Project Management

Managing innovative projects: Don't mistake the map for the journey

Innovative projects call for innovative methods, but that doesn't have to mean abandoning the benefits gained by applying structured project management techniques. Learn why agile approaches are appropriate for creative, inventive projects.

Why do many talented developers and IT professionals consider project management to be an obstacle, rather than an enabler? Why do clients often resist project oversight or try to minimize it? Does project management really allow projects to reach completion more quickly, or are speed and project discipline mutually exclusive?

We've explored the balance of speed and delivery and the nature of innovative projects in recent articles. Let's tie these themes together and review techniques that help keep project management relevant to even the most unique and innovative programs.

Project bureaucrats

When I teach project management, I often draw a distinction between project managers and project bureaucrats. We've all had encounters with project managers who turned into bureaucrats. Project bureaucrats are more interested in ensuring that every step of the methodology is applied and every line of every form is filled in than in what's actually happening on the ground. On the other hand, it's common to meet project managers who apply minimal project methodology, yet, through their expert use of relationships and personal interactions, always seem to know exactly where the project stands.

In my experience, it's the project bureaucrats who often leave a bitter taste with both the delivery team and the client. These project managers turned bureaucrats have forgotten one of the key rules of project management: don't mistake the map for the journey. All the plans, charts, and milestones mean nothing if they aren't consistent with the reality on the ground. And there's the rub; especially in innovative projects, the plans and estimates are often based on a fallacy — there's the idea that we can predict the progress of something that's never been done before.

Project spec compliance = success? Not always

In his outstanding book Agile Project Management, Jim Highsmith offers two examples that emphasize the point. The movie Titanic, from a project management perspective, was a huge failure — over budget, over schedule, and plagued by unforeseen risks that threatened to derail the project at every turn. Motorola's Iridium project, which spent billions of dollars launching satellites into orbit in order to make telephone service available worldwide, was a great project management success. Yet the market is the ultimate judge, and the project management compliance of Motorola's venture didn't save the project from failure, nor did the project management disaster (no pun intended) of Titanic's production taint the film's appeal to the public.

The lesson that project managers should learn from these examples is that compliance with project specifications does not constitute project success; in the ultimate analysis, only business results matter. Stated another way, the largest risk in any project is not that it will deviate from plan; it's the risk that the final outcome won't fulfill the real need. Predictive methodologies, such as the techniques championed by the Project Management Institute in its PM Body of Knowledge, can add tremendous value, especially for projects for which we have a historical basis to look to for precedent. For truly innovative projects, in which any prediction is little more than guesswork and for which we'll be inventing never-before-seen products, we need to look for a new approach. Hence, the growing popularity of agile approaches.

Agile myths and truths

The central insight of agile methods is not that project overhead is a pain in the neck or that programmers like to be free; instead, it is the observable truth that, especially in innovative programs, customers can't describe what they want until they see it, and prediction is inappropriate when there's no way to visualize what the final result will be, let alone exactly how long it will take to build.

Unlike predictive methods, in which the planning, estimating, and risk assessment activities are all front-loaded and often are seen as a separate "planning" phase, agile approaches assume that the requirements will grow incrementally and iteratively as the project proceeds. This emphasis on "just enough" planning and requirements discovery is an acknowledgement of the fact that the key up-front activity in an agile approach is the creation of the first iteration of the product, so that the sponsor can see it and touch it, and discrepancies between the sponsor's vision and the product created by the team can be modified to fulfill the current business need.

Agile project management is often misunderstood, as illustrated by the proliferation of articles about "agile myths." Agile methods are not about "buying pizza and getting out of the way," as these methods are often caricatured. Agile methods, from SCRUM to Highsmith's APM Framework, are disciplined and structured approaches to product development, just as predictive methods are; these methods just address different types of problems.

Predictive and agile approaches have robust requirements discovery techniques, but agile methods acknowledge that requirements will evolve throughout the life of the project rather than up-front. Both approaches have stakeholder participation practices, but agile methods insist that stakeholders and sponsors are involved throughout the project in a collaborative, interactive manner. Predictive and agile both have mechanisms for integrating changing requirements into the plan, but the approaches use different techniques. Predictive techniques often apply restrictive change management procedures. Agile methods are specifically designed to encourage and implement beneficial change by providing an iterative, incremental approach to development focused on implementing, rather than controlling, positive change.

Innovative projects call for innovative methods, but that doesn't imply, as many agile skeptics insist, that the benefits gained by applying structured project management techniques must be abandoned. Agile approaches are appropriate for creative, inventive projects because the methods integrate exploratory, collaborative techniques into the project process and acknowledge the mutating nature of exploratory IT projects into the PM methods we apply. Even PMI, in its newly published Body of Knowledge, recognizes the value of the iterative, incremental approaches advocated by agile proponents.

More to come

In subsequent columns, we'll dig a bit deeper into the specifics of some of these techniques and explore ways that agile approaches can be combined with familiar, predictive techniques to apply exactly the right level of rigor to the project, no matter where it falls on the innovation spectrum.

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About

Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile...

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