Is a Hybrid Agile PM Process Right for Your Small Business?

As businesses increasingly become digital-first, the project management (PM) industry is seeing major changes. Business leaders are restructuring their practices to remain competitive in rapidly shifting markets. In the process, many are adopting agile PM to help drive innovation and continuous improvement at their organization.

The impact of digitalization on the PM industry is so great that Gartner, the research and advisory firm, predicts that this transformation will render standard PPM capabilities, practices and toolsets obsolete.

To better understand the impacts of digitization on the current state of the PM software market, we surveyed small and midsize businesses (SMBs) to learn:

  • How many SMBs are practicing waterfall vs. agile?
  • What is the current breakdown of agile PM methods?
  • How will current PM software users invest in the future?

This report, which highlights our findings, can help prospective PM software buyers make a more informed purchase decision.

Hybrid Agile More Common Than ‘Pure’ Agile Methods

Perhaps not surprisingly, waterfall PM is still used by the majority of SMBs—but just barely. Fifty one percent of respondents are using traditional PM methods compared to 45 percent practicing agile*.

More notably, 29 percent of SMBs are using a hybrid agile PM model. This far outshines the number of pure scrum teams (12 percent) and the number of pure kanban (4 percent).

Q: What is hybrid agile PM?


A: Hybrid agile PM refers to a combination of both waterfall and agile PM processes or a blend of multiple agile processes. Here are a few examples:

  • Iterative waterfall: Traditional, plan-driven teams that outline their requirements and then work in timeboxes, incorporating retrospectives into their workflows.
  • Scrumban: Scrum teams that follow a flow based approach during iterations and who add work-in-progress (WIP) limits to their sprint boards.

This tells us two things:

  • SMBs are taking a project-specific approach to PM, rather than practicing top-down, holistic governance. Meaning, they are letting projects dictate the techniques and tools, rather than having these considerations handed down to them by leadership.
  • Some or all of these SMBs are transitioning to agile processes and are using a hybrid approach as a stepping stone.

Respondents’ Current PM Methodology
 
current project management methodology

Chris Shinkle, director of innovation at Software Engineering Professionals (SEP), says that he’s found it often works better to introduce agile practices incrementally. He says that starting with a pure agile method can cause more problems than it solves.

“Starting with a ‘pure agile method’ often results in blindly applying a recipe from a book or consultant. It doesn’t take into account the situationally specific concerns.”

Chris Shinkle, Director of Innovation at SEP

One way to introduce agile practices incrementally is to start with one team, or one project, and then inspect and adapt before rolling your chosen agile framework out to the next.

Using a hybrid agile approach is not an excuse to put less effort into an agile transition.

Tina Behers, agile coach and solutions architect at AgileCraft, warns that it’s not uncommon for teams to think that using a hybrid approach means they can skip training on scrum or kanban practices or forgo coaching on how these frameworks should be rolled out at their organization.

She advises that teams:

  • Choose a framework that aligns where they are in their agile journey
  • Receive training and coaching on how to apply that framework
  • Modify their approach as needed (with the guidance of an agile coach) to help them achieve their goals.

“There is no silver bullet, the key is to keep in mind that they are frameworks, each as a core set of recommended practices,” she says. “Use the parts that work for your organization when you start the transformation, keeping an eye on where you want to grow your agile practices next.”

*Note: This survey was market-wide, and did not filter for specific industries. The number of agile teams/organizations is likely to be much higher in certain industries (i.e., software development and information technology) than across the market as a whole.

More SMBs Plan To Invest in Scrum Tools Than Kanban

It’s important to note that hybridizations occur within a team’s PM processes and not within the PM tool. As such, teams looking to implement a hybrid agile approach will still need to use either a traditional PM tool or an agile PM solution (e.g., scrum software or kanban software), and then adapt the tool to match their hybrid approach.

When asked about their future PM software investment plans, nearly 25 percent of respondents say they would look for a scrum PM solution, compared to 11 percent who would look for a kanban tool to support their agile PM processes.

Both scrum and kanban tools support agile teams as they incorporate transparency, inspection and adaption into their workflows. But how your team operates can make one approach preferable to the other:

  • Scrum tools are best for teams that break projects down into groups of related tasks and then complete that batch of tasks over the course of one timebox, i.e., sprint.
  • Kanban works best for teams that break projects down into a hierarchy of tasks, and then work on the highest priority tasks first, one at a time in a continuous flow.

The prescriptive nature of scrum may be seen as barrier against adopting this agile framework. However, it is precisely the strict “rules” that govern that methodology that make many experts recommend it over kanban for teams looking to transition to agile processes.

“I would characterize kanban as probably dangerous for beginners, something that only more experienced teams should venture on with,” states Andy Hunt, one of the founders of the Agile Manifesto.

