Can the Agile Approach Keep Big Projects on Track?

Can the Agile Approach Keep Big Projects on Track?

The agile approach to managing projects is incremental. Its origins, and those of the Scrum framework, are in software development. But agile and scrum now have broader applications across a diverse range of projects.

How adaptable is agile and can it keep big projects on track?

The Challenges Facing Big Projects

The cost of HS2, the UK government proposal to build a high-speed rail network in two parts, has increased in real terms faster than prices across the economy. The initial estimate was for £37.5 billion, but more recently this has grown to over £70 billion.

Big projects are costly and difficult to control.

In 2018, there was the high-profile failure of TSB’s migration project. This led to 1.9 million customers being unable to access online banking for several weeks.

A report, following the failure of the project, revealed that the system had over 2,000 defects at the time of going live, but the bank’s board had only been informed about 800 of them.

Ultimately, the bank’s new platform wasn’t ready to support TSB’s entire customer base.

The report also talks about problems in project management, including setting unnecessary time constraints and certain workstreams being months behind schedule.

But why do big projects fail? Most of them are highly complex, which leads to them overrunning, and therefore running up huge additional costs.

Forecasting can be problematic, and where projects follow a waterfall methodology, the late delivery of certain key aspects has a domino effect on everything else.

But where this is the case, does the agile approach offer a realistic alternative to big projects

How Does Agile Work?

The most widely used framework for delivering the agile approach is Scrum. The Scrum methodology is very different to a rigid command-and-control structure.

At the heart of Scrum is the concept of small, self-governing teams working incrementally. By breaking tasks down into incremental events, these teams can work more effectively and flexibly towards clearly defined, incremental goals.

The short, dynamic bursts of defined activity that the Scrum team undertake are known as sprints. Scrum uses the concept of timeboxing – allotting maximum times to planned activities – to underpin this work.

By empowering teams to work autonomously, they adapt well to changing conditions, deciding their priorities and allocating resources.

However, this autonomy has a structure supporting it, through the management of the product backlog, daily scrum meetings and the sprint backlog that each team works through to achieve its immediate goals.

As a practical framework for agile working, Scrum offers transparency and an empirical approach to completing projects.

Empiricism is rooted in the idea that all concepts come from experience – and in Scrum, this translates as carrying out work that’s based on facts, experience and evidence.

This helps eliminate errors in projects since each sprint the team undertakes can only be complete once its specific conditions are satisfied. But at the same time, it provides an autonomous alternative to top-down, waterfall working.

Progress isn’t dependant on decisions issued from above.

Is Scrum Scalable?

Whereas the Scrum framework emphasises the need for small teams and compact, stand-up daily meetings, this doesn’t restrict Scrum’s effectiveness to correspondingly small projects.

You can adopt the Scrum framework for larger projects. This is a case of applying agile principles across an entire organisation.

When this happens, you have multiple small, self-governing teams working on projects which, together, will create the desired end result.

In fact, many large projects can benefit by being broken down into smaller incremental parts in this way.

There are two key considerations, however:

  • The organisation must embrace the agile mindset fully, and
  • Not all projects need necessarily be agile in execution.

Let’s deal with the second of these first.

Is Your Project Suitable for Scrum?

Scrum applies to a great many projects, but this doesn’t mean you should automatically apply it to ALL projects.

To take this approach would run counter to the philosophy of agile itself, which is non-rigid and adaptable.

You should take each project on its own, looking at its objectives, proposed timelines, and what resources it will require.

In other words, base your decision about using Scrum on careful analysis and detailed research.

But you must also consider whether you have the culture for agile.

Agile is Only as Adaptable as You Are

The Scrum framework provides the necessary structure to work in an agile fashion, but adopting and scaling Scrum for your organisation-wide projects will only work if your organisation has an agile mindset.

Scrum can present organisations with cultural challenges, and meeting these challenges requires real commitment from leadership and teams.

Agile requires adaptability and an acceptance that there are new ways of doing things. It empowers individuals who may not rank highly in traditional workplace hierarchies. It democratises aspects of decision-making and accepts that, sometimes, failure is necessary to learn, adapt and progress.

Not all of these things are easy for some enterprises and organisations to accept.

Is the agile approach a realistic alternative for your organisation? To find out more, please contact Simple Progression.

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