August 1, 2021 | The Basics of Project Management 1.0.1. Key Concepts: Agile, Kanban, Scrum, Waterfall

written with Laura Pirro, PhD and Martijn van Os
project management self development

The Basics of Project Management

Today, the workflow in all companies and organizations in all industries is project-based. Therefore, the experience with popular practices in project management and project management tools is no longer just an extracurricular point on your resume. All industry professionals — from an executive to a specialist — are expected to be fluent with implementing at least some of these project management tools and switching from one workflow to another. Therefore, basic project management skills are compulsory to get hired at the leading companies in virtually any industry today! 

In this article, we will give an overview of the most commonly adopted project management approaches, explain their fundamentals and industry applications. We will also make suggestions on how you can get familiar with these techniques. Lastly, we will talk about how project management can benefit you in daily life — even if you don’t need to use it at work.

Agile

Meaning

Agile means an iterative process building solutions through collaboration between dynamic, self-organizing teams and their users. In agile, the planning is adapted to the situation. Agile is based on twelve fundamental principles, including making improvements on a short-time – e.g. weekly – rather than long-time – e.g. monthly – basis, the value of simplicity, timeliness, face-to-face communication, and attention to technical excellence and user-friendly design.

The core concept can be explained by the following example. When you need to build a car, instead of trying to reach this ambitious goal straight away, you might first start by building a so-called minimal viable product, namely the simplest version of the infrastructure that serves the purpose of moving from point A to point B. And then improve on it. For instance, you might first build a skateboard, then a bike, then a motorbike, and eventually, a full-fledged car.

Why would you do that? Because the ultimate goal of a car is to have a vehicle which will allow you to move faster than if you were walking. In this sense, a fully working skateboard is much more valuable than parts of a car not connected together.

By following such an approach, you learn at each stage in the process, while adding more and more features and increasing the speed of your vehicle. Although in the initial project phases it is not exactly the vehicle you aim for, at every stage of the process you have a working vehicle in your hand. If some calamity happened and you were pushed to deploy the product earlier than planned, you would still be able to deliver ‘something’ which works — even if it has fewer features than expected.

Origins

Although the origins of agile are hard to pinpoint, it became mainstream after the publication of Manifesto for Agile Software Development (2001). The seventeen authors of the manifesto declared that they valued:

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools,

2. Working software over comprehensive documentation,

3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation,

4. Responding to change over following a plan.

Yet another boost in interest and impact came after the publication of “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries (2011). The author of the book analyzed his own failures as a tech entrepreneur and highlighted the importance of innovation by adaptation, gradual improvement, and staying in contact with clients and users of the software. Although the key term “Lean” was first used in manufacturing, Ries played with words and used it to describe the workflow in tech startups in the context of practical implementation of agile strategy.  

Implementation

In day-to-day interaction, agile can be implemented in a variety of ways, depending on the goal of the project and the available resources. The overarching goal is to build the minimum viable product (MVP) in the shortest possible time. And then, interactively improve for as long as is necessary to achieve all the targets of the project and reach technical excellence.

Furthermore, one of the original fundamental principles of agile was co-location in the team —– so that the team members could form bonds and reach fluent dynamics in the projects. Of course, now after the corona crisis, remote work has become a default working scheme in IT. Yet still, in the agile framework, face-to-face group online meetings are preferred to forums, phone calls, persistent chat, or emails.

Industry Applications

After the publication of “The Lean Startup, the concept of agile development has inspired thousands of organizations —– both within and beyond IT —– to shift towards agile. From public institutions to corporations, from IT, through Finance, Government, Healthcare, to Telecommunications, agile has become more than just yet another software development framework. Today, it is considered a mindset, a way of living, and a general approach to solving problems.

Pros and Cons

Agile has gained massive popularity in the last two decades and brought the whole IT industry to a whole new level. Interestingly, the evidence for the benefits of implementing Agile on the effectiveness of software professionals, teams, and organizations remains anecdotal rather than empirical.

project management Agile vs waterfall

Scrum

Meaning

Scrum is one way of implementing the agile mindset to developing projects in practice. The origin for the name “scrum” came from rugby where scrum means the moment in the game when all the players come in close contact with each other.

Origins

Scrum was originally invented by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber in the 1990s.
However, it became popular only after the publication of Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which Sutherland and Schwaber also co-created.

Implementation

Although scrum was originally proposed as a general framework to build projects, today it is typically implemented as a series of 2-4 week-long sprints for small teams of 10 or fewer members. During the sprint, the whole team focuses on a specific deliverable such as one feature of the product. The team closely communicates and attends daily stand-up meetings (or, briefings; they typically take place in the mornings and last for 2-5 minutes) animated by a trained scrum-master who helps the team to stay on track. The scrum master is not a typical project manager, but rather, a facilitator who helps the team members communicate and stay away from distractions.

After the sprint is finished, the results are evaluated and communicated with customers who assess the user experience. The conclusions are taken into account when planning the next sprint.

