The broad project management sector has been seeking ways to reorient itself to meet client demands in an increasingly mercurial and fluid world. A related challenge is determining what metrics should be used to assess progress of a project undertaken in this new environment.
The challenges posed by the first question – the need to deal with the complexities of modern business development -- led to new "agile" processes that are far more flexible than their predecessors. The legacy approach, known as waterfall project management, is highly structured. Goals are set at the beginning of the initiative. At the end, those original goals are used to assess the project's success. The newer approach, called agile project management, features constant self-inspection and the ability to adjust as business conditions and corporate goals change.
It's not surprising that the metrics are different in these two approaches. "Waterfall project management in software is a gamble," wrote Wrike.com CEO Andrew Filev in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. "You're investing huge amounts of time to follow a schedule, and keeping your fingers crossed that the target hasn't moved while you were working. It's a great methodology for building a bridge or an airport, but it doesn't work for the fast-moving nature of software markets."
Its proponents say that agile is attuned to a rapidly changing world because of the built-in and intense feedback loop. "On the agile side, instead of following a strict schedule of milestones, we measure our progress within each time fame," said Kelley O'Connell, PMP, the Agile Coach at Lincoln Financial Group. "We say things like, 'This bit of work will be done in the next two weeks.' We get feedback and work two more weeks. We measure the velocity of the job in those types of time frames."
Metrics for Simpler Times Are Evolving
Waterfall metrics show that a project is on time or late, is on or over budget and other simple facts. Agile calculates insights that are aimed at painting the picture of whether customers are satisfied. This is far more difficult. An example of customer satisfaction may be moving a feature that became hot after the project started to an earlier release than initially anticipated.
Experts say that waterfall approaches still have a significant role, particularly in cases in which the goals are unlikely to shift over time. Dr. Harold Kerzner, the senior executive director of the International Institute for Learning and Professor Emeritus of Systems Management at Baldwin Wallace University, hints that waterfall is not totally limited in the metrics used and that it too is changing with the times.
"Waterfall tends to define success in terms of just time, cost and scope even though we encourage the use of other metrics as well," Kerzner wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. "Unfortunately, success cannot be measured in terms of just time, cost and scope, and most waterfall projects are now recognizing this and changing. True success is when business value is created by the project. In waterfall, business value is very difficult to measure until the project is over."
Agile metrics are more complex. An unattributed blogger at Alexsoft.com's website took a deep dive into the world of agile metrics. In general, this methodology involves sprints (features added in a particular iteration of software), velocity (the number of features completed in a sprint), cycle time (the amount of time spent on a task) and cumulative flow diagrams (the status of different tasks at different points in a project).
Other metrics and measurements are project specific. The bottom line is that agile approaches tread a fine between maintaining flexibility while not letting projects spin out of control because of that very openness.
"In addition to key details of the health of a project’s schedule, scope, budget, we have found that it's really important to track client sentiment," John Reese, the senior vice president of Marketing at Mavenlink wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. "Even if delivered on time and on budget, if the client is unhappy it will not be considered a success. There is too much competition today — firms need to exceed client expectations at every opportunity, or their client will go elsewhere."
Metrics continue to change in both the agile and waterfall worlds. "For simplicity’s sake, we can define project metrics as 'core' metrics that are reported on all projects and 'specialized' metrics related to the size and nature of a specific project as well as client requested metrics," Kerzner wrote. "My belief is that both waterfall and agile environments are struggling with the selection of 'specialized' or project-specific metrics, and this is leading both organizations to struggle with 'metric mania' where the firm may be using more metrics than necessary."
Can the Two Combine?
One of the controversies in the industry is whether it is possible to combine agile and waterfall approaches. That is one decision organizations face. Filev wrote that some teams take waterfall projects, break them into shorter "sprints," and assume that they are agile.
There is a danger, however, that this may miss the point. "Agile isn't just about working fast, it's about changing the course of the project throughout to steer toward the moving target of your customers' needs, and consistently testing and validating that the path you're choosing is the best one," Filev wrote. "If you're just breaking down a waterfall schedule and trying to execute it quickly using sprints, you're missing this key component."
Perhaps they are coming together at a deeper level. "Competitive pressure from agile approaches is changing how we look at waterfall projects," Kerzner wrote. "The three areas where agile appears to have the greatest influences on changes in waterfall projects is in (1) the measurement and reporting of benefits realized, (2) the measurement and reporting of business value created both during project execution and at completion, and (3) the continuous measurement and reporting that the project is still aligned with strategic business objectives."
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.