of the retail world had some carryover here, but with so many businesses closing, limiting supplies of certain products, and consumer confidence relatively low in our current social-distanced world, the industrial sector has slowed production on many things

Food Processing and Packing

Undoubtedly, you have read or heard stories about milk producers pouring hundreds of gallons of milk back into fields and you might have even heard the Guardian’s report that US COVID-19 outbreak hot-spots have been linked to meat processing plants. Since we need a functional and productive food supply network to survive, and not just in the US, there are already health and safety projects being initiated all over this industry. Since it is mostly about experimenting to see what is working and adjusting what is not, guess what type of projects these are? Yep, agile…

These are only a few examples of the need to rethink our position and reactions to agile projects. Agile does not only exist in the IT world. That is simply where it gained its largest support and direction. By removing the stigma of the methodology-specific aspects of agility and instead thinking of its numerous benefits from the core principles, you can likely pull examples of how you use agile in your own work.

In cases where you need to plan as you go rather than build a robust plan up-front to be executed, you are exercising your agility, or as we like to say at PM-ProLearn, you are "building the plane while you're flying it...".

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Alvin keen
Alvin keen
May 25, 2020

very good video that examines and compares the adaptive-agile mindset to help further the understanding of these concepts.


Tim Dalhouse
Tim Dalhouse
May 20, 2020

Watch our video on this topic:

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