Industry Applications

Scrum was initially designed as a team software development framework in IT. Today, it is used across the board, from research to marketing and sales. A long list of well-known companies admits to using scrum, including Google, IBM, Adobe Systems, Logitech, but also Vanguard Group, Bank of America, and many other giants of the financial industry. Scrum is so popular in the IT industry that it is actually hard to find a company that doesn’t use this working scheme at all.

Pros and Cons

There is a consensus in the field of IT that as a management strategy, scrum is highly efficient, as it both involves focused work and communication with customers. It is also rewarding for the professionals involved. For the team involved in the project, working towards a small short term goal is always more mentally rewarding and motivating instead of working towards a huge long term goal. It prevents postponing/procrastination and keeps the team happy (if everything goes well, that is). For the manager (or, scrum master) specifically, sprints help them understand what’s going on in the project much better. It gives them direction and a better idea of what to do next in the project. It is true especially when the manager isn’t a developer but rather someone who studied management.

However, scrum also has its downsides.

1. The customers’ expectations. Most customers do not know about scrum or do not really respect the scrum cycle. For example, they just want to discuss their requirements in the beginning and then see the result at the end. Or, when a sprint is done and you want to discuss the progress, they don’t try and make some time free for it. Their approach is, “You are the programmers, you just figure it out!”

2. Scrum requires a lot of trust and comfort between developers. Most developers just want to do things by themselves so that they know the project is done their way. However, in scrum they have to trust other team members to be able to take over some tasks. They also have to discuss their progress and things they need help with within those 2 minutes of a standup. If they don’t feel comfortable within the team, they won’t really do that. And, the manager will only find out at the end of the sprint. This is why most teams experience a slow or problematic start, and they only pick up the pace after a couple of sprints.

3. The scrum master. The results of the project heavily depend on the competencies of one person, namely the scrum master.

4. No room for rotations. Given the fast-paced workflow, losing a member of the team during the project is a challenge.

5. Complex logistics. Especially when the project is dependent on outsiders, the schedule can become messy. Sometimes, a part of the team needs to delay certain tasks as another part of the team is too slow with implementing their part.

6. If mismanaged, scrum can also lead to crunch mode and burnouts – which often happens e.g., in the gaming industry.

How Can You Learn Scrum and Get Project Management Experience?

From the official Scrum Guide deployed by its authors, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, and freely available online. One can also register for a professional project management course via the Scrum.org website, and become a certified scrum master.

However, this official education is not required to master using scrum at work. Scrum can be mastered through practice; it requires good communication and project management skills, self-discipline, and the ability to evaluate the time necessary to complete tasks. Therefore, to effectively work using scrum, you need to:

1. Choose team projects over individual projects. Make sure that you experience working with professionals coming from various cultures and backgrounds. It will broaden your communication skills and help you better manage expectations towards others. Also, learn to delegate tasks in an understandable way, write clean code and clear documentation, and the ability to focus on the current sprint and the features that team is currently focused on, so all code belongs to the current state of the product (without anticipating the future features),

2. Observe yourself and make notes of your strengths and weaknesses. While working in scrum, you will need to deliver chunks of work in a timely manner. Therefore, the ability to estimate the time necessary to complete certain tasks is of paramount importance. Most teams will discuss time allocation during meetings as it is most efficient in a team.

3. Scrum is not designed for physically or mentally weak people. To become skilled in this area, you will need to work on your working memory and overall fitness. Scrum is like sport – it involves intensive periods of focused work resembling sports camps. You will need to keep pace with the team and burn a lot of calories in a short time. Be prepared for that!

How Can Scrum Benefit You In Daily Life?

Learning scrum will make you a self-disciplined multitasker. It will also help you manage your expectations towards others and become aware of your own limitations. It will help you self-manage and learn how to cooperate with others – people who often come from very different backgrounds.

Kanban

Meaning

Similarly to scrum, kanban is yet another way of implementing the agile mindset to developing projects in practice. The word “kanban” comes from a japanese word that means ‘signboard’ This reflects the very visual character of this technique. It means balancing the workload with the available resources.

Origins

Kanban approach originated from the concept of lean manufacturing popularized by Toyota in the late 1940s. Toyota implemented a production system known as “just-in-time” which aimed to produce cars according to the current demand while keeping the necessary level of supplies. However, Kanban became known worldwide as a management strategy only after the publication of Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

Implementation

Famously, in Kanban methodology, the workflow is visualized in a form of a so-called Kanban board. The aim of the board is to make the workflow and the progress at various tasks clear to participants and stakeholders. The board helps in estimating the capacity of the team to take new tasks on board.

The kanban board is dissected into parts that represent various stages of the process. For instance, a simple kanban board can include three separate columns for the tasks that are “waiting”, “in progress” and “completed” or “to-do”, “doing”, and “done.” Of course, more complex variations of the board are also used, especially for complex, long-lasting projects.

