AMA’s Ask The Experts: Brian Porter on Hybrid-Agile PM Techniques

Published: Jul 21, 2020


By AMA Staff

AMA’s webcast series that explores a variety of relevant project management topics, with a special focus on virtual management. In this program, How to Apply Hybrid-Agile PM Techniques, AMA faculty member Brian Porter, PMP, PE, and subject matter expert, joined Ask the Experts Online Project Management host and AMA Learning Solutions Manager for Project Management, Dan Goeller, to discuss this timely topic.

Mr. Goeller opened the conversation by asking, “Why is this such an important topic for us to be discussing at this time?”

“The best answer to that is probably that the Project Management Institute itself has made some dramatic changes,” Mr. Porter replied. “At the end of 2021 or in early 2021, the seventh edition of The Project Management Body of Knowledge [PMBOK] is going to be released, and they have incorporated significant amounts of agile [techniques] into the traditional project management methods of the last twenty years. They’ve kind of steered the fact that we’re going to see this hybrid technology, or availability, in the future.”

Goeller then suggested they take the discussion “back in time” with Porter reflecting on his past projects, so listeners could better understand how their projects might be affected in the future. He asked Porter to begin by talking about the original planning process for the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

Said Porter, “The WBS is heavily focused on pre-planning. The traditional project management is known as predictive, or those in the agile circles call it ‘waterfall.’ It’s focused on a plan from the very beginning. The term that’s used typically is called decomposition—so, break down everything you know about the project from the culmination into subsections, smaller and smaller and smaller, until you can get it into a work package between eight and eighty hours
that you can estimate efficiently.”

“What are some pros and cons of the WBS?” Goeller asked.

“It depends on the type of project you’re working on,” said Porter. “WBS takes a lot of work-ups. One of the examples I use frequently is the Olympic Games. Trying to figure out all the planning, usually seven to eleven years in advance, of everything that’s going to happen, can be a very tricky thing.”  

Goeller agreed, adding that some aspects of developing the WBS have been made easier with technology.

Pivoting to the agile component, Goeller asked, “What does agile really mean?”

“Agile is essentially a way to do short term, or ‘short-burst’ planning,” Porter noted. “Traditional project management is like making a plan of going from New York to Los Angeles, and you plan every step of the way, every stop, every left turn, right turn, when you use your signal, how much food you need, rest stops and all that. Agile says we don’t know what’s going to happen along the way, so let’s plan a certain distance to the next point, and once we get there, we’ll plan for the next day. So it’s an incremental or iterative process of planning smaller steps, because you’re not sure if you’ll run into traffic and what happens with the weather.”

Porter elaborated by saying, “Agile is to recognize that I don’t know what I don’t know until we get into it. So you plan with what you do know for the short term, take action, bring some value. In traditional [project management], the customer, client, or owner have to make all of the planning up front as well. So, most project managers are happier if they just stay out of it, and let the project manager run the project. In agile, you want the owner along, because you’ve only planned out [for example] two weeks. Once you get to the next step, you are intimately involved in planning the next increment. Using the trip analogy, it would be like a daily plan. But you still want to make sure you keep the planning going.”

“So your destination is still to get to Los Angeles,” Goeller observed, “but agile lets you be a bit more flexible and adapt to different changing environments. Brian, I know this [i.e., agile] is very big in the software development industry. Is this a strategy that can be applied more broadly than that one industry?”

“Absolutely,” replied Porter. “My background is in product development. With that, you know that you want whatever the latest widget or gadget or toy is that you’re developing, but then the [project] owner says, ‘I wish I had…,’ and they fill in a new bell or whistle or some other component they want to include. And in the traditional mode [of project management], people would be like, ‘No! No changes! We had a plan!’ In project development today, that doesn’t work so well. Back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, you’d get five years to develop a new product. Now, it’s like, ‘Can you do it in five or six months?’”

Moving on to the topic of Hybrid-Agile PM techniques, Goeller asked what kind of successes and challenges were encountered when the merging of these techniques was attempted.

“To create a hybrid world—and still today—I wouldn’t say that that migration has particularly melded well,” began Porter. “There are those of the traditional, predictive project management world and those of the agile world, and both think that their method is the only way to go. I’ve taught and used both methods, and it depends on the project. For example, traditional project management works very well with construction. You wouldn’t want to build a large facility without having the plans complete. But you can use agile within that planning feature to a certain degree. On the flip side, with [for example] software, you may not know everything, but some planning up front doesn’t hurt. The migration, I think, is going to be assisted when we get the new PMBOK. My biggest challenge with it is that there’s so much material that’s been out there for twenty-something years, and with the Agile manifesto being out there for nineteen years, how to figure out how to get these two together is challenging. It’s really up to the expertise of the project manager to choose the right tools at the right time.”

“Can you tell us a little about what the vision of Hybrid-Agile Project Management would really mean in practice?” asked Goeller.

“I think the real goal is to arm people with as many tools as possible,” said Porter, “because traditional project management had its 5 processes and 10 bodies of knowledge, and with the 7th edition [of the  PMBOK] coming out, that’s going away. A lot of that is being changed from processes to principles and practices, which is a very agile methodology. But if you have those processes and bodies of knowledge, and you have the agile tools, the more tools the project manager has. Then, when somebody says ‘hybrid,’ they can determine, ‘How predictive can we make this? How unknown is the scope?’” 

The bottom line is that the best project manager knows all the tools in the toolbox, and knows how to shift, depending on the project and the circumstances. Goeller then asked about how one determines which of the agile methodologies to integrate into the management of one’s project.

Porter explained, “You need to know not just your organization, but the client’s organization. If you are choosing tools that they’re unfamiliar with, that could scare them. Next is the project team itself—how familiar they are with traditional, predictive project management vs. agile tools. So knowing the skill sets you have, now you can say, ‘Neither of them is right! We need to add another tool into this culture, because this is what’s best for the project.’ People need time to adjust even if they cerebrally learn it, and it takes a little time to practice it.”

Goeller observed, “Given the state of the world we’re in right now, and also with the new PMBOK, there are a lot of implications for stakeholder management and project requirements. Can you talk a little bit about that, Brian?” 

“For every project, the requirements are unique,” Porter replied. “The fluidity is going to determine the agility. Multi-million dollar projects—that’s a lot of stakeholders—and to get everyone on the same page is going to be a challenge as well.”

Porter went on to explain his Three Golden Rules of Project Management: “Number one is to ask a thousand questions so you understand what is driving each of those stakeholders until you’re out of questions. The second thing is to communicate the heck out of your project throughout the project to the right person at the right time. And at the end, for traditional project management, do a lessons-learned document, and in agile you do a retrospective. Make sure you record those lessons.”

On the subject of how to keep stakeholders engaged, and how and when to reach out to them, Porter observed that the general rule of thumb is: if you’re an agile project manager, reach out to key stakeholders daily, because they’re part of the process. With traditional project management, the stakeholders are involved up front, but then typically, the project manager runs the project essentially by themselves.

In terms of communication, changes in requirements during the cycle of a project are also handled differently in the agile vs. traditional project management worlds, according to Porter. In the agile methodology, the last thing you want is a silent stakeholder, because you don’t want to reach the end the project and then hear from the stakeholder that something was missed along the way. Even over-involvement of stakeholders in the agile world is not a problem, Porter believes, because they’re the owners, and they know that the pain point is on them. A satisfied customer is always what matters. 

In such a scenario, “It’s not ‘me vs. them,’” Porter concluded. “It’s ‘us.’”

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