Traditional Project Management vs Agile Project Management

Published: November 17, 2020
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Project management can be a divisive topic in the world of business. Undoubtedly, the best approach to achieving a project’s intended outcome depends on the project itself, as well as the organization carrying it out. What is the purpose of the project? What resources are available? What are the key performance indicators? What do stakeholders have in mind? 

Despite the sheer diversity that companies can experience in this regard, there are nonetheless distinct camps within the project management sphere, at least as far as theory goes. On paper, one of the most significant contests within project management is between ‘traditional’ and ‘Agile’ methods.

There are certainly benefits and flaws unique to both ‘approaches’, at least as general ideas. However, successful project managers can and often do utilize elements from both camps, and there are even set frameworks that offer easy practices for doing so.

With that in mind, let’s look at the differences between traditional project management and agile project management. Once we’re done, we’ll help you decide which approach is right for you.

What is traditional project management?

Traditional project management is a largely sequential process, in the sense that an established methodology is followed with a clear goal in mind. Indeed, following the script of the project plan is treated as a major priority, with tight controls and adherence to fixed processes typically being the norm. At the same time, detailed documentation is created and referenced at points throughout the project, creating a high level of visibility and alignment that can be highly beneficial for stakeholders.

This approach may seem rigid in theory, but it offers a number of benefits:

  • Enjoy clear goals and priorities
  • Follow simple and well-established processes
  • Optimize your project’s transparency and accountability
  • Secure alignment between your project KPIs and higher-level strategic priorities

Depending on the shape, scale, and scope of a project, as well as the priorities of stakeholders, traditional project management is often a sensible choice.

What is Agile project management?

Agile management originated as a process for software development. Both flexible and iterative in its approach, it was eventually adapted for projects likely to experience more volatility. This can include shifting goals and priorities, having limited resources, a greater reliance on special skills or technology, and so on.

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Within an Agile project management team, staff will often have a greater degree of autonomy. Teams operate with a more loose structure that, provided the right team members are chosen, can create a far more flexible and efficient atmosphere. At the same time, new targets are established regularly with short-term goals that more accurately align with current client requirements. This approach produces quick results, the benefits of which can be provided to clients stage by stage rather than all at once.

Some of the biggest benefits of Agile project management include:

  • Improving the quality of your end results
  • Optimizing alignment with customer/ client needs
  • Increase your team’s adaptability
  • Boosting your speed and efficiency
  • Greater flexibility in terms of prioritization

While certainly advantageous in a lot of ways, Agile’s lack of tight traditional controls is off-putting to many larger companies. Poorly implemented Agile practices can cause projects to lose focus and become wasteful. Team members can also lose sight of wider strategic goals without adequate management oversight.

Traditional vs. Agile project management in practice

As obvious as the respective benefits of the two options might seem from this highly generalized perspective, it is important to keep an open mind. As we mentioned earlier, project managers will often utilize elements of both approaches, as well as others.

This is reflected in popular frameworks on both sides of the equation. PRINCE2, a traditional framework that is also the world’s most popular choice for project management, has ‘Change’ as one of its key Themes. It covers how to handle change requests and other challenges during a project, helping practitioners adapt when necessary while still maintaining their focus on the Business Case. AXELOS even released PRINCE2 Agile, a combined framework that helps practitioners to utilize the traditional-style PRINCE2 within Agile environments.

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Similarly, AgilePM, the world’s most widely-used Agile project management framework, also incorporates practices related to tighter controls. Based on the Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), AgilePM is more ‘traditional’ in this regard than other Agile competitors. This can be strengthened further with AgileBA, a business management framework that keeps Agile projects fully aligned with business requirements.

As you can see, while there are certainly relevant arguments in the ‘Traditional Project Management vs. Agile Project Management’ debate, it ultimately comes down to what works for individual organizations. Even frameworks that fall in either camp were designed with adaptability in mind. Newer businesses or aspiring project managers can equip themselves to succeed in more challenges and take advantage of more opportunities by familiarizing themselves with both approaches.

Should I choose traditional or Agile project management?

Your main takeaway from this article should be that the best choice in project management tactics will be decided by the details of the project in question. What resources do you have? What kind of obstacles or risks will you face? Working with a best practice framework like PRINCE2 or AgilePM certainly helps, but project managers must be capable of weighing their options.

Traditional project management can be better if:

  • The project is small and straightforward
  • The goals are clear and unlikely to change
  • There is no need for specialized software or tools
  • The project will take place in a stable environment with few risks
  • The project is large, and the company can provide ample resources
  • Stakeholders and team members are used to relying on clear project documentation

Agile project management can be better if:

  • The project will experience volatility in terms of priorities, client expectations, and other environmental factors
  • The project will be too complex to be supported by a linear framework
  • There are limited resources
  • Specific technological or software expertise is required
  • Stakeholders/ clients want or could benefit from incremental results

Of course, another factor that can help you decide is experience. Is your organization used to working in Agile environments? As we said, Agile can often be the riskier approach. If you have a number of team members who are not familiar with it, you may want to consider investing in Agile project management training before trying to use it in practice. Regardless of your choice, following a comprehensive and adaptive framework such as PRINCE2, PRINCE2 Agile, or AgilePM will be the best way to ensure that your project management approach achieves the best results possible.

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