Kanban uses measurements to estimate the total team capacity and predict the project length. For instance, team velocity defines the maximal amount of work that the team can deliver in a given period of time. Lead and Cycle time denotes the time necessary to complete a task (on average). More sophisticated metrics such as Actionable Agile metrics developed by Daniel S. Vacanti in 2015 serve to estimate how much time it takes to complete 50%, 85%, and 95% of the tasks. This helps in planning the project deployment.

Some popular tools implementing Kanban are Asana, Evernote, Todoist, Trello, and Wrike.

Industry Applications

Kanban was primarily created as a team software development framework, however, today, it is used across all industries. Since in principle, Kanban can be used not only by a team but also by an individual, it has also become popular in the area of self-development and self-help as a self-management tool in everyday use.

Pros and Cons

Because of its visualization part, Kanban is intuitive and easy to use. It’s down-to-earth as it focuses on finding a balance and working at an optimal speed without stretching the physical capacity of the team.

As for cons, Kanban organizes tasks but not the team itself. Furthermore, Kanban focuses on controlling the balance but not the timeliness of the whole project which might be an issue in dynamic and unstable working environments. Therefore, Kanban should never be used as a standalone method, just in combination with other methods for organizing teamwork such as Scrum.

How Can You Use Kanban and Get Project Management Experience?

Kanban is simple to learn and doesn’t need much preparation. The ability to chop your project into logic tasks and classify them into categories depending on the stage of development is enough to start!

How Can Kanban Benefit You In Daily Life?

Learning Kanban is beneficial in general. Kanban can help you with any work-related projects, but also with maintaining your hobby and other activities. Especially now after the corona crisis, Kanban helps millions of home-based professionals plan their work, manage the workload, keep a healthy work-life balance… and say “no!” when necessary!

Waterfall 

Meaning

Unlike Scrum and Kanban, Waterfall is not an agile approach. It is quite the opposite in fact. Instead of creating an MVP and iteratively improving on it, Waterfall enforces sequential development, namely, the second project management phase starts only after finishing and approving the output from the first phase. 

Origins

Waterfall has been used in industry since the beginnings of its existence. However, the term waterfall was coined by a computer scientist, Dr. Winston Royce in the 1970s. Royce himself was skeptical of the original waterfall methodology though. He described it as an approach that is “risky and invites failure.”

Implementation

The classic waterfall model contains 5 project management phases: Requirements, Design, Implementation, Verification, Maintenance. Waterfall uses a different approach to quality testing than agile. Namely, the work is organized into so-called Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) phases. Unlike in agile, in waterfall, the testing phase follows the building phase.

Industry Applications

Waterfall is popular in hardware development, manufacturing, engineering, and construction. In principle, it is useful everywhere where the materials and resources to build projects are scarce and/or expensive, so that the agile approach would become costly and inefficient. For example, the US Department of Defense Software Systems demanded the waterfall model to be followed in their contracts, including the DOD-STD-2167A standard.

Pros and Cons

Waterfall has its obvious limitations when it comes to building software —— it is the reason why it is rarely utilized in IT. It is, in general, an approach that limits creativity on behalf of utility and cost reduction. However, it comes in handy when it comes to costly projects, such as developing a space rocket.

How Can You Learn Waterfall and Get Project Management Experience?

It is not difficult at all. In fact, if you ever cooked, then you already know Waterfall! As in cooking, you need to first think of a recipe, then buy the products, unpack and clean them, chop the vegetables, boil the pasta, … et cetera. Waterfall is not about project management skills —— it is all about focus and commitment: if you perform badly in one of the stages, your whole project will eventually fail. Anyone who left a pizza in the oven for too long knows this.

How Can Waterfall Benefit You In Daily Life?

Waterfall will teach you planning and diligence. For the project to eventually work out, you need to perform to the best of your abilities – not in just one project management phase of the project, but at all times. 

project management self development

Conclusions

What is the better approach to manage a project? Agile or Waterfall? This debate goes on and on for decades but truth to be told, none of these two approaches is better than the other one —– it all depends on the context. But can you benefit in your career development from learning those approaches and putting them into practice? The simple answer is: yes! Each one of them will teach you skills that are not only useful at work but in life in general, and help you deliver high quality products and services consistently and on time… whether it’s a piece of software for drone applications or a birthday cake for your best friend. 

Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N., van Os, Martijn, Pirro, L. (2021, August 1st). The Basics of Project Management 1.0.1. Key Concepts: Agile, Kanban, Scrum, Waterfall. Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/project-management-key-concepts-agile-kanban-scrum-waterfall/ 

Would you like to find out where you fit best in the job market given your preferred project management style? From corporations, through consultancy companies and startups, to launching your own freelancing business – there are so many options out there! And on the good side of things, if you choose for the working environment that you naturally resonate with, passing job interviews and landing contracts becomes much easier straight away. 

Are you not unsure about working environment you should choose to go with? We have build a self-navigation tool, The Ontology of Value Test, that helps professionals and students in choosing the right career path. The test will show you where you fit in the job market given your natural working style, personality, and values. It will give you a great overview of the potential and the opportunities that you have in the job market of today!

https://ontologyofvaluetest.com 

Interested in more strategies for how to navigate in the job market in industry? 

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