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The Message or the Messenger?

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: The Message or the Messenger?

Sometimes we need to separate the message from the messenger. Whether we are talking about religion and politics or project management, there is often a disconnect between the message of the organization and the practice of the people in the organization.

Somehow when people get involved, the purity of the message is subordinated to getting stuff done.

We certainly see this in the Agile community. As people try to implement the principles, values, and practices they are forced to make compromises that sometimes don’t feel very Agile. People on the outside will often even claim that Agile doesn’t work because their particular implementation of Agile did not work. Was that failure because of Agile or because of the myriad of compromises we made along the way?

In all fairness, I think traditional methods suffer from this same disconnect between the message and the messenger. I can’t find anywhere in the PMBOK where it says you have to do all the planning up front, but in practice, that is what often happens. Likewise, there is nowhere in that document that says you should not respond to change or adapt your plan, but again, that is how traditional methods are often implemented.

Is that the message or the messenger? It is inarguable that traditional methods lean more toward predictive project control and Agile methods lean more toward adaptation. In practice though, should we hold PMI accountable for advocating rigid up-front project planning? If so, we need to hold Agile responsible for advocating no project control and ad-hoc coding practices. We need to separate the message from the messenger.

Here is my takeā€¦ you can run a software project using traditional methods. You can even run a highly uncertain project using traditional methods. You could use rolling wave planning and progressive elaboration. You could do most of the design up front and create a nice big Gantt chart for your project stakeholders. As we begin to build and learn more about the product, just document your changes, assess the impact to the triple constraints, and get stakeholder sign-off.

Send the team off to update their design documentation, recode the application, and retest anything that was impacted. Clearly if the change was approved, you have the additional time and budget to do all the work necessary to accommodate the change. If you dig deep enough into the PMBOK, you will find that everything you need is right there. You could even make the case that if you are not adapting your project and managing change, you are not responsibly managing your project.

So if the traditional processes have everything we need to support a highly adaptive project, why do we want to do so much planning up front? Why do we become so resistant to change?

Cost and time to market.

Traditional project management processes are heavy and slow. They make our products more expensive and take longer to build. Most of us are not willing to invest in the full adaptive capability of these methodologies, therefore, we try to take shortcuts. We believe that if we do our planning up front, and work to eliminate change, we can keep these costs in check. The root of this problem isn’t that PMI processes don’t accommodate change, they don’t give us an INEXPENSIVE way to accommodate change.

As companies, we need to decide if we really have a strong enough business driver to use these heavyweight methodologies. What does your company value more: process control or cost and time to market? If you NEED this much structure and control, and I am sure that some of you do, by all means, leverage the full capability of the PMI planning processes and adapt through change management.

If you need to get product to market quick and inexpensively, because you know if you don’t, your competitors will, you need something else. Agile methods are that something else. Don’t pay the price of methodology unless it is absolutely necessary. Ignorance of another way is no excuse.

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