If you’ve managed projects for any length of time you understand the truth. It’s almost never the case that a project is completely predictive ( waterfall ) or completely adaptive ( agile ). It’s a mix. There are needs for both in any project. Those project managers, companies, and consultancies that integrate both approaches into their project management efforts are hybridizing the agile movement and shaping the reality of the future. Let’s look at some examples that are well known, visible, historical and outside the IT market. Why? I want to defuse the agile vs waterfall debate for a moment and abstract things away from technology to help us see the broader picture.
Example 1: Lewis & Clark Expedition
The expedition by Lewis and Clark to navigate the Missouri River and map the western territories was an immense, RISKY, long term project entertained by a focused project team of professionals. This is a startup. Their goal was to map a water born ( river ) path to the Pacific Ocean. To accomplish this goal some level up front planning was required. You simply couldn’t plop two guys down in St. Louis and say: “For the next two weeks go up the Missouri River, then have a retrospective on what you learned, share that learning with your sponsor in Washington D.C. and plan for the next two weeks of river navigation.”
Lewis & Clark needed supplies, people who knew the land, logistical expertise, some plan up front to start the mission. But while an up front plan was necessary, much was not known. This is where adaptive planning comes in. They would need to adapt as maps, events, and people turned out to be unreliable or poorly understood: winters were more severe, the Missouri didn’t go all the way to the Pacific and great Mountain chain blocked their path to the ocean, and accidentally injuries and sickness delayed progress.
While not having an up front plan could have delayed and increased the cost of their project…not being able to adapt along the way would have killed it. It was an experiment, a gamble, and to make it work required flexibility and persistence.
Standish group would have called Lewis & Clark a failure because they exceeded their baseline schedule.
Example 2: Apollo missions to the moon.
The missions to land men on the moon and safely return them during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States were massive projects of unknown risk and horrible complexity. Failure would bring down a nation and a philosophy ( democratic freedom). They closely mirror big ERP implementations or suitably large custom software development efforts in Fortune 500 businesses today.
Could these have succeeded without predictive planning? It’s hard to imagine they would have. There were so many variables and unknowns that were required to be nailed down before implementation to ensure success. In fact, predictive planning to the Nth degree is what made this possible and successful. Accounting for every risk, having a mitigation plan for every risk, and carefully coordinating all the sub-projects to the common goal would have been hard to accomplish via strict adaptive planning.
This isn’t to say that adaptive planning didn’t play a role in adjusting and dealing with risks/issues along the way ( think Apollo 13 ), but this project was almost completely predictive by necessity at the top-level. There was too much at stake ( human life and a nation’s perceived status in the world ).
Even though the Apollo moon missions proved to the world that the U.S. was the preeminent technology leader vs the U.S.S.R and would be revered for decades to come….this project, using Standish’s metrics, would have been deemed ——-> FAIL.
Example 3: Building a Table in Garage with Your Woodworking Equipment.
A more personal, and human project…building a table is something that’s been done many times in the past. This is like building a new e-commerce site for a company. It’s been done before, they could have just bought a vended product, but for some business reason they want to build their own.
Ok, since it’s been done before there’s a pattern, and we borrow from it. We download the diagram, purchase our materials, and define our plan. This is predictive. As we begin to execute we discover flaws in the plan or the procurement process. Wrong nails were purchased or the leg supports were cut too small. These events require us to adapt.
After building the table we’d dust off our hands and say “Wow, that’s a little over budget and it took some extra time, but I got what I wanted.” We’d call it a success. Standish would call it a failure.
I could go on. What about Michelangelo’s works? How about building the Dubai Tower? Great human efforts ( projects ) are vision building. Successful completion and delivery requires a range of approaches and a commitment to the end goal.
Hopefully you can visualize the adaptive *AND* predictive elements in these projects. It wasn’t one or the other. It was a gradient. That’s where the present is and the future will continue to be. Hybridization is good. It isn’t about agile vs waterfall. It’s about achievement, belief, and success.