Agile projects beyond IT? Empirical study shows how to make a sensible decision

Categories: All articlesPublished On: 26.05.2021

During digitalization, companies are confronted with new types of projects ever more frequently and intensely. The strong customer orientation, the high-speed dynamics and the strong interplay between IT and digitalization projects predestines this type of project for the use of agile methods (see article 

As a result, a sense of hype has developed in some places. An attempt is being made to integrate at least individual elements of agility into as many projects as possible, in an attempt to make them more effective. Agility is seen as a kind of all-purpose tool that can be used to solve a wide variety of problems. The whole thing reminds us of Mark Twain’s famous observation: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Of course, this hype shoots far beyond the target. Not all projects are suitable for agile control and not all organizations meet the necessary conditions. Rather, the question arises when and where agile project management approaches outside of digitalization and IT promise greater success than classic project management approaches, i.e. how meaningful added value can be distinguished from largely meaningless hype.

acondas has systematically investigated this question in cooperation with the University of Economics and Law Berlin (HWR Berlin). In an empirical study, a large sample of experienced project managers with experience heading both classic and agile-controlled projects in DAX30 companies were interviewed at length to determine what criteria they use to select the project management method for a specific project, what experiences they have had doing so, and what they think is particularly important to consider.

“Practitioners take into account different aspects such as uncertainty, degree of innovation, complexity and dynamics in order to establish an optimal project setup”, Philipp Gramann of acondas, the head of the study, reports in his analysis. “In addition to the various organizational requirements, two essential features emerge from a wide array of unique factors that predict the suitability of concrete projects for agile approaches:”

1.   Ability to specify the expected project result at project start

The more comprehensively and detailed the desired result of a project can be defined and potentially set to a timeline, the greater the likelihood that classical project management methods are appropriate.

However, if the desired project result is only generally specified, for example as a vision or a shared idea, agile methods can be the right approach.

2.   Expected stability of the project scope

If it is clear from the outset what work content must be mastered in order to achieve the project objective and if this scope is expected to remain substantially unchanged over the term, a classical project management approach can lead to success.

If, however, the scope of the project is uncertain or if further topics and task packages are likely to be added or become obsolete in the course of the project, the flexibility of an agile approach is helpful.

Practical application examples can be described in the combination of these two criteria:

·   The scope, milestones and expected work results of structural change projects such as carve outs and post-merger integrations (PMI) can be defined in advance in a clear and stable way. In most cases, such projects must be completed for commercial or tax reasons in compliance with a fixed schedule. They therefore require a classic setup including appropriate project and work organization.

·   In the development of new products and services, however, in the beginning there is usually rather more of a rough idea than a completely clear picture of the final results to be achieved. At first, it remains open which aspects and subject areas will be added or dropped in the course of the project. In practice, the same applies to other relevant project types, such as business model development or the conception of new organizational structures. They are therefore very well suited for an agile approach.

“In general, agile project management can be successful even without compelling IT or digitization relevance,” said HWR Berlin Professor Barbara Beham, who accompanied the study. “However, this does not apply to every type of project; it requires conscious and systematic consideration. The results of our study offer effective assistance in this task, which is highly relevant in practice.”