By George Pitagorsky | Follow on Twitter!

How formal of a process is necessary to effectively manage Agile projects?

The Agile approach is iterative and incremental. It brings developers and their clients together in a fluid interactive process to define and deliver functionality to achieve objectives.

There are many variations on the Agile theme. In the beginning, Agile was a practical concept that grew out of the experience of software developers and consultants. They uncovered better ways of developing software and identified the principles expressed in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Over time the approach was further defined and formalized into methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, XP, and others as well as practices like acceptance test-driven development, behavior driven development, story driven modeling and more.

The traditional Waterfall processes tend to be rigid and prescriptive, with clear delineations between requirements definition, design and development and formal communications. Agile brought "informality" into the realm of software engineering and product development in general.

What We Mean by Formal and Informal

Formal means that something conforms with generally accepted standards or rules. It connotes a degree of professionalism. Formality "is also linked to a ceremonious adherence to rules or customs; something that is required but lacks real meaning or importance. In project management, a formal approach is one that has a prescribed process and that includes concrete written documentation - plans, contracts, artifacts, reports, etc. Clearly, we want to avoid formal processes that lack real meaning or importance."1

In the context of projects, formality is directly associated with a methodology. The methodology is the vehicle for passing on generally accepted best practices drawn from the experience of many practitioners across many projects.

Informal Doesn't Mean Sloppy

Formality is contrasted with being casual. Casual is a word that has many connotations. They include chance occurrence, superficial (as in a casual acquaintance), having little concern, natural and informal. Informal project management is like business casual - comfortable, functional and in-keeping with the situation. Business casual seeks to promote more effective performance by making people more comfortable and eliminating unnecessary constraints.

Informal in the project management context doesn't mean throwing out all standards and rules and just winging it. It means that there is open communication above and beyond the structures defined in the methodology and that there is flexibility regarding the way the standards and rules are applied.

Agile methodologies are quite formal. There are rules and standards. They stress the need for effective documentation, regular meetings and deliverables based project control reporting, scope control, clear roles and responsibilities and more. There are preferred tools, formats and templates and a sense of discipline when it comes to applying techniques like use cases, user story creation and acceptance testing.

At the same time, they stress open communication in a team that is made up of the key players in the project and the acceptance and facilitation of change rather than resistance to it. The effective Agile team will be disciplined in sticking to the scope associated with defined iterations.

Formal Doesn't Mean Rigid

Just as casual does not mean sloppy and inappropriate, formal does not mean rigid. Think about going to a formal affair in a well fitted tux made of comfortable fabric that is just right for the climate and lets you move about and dance.

Flexibility and adaptability are the key. If you are using a methodology that is ill suited to your project and its environment you will waste time and effort.

Strike the right balance between formality and informality. Respect and make use of the knowledge being passed to you by formal methodologies (whether Agile or traditional) and effective techniques and adapt them to your situation. For example, having a formal change control and risk monitoring process is essential. How you do it allows for flexibility based on the tools you have at hand, the sophistication of the staff and the relationships among stakeholders (e.g., are their vendors involved, regulators, etc.).

Principled Pragmatists

There are "methodology fundamentalists" - people who seem to thrive on the comfort they derive from rigidly adhering to rules. There are others who are on the opposite side of the spectrum - they act like adolescents who reject everything that has come before. Then there are the "principled pragmatists".

Principled pragmatists seek to find the right approach for the situation, making use of best practices, adhering to the rules that add value and changing those that do not. These practitioners treat methodologies as guidelines.

Let's be principled pragmatists, combining the flexibility and adaptability that is needed to manage in our complex projects and the discipline required to do it in a way that satisfies the need for rational controls and effective documentation.

Blending Agile And Formal Project Management

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management and PM BasicsTM. He teaches meditation and is on the Board of Directors of the NY Insight Meditation Center.

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