PRINCE2 developed in the late 1980’s as a UK government standard for information systems projects. It emphasises dividing projects into manageable and controllable stages. PRINCE2 came out of a bridge-building mind-set, and the engineering parameters are known and work in that context: you know what to do, and you’ve done it before.
Agile management in contrast refers to an iterative, incremental method of managing projects using agile techniques like Scrum. Jeff Sutherland explained in 2011 that Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka observed in many of Japan’s leading companies a scrum project situation, referring to the game of rugby union:
…where the game is restarted when the ball has gone out of play. What Takeuchi and Nonaka saw at Toyota, Honda, Canon, Fuji-Xerox, 3M, HP and other high performing organizations is Scrum project management, which means to them teams that are autonomous, motivated by transcendent purpose, and engaged in cross learning. Short iterations combined with these team dynamics facilitate a knowledge generation cycle that leads to innovation, faster time to market, and higher quality.
This raises the concept of interdependency. In the past, many organisations worked on a theory that you could take a business unit and run it independently from the rest of the organisation, and that this would not affect the unit or the business as a whole. Increasingly that situation fails, particularly as you build corporate functions within a business like HR, IT, and finance for example. When you create shared functions, they need to work together. The benefit of scrum and agile techniques is that they allow you to adjust to that reality.
A belief still persists in many organisations that you can plan and deliver a box of work, with annual plans often executed in isolation. Each manager is rewarded for completing their part of the plan, often regardless of whether the whole organisation is making progress. The inevitable result of having an annual plan is that it doesn’t take into account the practical realities on the ground, and managers start fighting for access to the resources they need to get their work done.
When agile techniques work well for ‘on the ground’ projects, why is the concept of agile ignored at a more strategic level? Often in organisations, business units are vying for access to IT and they’re lined up in a queue with multiple competing projects:
In today’s complex world, linear execution of tasks is rarely the norm. Rather than focusing on annual plans and three-year strategies, the lean concept of just-in-time planning and design allows management groups to adapt to changing circumstances with minimum wasted effort by:
- using a principles-based approach to prioritisation and planning
- focusing on completing immediate priorities
- empowering teams to be self-managing within the priority framework.
The next edition will consider an agile approach to strategy.