Gray areas occupy the transition from one world to the next. Neither black nor white, predictive nor agile, project managers are increasingly finding themselves in the gray area of hybrid project management. This can make us feel uncomfortable since we are neither faithfully following either approach—instead living a compromise between seemingly different value systems.
We could get uncomfortable, guarded and hesitant to embrace the reality we face. Or, we could welcome it, use it to our advantage and share the benefits/trade-offs with anyone willing to listen. This second option of embracing, using and sharing is “playing in the gray area,” a term I learned at a recent workshop I was giving. It nicely summarizes the idea of accepting and making the most of our reality rather than uncomfortably accommodating it and mainly keeping it to ourselves.
Let’s talk about what hybrid environments are and why we might find ourselves operating in one. A hybrid is a combination of two (or more) different systems. Hybrid cars can use internal combustion engines (ICE) and electric batteries, or ICE and hydrogen fuel cells. Both combinations are considered hybrids.
In project environments, the use of both predictive approaches and agile approaches results in a hybrid approach. There are several reasons why both approaches might be used. Some common causes include:
- Agile is not entirely suitable – Agile approaches are applicable for high-change, uncertain, technically risky project work. They offer many great tools for engaging and empowering team members. They allow teams to go fast by streamlining communications and documentation. I am a strong advocate for using them where they work well. At the same time, I am a realist and understand they are not a panacea or silver bullet.
Highly regulated industries require lots of documentation. Well-understood technology can be applied without the need for experiments and proof of concepts. Stable designs can be planned and executed with few change requests. Often, projects combine work that is well suited for predictive approaches and work that can benefit from agile approaches. Here it makes sense to use a hybrid approach overall.
We can execute the predictive work using predictive approaches and the adaptive work using agile approaches. For example, a project I worked on to develop and roll out a custom GPS routing solution for truck drivers used an agile approach for the software development—and a largely predictive approach for scheduling the equipment install in the trucks and training the drivers. We use the appropriate tools for the job at hand; it is neither rocket science or anything to be ashamed of.
- Operating in a predictive organization – Some organizations operate with upfront requirements analysis, scope sign-off and funding. We can try to educate stakeholders on why a more adaptive approach toward these operations might be beneficial, but maybe this is beyond our circle of influence—or maybe we inherited a project with a scope and budget already in place.
Either way, sometimes we do not get to do everything by the book and we have to work with what we are given. This is not to say we should give up and not try to make improvements. Instead, accept that not everything will be ideal and that we need to choose our battles wisely. We might be asked/told to be the bridge between agile teams and not-so-agile organizational groups.
- Transitioning to agile incrementally – Large organizations rarely transition to agile approaches overnight. Some executives and training companies try a “sheep-dip” approach, immersing everyone in agile training and mandating a whole scale switch. However, these initiatives often fail. How big does the sheep-dip have to be? Does it include finance, HR and sales? How about procurement and suppliers? Usually, there are groups the team or supporting project managers still have to work with that have not transitioned to agile.
Whenever an agile team works with a predictive entity, there is some mapping, interfacing and translating that needs to occur. This work often falls on the team lead or project manager (if one is in place). As depicted in Figure 1, these interfaces could be between our project and other projects (1), between an agile department and other non-agile departments (2) or from our department to the broader organization (3):
Figure 1: Interactions that require hybrid interfaces and buffering
These scenarios are of course simplifications. Typically, organizational adoption of any idea, not just agile approaches, is fragmented and not uniform. Team leads and project managers often find themselves translating terminology, progress reports and plans to different stakeholders within the same meeting.
Embrace and Own It
The flipside of uncertainty is being able to explain topics and help people learn. Anyone who can bridge between two worlds, two sets of concepts and two slightly different vocabularies is extremely valuable. Whether as a project manager, BA, product owner or executive, organizations benefit more from people willing and able to talk about the similarities, differences and problem areas than pure converted zealots. These interpreters and linkers can help other people make the transition.
So, if asked “When will your agile project be done?”, rather than giving an eye roll for being asked such an uninformed question for an agile project—or mumbling, hand-waving or resorting to exotic terms about points, velocity and burn charts—instead, own it. This is an opportunity to talk about the gray area of hybrid metrics. So, a better response might be something along the lines of:
“Great question!, I ask this myself daily. Over the last four months, we have developed and gained business acceptance on about half of the features in the backlog (our total list of work), so that suggests we need another four months to finish. We have spent 45% of our budget, so we look on track for a Q4 completion within budget.”
Likewise, actively combine predictive and agile components. Work with your team and product owner on getting your risk register responses correctly prioritized in the backlog. What are the opportunities we should exploit, and which threat avoidance and mitigation actions should we do first? With the shared goal of successful projects and happy stakeholders, there are many synergies to be found.
The term “playing in the gray” has a couple of meanings. The first interpretation of “playing” addresses where we operate, our playing field (which these days is increasingly hybrid). The second meaning of playing is to enjoy things. Anyone bridging two environments has an opportunity to be useful, help people learn and add lots of value. It is a rewarding place to work, so own it and enjoy it.
Copyright © 2020 Mike Griffiths, Leading Answers Inc.