Agile Project Managers Seek Challenges, Embrace Change

Person prepares to throw a paper airplane

Build a paper airplane? Easy.

Build a paper airplane that travels at least 10 feet? Doable.

Build as many paper airplanes that travel 10 feet as you can with three other people (in three minutes) each of whom probably thinks that he or she is best suited to lead this operation, because, well, everybody’s built paper airplanes as a kid and …. “How many minutes do we have left?”

Funny how the simplest of operations can get complicated really fast. That’s one lesson from this brief exercise in Dr. Saya Sone’s class, Agile Project Management Fundamentals, for the Georgetown University Graduate Certificate in Lean & Agile Practices. Another is that complexity and uncertainty are givens in today’s business environment and that, in order to succeed, project managers—and other professionals who follow project management principles—will need to develop a more flexible and holistic mindset.

“Most people—they don’t know ‘why,’” Dr. Sone said. “They just do ‘how.’’’

A World of Change

Traditional project management follows a “waterfall” approach, wherein each step flows linearly from the one before. Simply put: The customer’s needs are analyzed; a plan is developed to address those needs and, months or perhaps years later, a product based on that plan is presented.

It’s all very logical—in an airtight, closed-system kind of way. But it ignores one complicating factor that has come to characterize life in in 21st century: change. Customers change, their needs and preferences change, the challenges they face change, everything changes. Which means that what you designed last year (or last week) may be obsolete by the time you finish it.

And that’s one reason why Agile software principles were developed some 20 years ago and are being increasingly embraced by a wide variety of industries and organizations today. In a world of constant change, Agile has the flexibility to meet customer demands.

The operative question, says Sone, DBA, an Enterprise Agile coach and trainer with more than 30 years of teaching experience, is this: “How can we adjust to change quickly to meet our customers’ needs?”

It was that same question that intrigued a group of 17 software developers who met in Snowbird, Utah, in 2001 to consider, among other things, why up to 80 percent of software projects failed. They came up with a document called The Agile Manifesto, which emphasized individual interactions over set processes; continuous collaboration among developers and between developers and clients, and most important, responding to change rather than adhering to a strict plan.

Using Agile, developers break large projects into smaller, more focused tasks. “Minimum Viable Products” (MVPs) are created relatively quickly in various iterations. These products are tested and then, based on feedback from those tests, revised and tested again in what can become a cyclical process of development, testing, and revision. 

‘A Difficult Concept’

It sounds straightforward enough, but in reality Agile is complicated and can be a challenge to implement, especially in large organizations that are overly hierarchical or resistant to change.

“It’s a difficult concept,” said student Karen Bokoski, Faculty Development Coordinator at Georgetown University Medical Center, who, like others in the class, was encouraged to apply Agile concepts to her day job. “[Dr. Sone] almost had to sell it to us while also teaching it, and I think she did a great job.”

These challenges aren’t only logistic; they go to the very heart of an organization’s culture. Does it promote teamwork, encourage employee initiative, and treat all ideas as worthy of consideration? Does it work horizontally or vertically, in detached silos?

“Agile, done right, is awesome…,” wrote Sam McAfee in the online magazine Medium, after devoting an entire essay to the myriad ways in which it can go wrong. But despite the challenges, he said, the alternative to creating a dynamic system like Agile “is slow—or fast—death at the hands of smaller, more nimble competitors.”

A Host of Applications

Today, Agile principles have spread beyond software development, manufacturing, and project management to any organization that is facing precipitous change—which is to say any organization. In Sone’s class, in addition to Bokoski and several software designers, there is an interior designer, a military contractor, and a state transportation planner.

After learning the fundamentals of Agile in Dr. Sone’s class, students pursuing Georgetown’s four-course Graduate Certificate in Lean & Agile Practices work with related systems, including Kanban, a method for managing work across various systems, which was pioneered by the Toyota Corp.; and DevOps, a tool for integrating—and streamlining—development and production or operations.

“I wanted to gain expertise in project management, and I didn’t’ want to leave interior design,” said Maya Khudari, Recruitment & Retention Associate for the American Society of Interior Designers, who is earning the Agile certificate as part of her Master’s in Project Management. “I found a way to combine the two.