Agile? Waterfall? It depends!

We take a look at which agency projects work well with a plan-driven project management process and which will benefit from an Agile approach.
Nicole Tiefensee

As a project manager, I often get asked what methodology I use for managing my teams and projects. My answer is almost always: it depends.

While I’m a big advocate of Agile and Lean thinking and try to incorporate Agile tools and techniques as much as possible, I don’t think using an Agile framework, such as Scrum or XP, is a silver bullet and suited for all kinds of projects and work scenarios.

I recently taught a class on Agile development to a group of new web developers. As part of the class we went over an adapted version of the Stacey Complexity Model (see below) and the kinds of projects that are well suited for Agile vs. more plan-driven methods, such as the traditional waterfall.

Stacey’s Complexity Model

You might have seen this diagram before. The y-axis gives an indication of the level of agreement you have over what is needed on a project (the requirements), while the x-axis shows the level of certainty you have over the approach (the tools and/or technology you use to implement the solution).

The Stacey Complexity Model (source)

Based on this, tasks or projects are split into four categories:

  • Simple. Well defined and easily solvable tasks. You can use historical data to predict the future and repeat what works well.
  • Complicated. Some negotiation and compromise is required to understand what’s needed and how you are going to implement the solution.
  • Complex. The “what” and the “how” aren’t fully understood. This is often considered as a zone of high creativity and innovation.
  • Chaotic. Very high levels of uncertainty exist on all fronts.

Where do agency projects fit in?

Agency projects will fall into a mix of these categories:

1) There’s the projects to create highly creative and innovative solutions, which include brand strategy, web design or bespoke software development.

They clearly fall into the “complex” category as there’s usually a high number of moving parts. Neither the “what” nor the “how” can be fully understood at the outset of the project, which makes it very difficult to predict all the eventualities of the project and build out an accurate plan upfront. Those kinds of projects really benefit from:

  • High-level of collaboration and communication with the client. (If you have a client who doesn’t want to get involved - I'd steer away from the project if you can)
  • Short iterations and adaptive planning that gives you and the client lots of checkpoints to look at where the project is at and adjust where things are going based on new learnings.
  • A flexible scope, if you are working toward a deadline.
  • Starting with something really simple that provides some value to the client, then building out the solution incrementally over time.
  • Focussing on high-priority items that provide the most business value first.

Agile methods, such as Scrum, will give you a framework to help with the above.

Note that implementing an Agile method doesn’t mean you won’t need a plan. Your client will still want to know if you can deliver within the budget, and upon agreed timeframes. And you and your agency will still want to know who’s available to do the work or if the project will be profitable. The key is to do just enough planning, at the start and at regular intervals throughout the project to be able to answer those questions.

2) Then there’s “packaged offerings”, such as analytics, SEO, (social) media management and campaigns.

They tend to sit in the “complicated” terrain. While there can be differences of what’s required from client to client, predictability on the “what” and “how” is a lot higher. You might not be able to predict the outcome of the work and will have to set expectations with the client as to what can be achieved, but you’ll be able go through repeatable steps and set predictable milestones. Take an SEO project for example:

  • Phase 1 - Audit and Keyword Research
  • Phase 2 - Keyword Testing
  • Phase 3 - On-page Optimization
  • Phase 4 - Off-page Optimization
  • etc.

Based on previous projects and your experience you will be able to plan out the work to a relatively high degree of certainty, which makes it ideal for a more plan-driven approach with clear deliverables and hand-off points between project phases.

In conclusion...

The approach you use really depends on the kinds of projects you deal with and the kind of environment you operate in. There’s no silver bullet. Sometimes an Agile method is best for what you need, sometimes a plan-driven approach will get you results, and sometimes you’ll need a healthy dose of both!

Runn is methodology agnostic

We build Runn in a way so you’re not pinned down by a methodology. No matter if you use sprints or project phases to plan out your projects, Runn will give you visibility over your schedule and people’s upcoming commitments.

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