Is Agile Project Management Really Product Management?

Agile project management is gaining very wide public attention recently, and it is considered as “the” project management approach for today’s projects, compared to what is usually called traditional project management approach. Traditional project management principles established in the 1950’s prescribed that methods and procedures should be applied to every project in a uniform way.

In the last than two decades of studying project management and consulting to organizations on how to implement project management processes and practices, I often hear people use the words “agile” and “project management” synonymously, and it drives me crazy.

The confusion around these two terms is massive, and that misunderstanding gets in the way of any reasonable discussion on how sound project management practices can assist organizations for success in the twenty-first century. The mistakes people make on the issue are threefold:

Mistake #1: Failure to recognize today’s project management

Project management is a set of processes and practices that have continuously evolved since the 1950s. Evidence of this evolution is to look at the PMBOK® Guide from its inception in 1996 to the upcoming sixth edition. In its first edition, the PMBOK® Guide used a phrase “generally accepted” (which was revised in later edition to “generally recognized”) meaning that the knowledge and practices were applicable to most projects most of the time. PMBOK® Guide clearly articulated that “generally accepted/recognized” did not mean that “the knowledge and practices described in the PMBOK® Guide should be applied uniformly on all projects.”

Yet, agilest compare agile project management to traditional project management. When someone compares agile project management to traditional project management, I think of “waterfall software development,” which is more about software product management method used back in the 1950s.

Mistake #2: Agile is not the same as agility

Recently, organizations have sought new project management approaches. In 2001, with the Agile Manifesto, which was developed by the software development folks, that these ideas have gained more significant visibility. The word that was selected to differentiate newer approaches from the existing one was agility. Highsmith (2004) defines agility as ability to create and to respond to change in order to create value in turbulent business environment. Agility is not the same as today’s agile project management.

Agility is the ability of an organization to aggressively reshape their culture and business practices to better adapt to shifting market conditions. I think Highsmith’s definition allude to that, but somehow his definition got locked into backlogs, standup meetings, and sprints. The role agility in an organization is to provide a competitive business advantage. In a McKinsey survey, nine out of 10 executives, spanning all regions and industry sectors, ranked organizational agility both as critical to business success and as growing in importance. One-half of all CEOs agreed that rapid decision-making and execution are not only important, but also essential to a company’s competitive standing. I know this sounds like agile project management, but we’re talking way above product backlogs, daily stand-ups, and sprints.

Mistake #3: Agile whatever

Agile project management, agile leadership, agile change management, agile training, agile whatever, etc. I think you get the picture. Sticking the word, “agile” in front of ANYTHING doesn’t make it agile. The word “agile” has become ubiquitous with anything and everything in today’s business world.

According to several definitions I’ve read agile is the ability to create working, tested, value-delivered software code in a short time frame with the goal of producing an increment of potentially shippable code at the end of each iteration. To me, that sounds like software development. How can I transfer the definition of agile to constructing a building, conducting clinical trials, or implementing an organizational change initiative?

As I stated in a previous post, I’m not a big fan of agile project management. Agile project management sounds and reads like agile product management – specifically software development, and SMALL software development projects at best.

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