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    Traditional project management vs. Agile: how to choose

    By Michael Manzo
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    With Agile, Lean, and all the other new kids on the project management block, some managers act as if there’s nothing left to learn from traditional project management.

    Treating traditional project management as if it were a useless relic from a bygone age — the pager of the modern era.

    But that’s just not the case, really. Most modern methodologies and frameworks build upon tried and tested concepts that existed decades before the advent of software development or the internet.

    Traditional project management’s established methodology views projects as being run in sequential cycles. The fixed sequence of initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure still offers much to learn for a modern project manager or a business owner.

    In this article, we’ll cover traditional project management, essential concepts, benefits, drawbacks, see how it compares to Agile, and explore the best use cases for each.

    What is traditional project management?

    Traditional project management is a step-by-step predictive approach to project management—also called the Waterfall methodology—in which you break down and plan an entire project before launching it.

    Processes in the requirements stage help you predict and manage risks. And by getting the brunt of planning done upfront, you can get out of the way and let your teams focus on actually doing the work.

    It doesn’t refer to a specific framework but rather a high-level methodology or set of ideas for managing your project.

    Traditional project management life cycle

    In the traditional Waterfall method, the project life cycle follows the following stages in sequential order.

    • Initiation: pre-planning phase where you explore the requirements, scope, risks, benefits, and whether or not a project is realistic.
    • Planning: figuring out logical project teams, dividing the project into smaller work items, and creating the project schedule.
    • Execute: taking the project plan and putting it into action, making the project a reality.
    • Monitor: checking that the project is on the right track and adjusting plans, teams, and activities where needed.
    • Close: finishing up a project, reviewing the entire project for lessons learned, and planning any updates or replacements of old products.

    These process groups guide you through the different stages of the traditional method.

    What is the main challenge in the traditional project management approach?

    The biggest challenge with traditional project management is effectively adapting to changes during a project.

    Unforeseen changes play a crucial role in over 33% of project failures. As markets and organizations change, projects need to as well.

    Bar graph of reasons for project failure

    (Image Source)

    But that’s a lot easier said than done. When project objectives change, you then have to restructure teams, workflows, milestones, and the entire plan. It’s a major issue.

    It’s also time-consuming and difficult to plan or gather requirements for large scale projects before you even get started.

    That can lead to teams losing their patience, taking shortcuts, and starting a project without laying the proper foundation. In a traditional model, the initial plan is crucial for project success.

    Advantages of traditional project management

    But that’s not to say that there’s no upside to the traditional method of project management. It also has unique advantages and specific use cases where it makes more sense.

    1. Control unchecked scope and cost creep

    While empowering your employees to manage themselves is crucial for productivity, they need a framework to keep them on track with the project.

    An in-depth, high-level plan with clear milestones can keep teams accountable and focused on the objectives that matter.

    2. Perfect match for flawless workflows

    The traditional methodology may not be the best for unpredictable, complex projects, but it’s the perfect match for flawless operations.

    If you can’t afford to take a new product live with any flaws, you can map out an entire process with multiple checks and balances to make sure you don’t break an SLA or end up with a faulty product.

    3. Manage and minimize risks

    Avoid falling into the trap of sunk costs by identifying all major risks before even getting started. Could the new product or service damage your positioning in the market? Would investing in this area take crucial funds away from a more vital project?

    With the traditional approach, you can stay on top of risks like these.

    4. Perfect for projects with limited unpredictability

    For projects and processes your company is used to with limited unpredictability, like creating a new website, there’s no problem with planning everything beforehand.

    You may want to read Product Focused vs. Project Focused: What better option to outsource your project?

    Traditional vs. Agile project management

    So when it comes to traditional vs. Agile, which method is better? Let’s start by looking at the differences in the workflow.

    What is the difference between traditional and Agile workflow?

    The main difference between a traditional and an Agile workflow is the timeframe. With a traditional workflow, you plan the entire project from start to finish.

    With Agile, you typically break down the project scope into iterations lasting 2–8 weeks:

    Waterfall vs. Agile diagram

    (Image Source)

    Which is better, traditional project management or Agile?

    Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut best choice between traditional and Agile project management.

    It depends on…

    • Your industry
    • The complexity and scope of your project
    • Your workflow
    • The product, service, or other goals of your project

    Even though most companies are at least experimenting with Agile frameworks, there’s a reason why managers still use traditional methods for over 50% of projects.

    Chart of 2020 project methodology usage

    (Image Source)

    Sometimes traditional is the best fit.

    • Choose Agile for projects that do not need a rigorous timeline with a high degree of unpredictability.
    • Choose traditional when the timeline needs to be predictable for efficient resource usage, like a construction site.

    Principles that transcend the “traditional” box

    If your team or company is making the switch to Agile, it’s common to try to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

    Of course, some of the values and ideas are at odds with traditional management principles. But not all of them.

    Many of the principles of traditional project management highlighted in the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) are still useful in an Agile workflow.

    • Risk management: switching to the Agile approach doesn’t mean you should forget about risks. You still need to evaluate projects before you get started.
    • Stakeholder analysis and engagement: if anything, stakeholder analysis is more crucial with Agile. You engage them throughout the project, not just during initial planning.
    • Project communications management: with Agile, a solid framework for communications is even more vital.


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    President & Chief Executive Officer

    About the author...

    Michael Manzo has nearly than 30 years of experience managing all aspects of software development including product management, user experience and interface design, engineering, quality assurance and marketing. Michael has served as President and CEO of CodeStringers since September 2014, having served as the company’s founding Chief Product Officer from July 2012.Prior to CodeStringers, Michael was Chief Marketing, Product and Strategy Officer at Openet, a leading global provider of transactional business and operational support system (B/OSS) software for telecom and cable firms, where he led marketing, product management, strategic planning and growth initiatives for the company. Manzo joined Openet as part of a turn-around team and, during his tenure, Openet grew from $15m in annual revenue to more than $150m, became the worldwide market share leader in the company’s primary product category, and developed a widely recognized reputation as the telecom infrastructure industry thought leader.Previously, Michael was Vice President of Products and Marketing for Traverse Networks, a fixed mobile convergence enterprise solution provider, which was acquired by Avaya. Michael has also held executive positions at Voice Access Technologies, Omnisky (acquired by EarthLink), Telocity (acquired by Hughes DirecTV), and Notify Technology Corporation. Michael has a BA in Journalism from the University of New Hampshire. In his spare time, Michael is an amateur woodworker, building indoor and outdoor furniture for friends and family. Until injuries sidelined him, Michael was an accomplished triathlete, having completed six Ironman distance races and numerous shorter distance races. Michael also served nine years in the U.S. Army Reserves and National Guard being honorably discharged as a Sergeant.

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