Improve Project Success Using A Hybrid Agile Framework

Improve Project Success Using a Hybrid Agile Framework

Combining traditional project management methodologies with hybrid models impacts the way projects are planned and managed.  A hybrid approach can increase the end results, delivering customer requirements and organizational strategic imperatives.  But a cultural shift within the organization is critical to its success.   

The Challenges

Agile project management has become the buzz word for how all projects should be managed. It has effectively been used in software development projects. However, no one explains how to use Agile in other types of projects, including: product development, service development, innovation, marketing, human resources, research and development, to name a few.  Many disciples of Agile project management believe that everything should be managed according to the Agile doctrine – and only using Agile methodology.  Yet leaders of PMOs and project managers are struggling with how to manage projects in a purely Agile environment.  One reason is that Agile dictates sprints of 2 or 3 weeks to deliver a measurable, testable product, but many projects are considerably longer in length.

Why Agile or Waterfall?

It is easy to blame the traditional, Waterfall project management approach as a reason for why so many projects are in crisis. Maybe it’s because of the linear approach to how these projects are designed and managed. Agile seems less constrained, more free-spirited, and more flexible in responding to changing customer needs. It works well when time is less critical; that is, a defined, hard date for delivery is not a key project parameter. For example, product development projects often have many changes throughout their life-cycle because of testing, re-testing, prototyping, changing customer requirements and so on. They also have a specific deadline which must be met or the company can lose market share.

Where requirements are uncertain, Agile is very effective. It produces small product releases, which meet small, defined requirements. Self-organizing teams are crucial to its success, rather than a traditional project team, assigned specific tasks throughout the life of the project. Agile allows for quick fixes and iterations over getting it right the first time. It values speed over perfection. But there are also some challenges with Agile. For one thing, it’s not easy to use managing large project teams or teams split over varied locations. Another challenge is that teams inadvertently focus on producing user stories that describe a solution rather than defining the solution outcomes and the innovation process to get there.

The Waterfall approach to project planning works well when the underlying mechanisms of the project are reasonably understood. When a process is too complicated for this defined approach, a hybrid approach, which combines the Waterfall and Agile frameworks, is more effective.

Cultural Shift

Moving to a hybrid approach that applies both Agile and Waterfall frameworks can be very effective. However, organizations must invest in training and manage cultural adjustments. Agile seems daunting to those project managers and project teams accustomed to working in a purely Waterfall environment. As well, moving from one method directly to another, can be damaging to a project’s success. Migrating to a hybrid approach allows for an easier cultural shift.

As projects become more complex, standard project planning becomes more challenging. This is because of the long timelines (often 1 to 5 years in duration) and number of tasks required in planning (project plans will generally identify over 5,000 tasks to ensure successful completion). Organizations that insist on extensive documentation will find the transition from Waterfall to Agile more challenging. For example, traditional project reporting must change; PMOs must move away from their traditional PMO roles of portfolio reporting based on project progress. To become more Agile, PMOs will have to adjust reporting requirements on the progress of project sprints; how the sprints are helping the scrum teams realize the project’s overall goal, and how the sprint teams are constantly managing risk and change.

Agile PMOs also need to adjust their training and coaching to align with a hybrid approach. They must alter their methodologies and processes to ensure all project managers, scrum masters, product owners, etc. understand the overall process of managing projects and how combining Waterfall and Agile methodologies into a hybrid approach will enable their ability to be more successful. This will be a major shift for most PMO’s.

Agile methodologies bring with them the Agile value set, which promotes knowledge sharing and acceptance of change as an embedded part of the process. Projects running with Scrum have dedicated project rooms with Scrum Boards and use Scrum methods. Herein lies another challenge—traditional project teams rarely have this opportunity for a dedicated room or dedicated resources.

Many organizations are still managing their projects using the Waterfall framework. Training and coaching will help to make the cultural shift necessary to move people to a hybrid approach. However, consultants who focus solely on Agile methods, can create unnecessary and negative cultural impacts on an organization. This is because they don’t understand how to manage the change from traditional Waterfall frameworks to Agile ones. Nor do they consider the use of a hybrid approach. They tend to throw out the old and expect an immediate adherence to the new. There are many reasons for this severe approach to change, but one of them is that they only know Agile and lack an understanding of traditional project management models. Hybrid-trained consultants can help organizations successfully migrate to a hybrid approach because of their combined knowledge of both Waterfall and Agile project management methodologies.

