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Agile Project Management: Adapting over Conforming

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Jim Highsmith explains that developing great products requires exploration, not tracking against a plan. Have the courage to explore into the unknown and the humility to recognize mistakes and adapt to the situation. That's Agile Project Management.
This chapter is from the book

Traditional managers view the plan as the goal, whereas agile leaders view customer value as the goal. If you doubt the former, just look at the definition of “success” from the Standish Group, who has published success (and failure) rates of software projects over a long period of time. Success, per the Standish Group is “the project is completed on time and on budget, with all the features and functions originally specified.”1 This is not a value-based definition but a constraint-based one. Using this definition, then, managers focus on following the plan with minimal changes. Colleague Rob Austin would classify this as a dysfunctional measurement (Austin 1996)—one that leads to the opposite behavior of what was intended.

When customer value and quality are the goals, then a plan becomes a means to achieve those goals, not the goal itself. The constraints embedded in those plans are still important; they still guide the project; we still want to understand variations from the plans, but—and this is a big but—plans are not sacrosanct; they are meant to be flexible; they are meant to be guides, not straightjackets.

Both traditional and agile leaders plan, and both spend a fair amount of time planning. But they view plans in radically different ways. They both believe in plans as baselines, but traditional managers are constantly trying to “correct” actual results to that baseline. In the PMBOK2, for example, the relevant activity is described as “corrective action” to guide the team back to the plan. In agile project management, we use “adaptive action” to describe which course of action to take (and one of those actions may be to correct to the plan).

The agile principles documents—the Agile Manifesto and the Declaration of Interdependence—contain five principle statements about adaptation, as shown in Figure 4-1.

Figure 4-1 Adaptive Principle Statements

Adaptive Principle Statements


We expect uncertainty and manage for it through iterations, anticipation, and adaptation.


We improve effectiveness and reliability through situationally specific strategies, processes, and practices.


Responding to change over following a plan.


Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.


At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, and then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly

DOI=Declaration of Interdependence. AM=Agile Manifesto

These principles could be summarized as follows:

  • We expect change (uncertainty) and respond accordingly rather than follow outdated plans.
  • We adapt our processes and practices as necessary.

The ability to respond to change drives competitive advantage. Think of the possibilities (not the problems) of being able to release a new version of a product weekly. Think of the competitive advantage of being able to package features so customers feel they have software specifically customized for them (and the cost to maintain the software remains low).

Teams must adapt, but they can’t lose track of the ultimate goals of the project. Teams should constantly evaluate progress, whether adapting or anticipating, by asking these four questions:

  • Is value, in the form of a releasable product, being delivered?
  • Is the quality goal of building a reliable, adaptable product being met?
  • Is the project progressing satisfactorily within acceptable constraints?
  • Is the team adapting effectively to changes imposed by management, customers, or technology?

The dictionary defines change as: “To cause to be different, to give a completely different form or appearance to.” It defines adapt as: “To make suitable to or fit for a specific use or situation.” Changing and adapting are not the same and the difference between them is important. There is no goal inherent in change—as the quip says, “stuff happens.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is directed towards a goal (suitability). Change is mindless; adaptation is mindful.

The Science of Adaptation

Former Visa International CEO Dee Hock (1999) coined the word “chaordic” to describe both the world around us and his approach to managing a far-flung enterprise—balanced on the precipice between chaos and order. Our sense of the world dictates management style. If the world is perceived as static, then production-style management practices will dominate. If the world is perceived as dynamic, however, then exploration-style management practices will come to the fore. Of course, it’s not that simple—there is always a blend of static and dynamic, which means that managers must always perform a delicate balancing act.

In the last two decades a vanguard of scientists and managers have articulated a profound shift in their view about how organisms and organizations evolve, respond to change, and manage their growth. Scientists’ findings about the tipping points of chemical reactions and the “swarm” behavior of ants have given organizational researchers insights into what makes successful companies and successful managers. Practitioners have studied how innovative groups work most effectively.

As quantum physics changed our notions of predictability and Darwin changed our perspective on evolution, complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory has reshaped scientific and management thinking. In an era of rapid change, we need better ways of making sense of the world around us. Just as biologists now study ecosystems as well as species, executives and managers need to understand the global economic and political ecosystems in which their companies compete.

  • “A complex adaptive system, be it biologic or economic below, is an ensemble of independent agents

    • Who interact to create an ecosystem
    • Whose interaction is defined by the exchange of information
    • Whose individual actions are based on some system of internal rules
    • Who self-organize in nonlinear ways to produce emergent results
    • Who exhibit characteristics of both order and chaos
    • Who evolve over time” (Highsmith 2000).

For an agile project, the ensemble includes core team members, customers, suppliers, executives, and other participants who interact with each other in various ways. It is these interactions, and the tacit and explicit information exchanges that occur within them, that project management practices need to facilitate.

The individual agent’s actions are driven by a set of internal rules—the core ideology and values of APM, for example. Both scientific and management researchers have shown that a simple set of rules can generate complex behaviors and outcomes, whether in ant colonies or project teams. Complex rules, on the other hand, often become bureaucratic. How these rules are formulated has a significant impact on how the complex system operates.

Newtonian approaches predict results. CAS approaches create emergent results. “Emergence is a property of complex adaptive systems that creates some greater property of the whole (system behavior) from the interaction of the parts (self-organizing agent behavior). Emergent results cannot be predicted in the normal sense of cause and effect relationships, but they can be anticipated by creating patterns that have previously produced similar results” (Highsmith 2000). Creativity and innovation are the emergent results of well functioning agile teams.

An adaptive development process has a different character from an optimizing one. Optimizing reflects a basic prescriptive Plan-Design-Build lifecycle. Adapting reflects an organic, evolutionary Envision-Explore-Adapt lifecycle. An adaptive approach begins not with a single solution, but with multiple potential solutions (experiments). It explores and selects the best by applying a series of fitness tests (actual product features or simulations subjected to acceptance tests) and then adapting to feedback. When uncertainty is low, adaptive approaches run the risk of higher costs. When uncertainty is high, optimizing approaches run the risk of settling too early on a particular solution and stifling innovation. The salient point is that these two fundamental approaches to development are very different, and they require different processes, different management approaches, and different measurements of success.

Newtonian versus quantum, predictability versus flexibility, optimization versus adaptation, efficiency versus innovation—all these dichotomies reflect a fundamentally different way of making sense about the world and how to manage effectively within it. Because of high iteration costs, the traditional perspective was predictive and change averse, and deterministic processes arose to support this traditional viewpoint. But our viewpoint needs to change. Executives, project leaders, and development teams must embrace a different view of the new product development world, one that not only recognizes change in the business world, but also understands the power of driving down iteration costs to enable experimentation and emergent processes. Understanding these differences and how they affect product development is key to understanding APM.

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