Agile or Traditional Project Management?

Which is better – Agile or Traditional project management? This has been a hot discussion topic on the Web in recent years. In today’s fast pacing and challenging IT projects this is a real important question, so let’s explore it.

Many would argue that project management is as old as the human civilization and we see it in achievements like the pyramids of old Egypt. Nevertheless, it is now accepted that modern project management (also called “Traditional”) emerged as a full-fledged discipline in 1950s.

Before that, architects and chief engineers were assuming also organizational functions, on top of their typically technical responsibilities. This was not the best approach. The need to appoint an individual or organization to take full responsibility for the project was gradually realized. American corporation Bechtel began using the term “project management”.

It is important to note that project management emerged in the construction industry. In the first two decades it expanded into defense and aerospace industries. In 1970s this new discipline began spreading into almost every industry.

There are two important facts about Traditional project management: most of the techniques were based on scientific management paradigm; and there was no focus on project specific development around human resources and communications management. These were borrowed from general management practice (which also followed principles of scientific management).

Agile approach to software development emerged in 2001. It was brought into existence in order to address some challenges of software development process for which Traditional project management methods like Waterfall proved inadequate.

Unlike in construction industry, software requirements were hard to finalize before the product was made, they changed often and rapidly, most projects were innovative. Comprehensive plans developed upfront were failing spectacularly and with that the whole projects.

These characteristics of software projects called for a different approach – delivering value in small iterations. Unlike Traditional project management methods which were highly technical, Agile placed strong focus on human interaction.

Is Agile incompatible with Traditional project management?

It is often said that project management methods can be presented in a continuum from predictive to adaptive. The former are suited to a project whose requirements can be clearly defined upfront, the latter are a better fit when requirements have to be gathered and elaborated during the entire project lifecycle.

Mix of these methods is also possible. Imagine for instance an IT project that involves software development (Agile) but also procurement and set up of expensive infrastructure which needs to be planned upfront (Traditional/Waterfall).

At the end of the day it is up to the project manager to select the right methods for each project and these may well come from different camps.

Comparing Agile to Traditional project management not considering project specifics is like asking which is best – a screwdriver or a wrench. Best for what?

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