Hunt goes on to say that the rhythm and structure of scrum workflows—i.e., sprint planning, daily standup, sprint review, sprint retrospective followed by another sprint planning session—is an easier environment for beginning teams to understand work worth.

This is because changes aren’t allowed mid-sprint, so teams gain a clear understanding of what they can and cannot complete within the timed sprint (typically, a two-week timeframe) and the effort and skill required for different types of tasks.

For more information, download a free copy of our e-book, “Scrum vs. Kanban: 6 Tips for Choosing the Right System.”

Respondents’ Future PM Software Investment Plans
 
future project management investments

The highest percentage of SMBs, 62 percent, say they would likely invest in a traditional PM tool.

While agile tools are considered “team-centric” and help teams collaborate and manage work visually, traditional PM tools can be broken down into two categories: user-centered or manager-centered.

User-centered tools focus on task and time management—PM software capabilities that are consistently rated as top-requested functionality in our yearly buyer reports.

Manager-centered tools, on the other hand, are more comprehensive and include additional oversight and governance capabilities, like resource management or portfolio management.

3 Tips for Implementing a Hybrid Agile PM Process

We’ve summarized the following tips to help you implement a hybrid agile PM process at your SMB and choose the best tool to support your hybrid processes:

1. Establish a change management team. This team is responsible for identifying the need for change, i.e., defining the near-term outcome you want to achieve and/or what problem you’re trying to solve by adopting hybrid agile processes.

Without a specific objective to work toward, it’s difficult to choose a tool to support your processes and apply metrics for measuring and tracking success.

Additional responsibilities of the change management team include:

  • Performing stakeholder analysis (helps inform the communication plans and training programs rolled out later in the implementation)
  • Identifying end users of the PM tool and their “must have” software capabilities
  • Defining and enforcing rules around the use of the tool
  • Ensuring the agile implementation has executive sponsorship

2. Select a tool. Behers advises organizations look for a PM solution that aligns with their chosen framework (e.g., waterfall, scrum or kanban), that can be configured to support teams using different processes at different levels of PPM maturity.

Additional considerations when evaluating tools for a hybrid agile team include:

  • Can roles be configured to remove or hide system components not used by some users, but used by others?
  • Does the tool have built-in process guidance or guardrails for pure scrum and kanban users? (For example, scrum teams will need to define “artifacts,” as well as track burndown and velocity. Kanban teams will need to set up work-in-progress limits and track their cumulative flow and lead and cycle time).
  • Does the tool offer the ability to roll up and report on all work, regardless of the process being used by the team?
  • Does the tool align with your current needs and near-term goals? The estimated life span of a tool is around three years, so while it’s important that the tool is flexible enough to be used by teams practicing different processes, don’t purchase a tool you’re looking to “grow into.”

3. Provide training and coaching and ensure you have organizational support. Both Behers and Shinkle agree that when agile implementations fail (hybrid or pure) it’s often the result of a lack of training/coaching coupled with the lack of organizational and management support/buy in for the chosen framework.

As such, it’s a best practice to offer your stakeholders training and coaching programs tailored to their unique needs to encourage user adoption of the new tool and hybrid agile processes. You need to both identify and close learning gaps at every level of technical literacy.

Moreso, hybrid agile implementations will likely not yield improvements on the same scale or timeline as a “pure” agile implementation.

When seeking organizational support for adopting a hybrid agile approach, be sure to do the following:

  • Be realistic in your estimates for how the change will impact things like quality, delivery time and/or employee satisfaction
  • Don’t over-promise on the value and improvements that using a hybrid approach will achieve, otherwise you may risk leadership pulling their support before the benefits are fully realized

Conclusions and Next Steps

There are those who will argue that combining methods and blending processes isn’t true agile. However, remember the core principle of “agile” centers around embracing change over following a plan in order to deliver the most value with your project.

Recognizing what combination and blend of methods works best for your team, rather than choosing to follow a “pure” implementation plan that doesn’t deliver value, is an agile approach in itself.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should cherry pick parts of waterfall, scrum and kanban and call yourself agile. You should learn the rules first, then adapt them if you find a hybrid process model to be the best approach for your team.

For more information about transitioning to agile or implementing a hybrid agile processes at your SMB, here are a few next steps you can take:

  • Head over to our agile PM buyer’s guide: Brush up on the similarities and differences between agile and waterfall PM processes and discover some of the top agile PM systems that can help support your team’s workflows.
  • Email me at eileen@softwareadvice.com. I’m available to answer any questions you may have about implementing a hybrid agile approach and can get you set up with a software advisor to discuss investing in a PM solution that’s right for you.
  • If you’d like more information about how to prepare your SMB for a transition to an agile PM process, check out this piece, which gives a rundown of some of the leadership skills you’ll need to develop to help with the transition and offers four best practices for introducing agile workflows (best practices are also summarized in a downloadable checklist).

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