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Be aware! Project and agile have different optimization goals!

Published in Agile

Written by

Kirsi Mikkonen
Lean Agile Coach

Kirsi Mikkonen is a versatile Lean-Agile coach. She is also an international sailing champion who switches her sailing shoes to telemark skis when the waves turn to ice.

Article

June 9, 2021 · 2 min read time

My customers would often like to combine project and agile methods in their work. In this blog, I will argue that you can only have one primary optimization goal. The methods have goals that tend to contradict each other and that is why you need to first choose whether your primary objective is to optimize cost or adaptability, and then choose the method accordingly.

Project work aims at optimizing the usage of resources. The aim is to stick to a predetermined budget and schedule. The agile way of working, in contrast, aims at delivering the highest possible customer value as quickly as possible. The goal of agile is the ability to learn and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.  

Here are some differences of optimization I found:

Effectiveness within the organization vs. customer value quickly

In projects, work stages are designed to follow one another. In the beginning, the content of the project is defined, with an end date and a budget. A project manager holds all the strings together, making sure that the project moves forward on schedule and on budget. The project manager’s goal is to optimize the usage of resources in the project so that the project objective is reached within the agreed budget.  

The agile way of working is based on cross-functional teams that work together over a long period of time. The teams learn new skills and grow their capabilities continuously. The end goal of agile is producing customer value and this can change when the customer and the team members grow their understanding of the subject at hand. The customer decides when enough value has been delivered, thus ending the current assignment. 

Managing separate resources vs. learning together

In projects, individual resources are selected to fulfill a specialized need. Adding and removing resources is a changing asset. The skillset an individual brings to the whole is seen as something that is static or slowly changing. Selected resources are organized around different work stages. One part of the work is handed off to the next stage, and the project manager has the responsibility of having the big picture in mind and coordinating the work. 

In the agile way of working, teams that work together for a long time learn new things quickly. Learning is a changing asset. A team that works well together is solid or changing slowly. Permanent, solid teams pick the next most important assignment from the backlog, work it through from start to finish. They reflect on their work all the time, making adjustments as they go.  

Sense of security from predicting the future vs. continuous adaptation to new circumstances 

A project organization’s work is based on the assumption that what happens in the future can be predicted based on the knowledge gained from previous projects. 

An agile organization bases its work on the assumption that what we think we know today, will be left behind tomorrow when new insight is gained. Change in plans is the only thing that we know to be certain. 

Both agile and project work have their places. I would recommend project work when dealing with a repetitive nature of work, which proceeds in stages and is well understood as a whole. In contrast, agile works well in a changing, uncertain environment, where learning and the ability to react quickly are important. 

Image: Robert Anasch, Unsplash

Written by

Kirsi Mikkonen
Lean Agile Coach

Kirsi Mikkonen is a versatile Lean-Agile coach. She is also an international sailing champion who switches her sailing shoes to telemark skis when the waves turn to ice.