No Projects Are Agile


"Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results." Andrew Carnegie

Every time I hear a vendor say "we're going to do this as an Agile project," I shudder. This has happened twice, so perhaps my sample size is too small, but the fruit of such an endeavor are predictable from the attitude going in. You see, there's really no such thing as an Agile project, as I see it. There are only Agile teams. If the team isn't Agile, the work they do will only hold the form of Scrum, Kanban, or some other methodology, but the mindset will be absent. The result is a subpar project that convinces everyone involved that Agile is a bad idea.

Being Agile is a way of thinking about work, a philosophy that is embraced, internalized, and translated into action. The team is at the center, and their work demonstrates the value of the process. So, when someone comes along and decides they're going to 'do Agile,' they're missing the point.

Now, mind you, I'm very much in favor of well-organized projects. We have to know what we're doing, and to what end. Seen from the Agile perspective, how we get to that goal depends largely on what the team works out as the best path. That's not to say there won't be milestones as well as business-defined deadlines. There always are, and I believe these provide the aqueduct through which the team's work will flow, if you'll pardon the metaphor.

Aside from being a Certified Scrum Master, I also hold PMP certification, and have now for several years.' This isn't my first pony show, kids, and I don't have starry-eyed visions of an Agiltopia. There will always be the needs of the business and a real world to be dealt with, and a well-planned project makes all the difference for reaching specific outcomes. However, as I've indicated, the project merely provides the structure, and it is never itself 'Agile.' When I sometimes refer to myself as an 'Agile Program Manager,' I'm not saying my projects are themselves Agile. Rather, I seek to infuse the project teams with the values of agility through training and coaching.

A healthy team, composed of real people and not merely concepts, seeks to live out the values of the Agile mindset. If it's a scrum team, for instance, the product owner will curate the backlog, and the scrum master will ensure that the team's ownership of their work is respected, blockers are removed, and the ceremonies are carried out. The team decides, in a sort of negotiation with the product owner, what the sprint backlog will be, and when they are ready, they commit to it. This is the methodology, and the Agile mindset must underpin it.

The same applies to Kanban or any other Agile methodology. The team is Agile, their approach reflects that, and their work is likely part of a project. But again: the project isn't Agile. I want to be 100% clear that this is not a take-down of projects. As I believe I've already emphasized sufficiently, I consider well-scoped projects essential for the advancement towards an organization's goals. Just, never call them Agile, because they aren't.