Why I Prefer Agile

Salto Angel, Canaima, VenezuelaMany years ago, I had a friend who was trapped in a failed project. Progress wasn’t being made, costs were piling up, and the company didn’t seem capable of correcting the direction it was going. As he was leaving my house one evening after a game night, he told me about some of the recent troubles they had, and he asked if I had any advice. He knew that I managed a lot of different projects at work, and he wondered if I might see a way out, or some sort of advice that he could provide to his manager.

As I thought about it, I was dismayed to realize that I didn’t even know where to begin. I didn’t know what questions to ask him, let alone what advice I could give. This is what prompted me to go back to school and get a master’s degree in project management: I wanted to help people get things done and achieve their goals, and I needed to learn the right sort of questions to ask, and the right sort of advice to give, to do that.

After I finished my masters, I started looking at different project management certifications I could get. The premier certification in the United States is the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification through the Project Management Institute (PMI). The PMP has been around for a long time, and it represents a fairly traditional approach to project management, one that is often referred to as “waterfall” or (somewhat pejoratively) “command-and-control.” The credo of the PMP is “plan the work, then work the plan.”

The type of approach advocated by PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) isn’t necessarily bad, and I think it’s absolutely necessary in a field like construction. But for the type of IT work that I do, it makes less and less sense to me. I’ve been trying to decide for a while now whether or not to get the PMP, and I recently decided not to.

First, the type of project management that is certified by the PMP is not the type of project management that I want to do. I can do it, and based on conversations I’ve had with PMP-certified individuals, I think I can do it better than most. It has become clear that pursuing a master’s degree taught me a lot more about formal project management than most people learn as they study for that certification. But I don’t think the approach laid out in the PMBOK, or certified by the PMP, is the right way to approach a project in the space where I work. Technology changes too fast, and much of my work is dealing with human interaction, which can change just as quickly. If I tried to plan the work for a year, and then work that plan, the plan itself would be out of date within about three weeks.

Waterfall project management works well when things change as slowly as the rocks that channel the water.

Second, I feel like one of the weaknesses of the command-and control approach is that it puts the plan ahead of the people. Again, this makes sense in construction where building something wrong can have a serious impact on people’s health and safety, and where you need to plan far in advance. And it might be a necessary approach to take in a heavily regulated industry. But so far, I have found that agile management practices work better, and a big part of that is because they put people first.

The whole reason I wanted to get into this type of work was to help people. I wanted to help my friend achieve his goals and help his company, and after several years of study and several years of doing this type of work full-time, agile seems to fit that value better than the project management approach outlined in the PMBOK.

So, I’m not going to get a PMP. I may not bother getting an agile certification either. As part of prioritizing the value of helping people achieve their goals, I have to continually ask myself the question, “Does this action help people?” In pursuing a certification, will I learn additional things that will help me help people more? At this point in my career, I don’t think it will, and my time could be better spent going deeper into specific topics or spending time talking with other individuals.

This article is the first in a series of articles about “Being Agile.” Check out the rest of the series for more of my thoughts on how agile practices and methodologies can help us work better and be better.

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