Traditional Waterfall Approach

The traditional approach to new product development and other non-software type projects engages resources into groups of functional specialists who pass their completed work to the next group and so on. Projects move sequentially from phase to phase: concept development, feasibility testing, product design, development process, pilot production, and final production. All functions are specialized and segmented: the marketing team examines customer needs and perceptions in developing product concepts; the R&D engineers select the appropriate design, which the production engineers create, and other functional specialists engage as required.

How Agile Project Management is Different

The Agile approach offers a significant change in how these projects are managed.  One critical difference is that, within Agile, there are constant interactions between various multidisciplinary teams whose members work together from start to finish of the project. They don’t work within highly structured stages, rather they have constant interplay with each other.  For example, a group of engineers may start to design the product before all the results of the feasibility tests are in. Or the team may reconsider a decision resulting from new information. The team interactions never stop, they continue to engage in iterative experimentation.   Essentially, Agile can accelerate certain stages of a New Product Development (NPD) or Stage/Gate framework.

The Hybrid Approach

Moving to the next level is the Hybrid approach. It takes the best of traditional Waterfall methods and combines them with the best of Agile methods. A hybrid process starts by clearly defining and documenting the overall scope of the project. This is inherent in the Waterfall method. Project scope must be clearly defined and a project deadline set before creating a high-level project plan. The initial project plan doesn’t take long to create because it is done at a high-level of granularity. These project plans have many elements of certainty (linear processes such as marketing, training, manufacturing) and uncertainty (product development). Agile takes over to manage these project plan uncertainties. It starts by reviewing the entire project plan to identify the deliverables and related tasks that have a level of uncertainty. It continues by defining the goal and expected outcomes/results, from realizing each of these “uncertain” deliverable(s). This step is essential because if goals aren’t clearly defined, the scrum teams will struggle to create their stories.

By incorporating the best of both project management frameworks, the hybrid approach allows PMOs to improve results for longer projects and manage risks better by dealing with uncertainty more effectively.

The Opportunity

Ultimately, the most important question for all projects is, “Did we deliver an outcome that met or exceeded the organization’s goals and objectives?” After all, management really doesn’t care what project management framework is used to deliver a project. What they care about is whether the project delivers their organizational goals and whether the project manager/team can deliver it.

A hybrid approach to managing some projects can offer advantages and be highly effective. But doing it properly requires forethought and preparation. It’s important to prepare people for the changes in adapting to the hybrid way of doing things.


Management will still expect reports on the progress of these projects. They need to understand that scrum team members collaborate intensively to build products according to goals they repeatedly negotiate with the product owner, who is responsible for making the team’s business decisions. Therefore, reporting frequency will likely change in accordance with the end of every fixed length sprint (i.e., every two or three weeks).

PMOs must re-think their approach to how projects should be managed. Managing some projects using a hybrid approach creates change. This must be managed carefully. Management still expects reports on the progress of these projects. Management must be educated so they understand that scrum team members collaborate intensively to build products according to goals they repeatedly negotiate with the product owner, who is responsible for making the team’s business decisions. Results are demonstrated at the end of every fixed length sprint (i.e., every two or three weeks).

Project Productivity

PMOs and management should be made aware that project productivity initially dips when moving to Agile. Well-trained teams will take up to a year to reach their potential. They’ll need continuous coaching and mentoring from a highly skilled Scrum Master.

PMOs must report to management on the successes of each sprint and the ability of the teams to work toward the final project goal. Agile enthusiasts sometimes forget that the management team expects the entire project to be completed by a pre-determined date and to realize specific, measurable outcomes that align with one or more of their strategic imperatives. The PMO, through their reports, will help management recognize how the sprint teams are working towards this.


Moving to this hybrid approach will increase an organization’s project success, accelerate the completion time-lines of their projects and positively impact their customers.  Management, through continuous education and communication will recognize that the success of the hybrid process arises from improved process visibility, better defined goals, and the development of high-performance agile teams with a high degree of employee ownership and team independence.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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