Agile vs. Traditional: an Unnecessary War


By Jeff Oltmann 

Portland, Oregon, USA

There’s a War On

There’s a war raging.   On one side are ardent agilists, who advocate managing projects using methods such as Scrum and XP.   On the other side are traditionalists, who prefer waterfall methods.  Just look at the venom in these excerpts from recent articles on project management and product development.

What are these opposing approaches to managing projects?   It’s a bit hard to pin down – and that’s part of the confusion – but here’s a broad distinction.   Traditional methods are planning-driven.  They place a high value on early and thorough planning before executing the plan.  Agile methods emphasize flexibility and incrementalism over detailed planning.  Agile projects string together a series of very short (typically 2 – 4 week) plan-do iterations rather than engaging in lot of advance planning.

Vacation in the Islands

An example may help.  Let’s say that you expect to take a month-long vacation in Hawaii.  If you use a traditional planning-driven approach, months before the trip you’ll study guidebooks, research event listings, plan your daily itinerary, and procure advance tickets to key activities.  When you arrive in Hawaii at the start of your vacation, everything is all laid out, including a pair of hard-to-get tickets to the Jimmy Buffet reunion concert that sold out months in advance.

Alternatively, you could manage this trip as an agile project using one week iterations. Before leaving for the islands, you’ll make a high-level wish list of activities that sound interesting, but you won’t spend much time on detailed pre-planning.   At the beginning of every week on Hawaii you’ll figure out what activities you will do that week based on your wish list, the weather forecast, and the people and places you discovered last week.  This sounds pretty good – it allows you to be flexible and explore your emerging interests, such as accepting a spontaneous invitation to attend an authentic family luau with a local resident that you met the first week.

Who’s Right?

Although this is an exaggerated example, it illustrates some of the pros and cons of each approach.  The traditional approach, with its emphasis on advance planning, is efficient when you have relatively clear knowledge about the future course the project is likely to take, the risk or cost of having to redo things  is low, or advance preparation confers important benefits such as managing long lead time orders.   You plan once and then do (perhaps with minor modifications). This allows you take advantage of opportunities like attending that once-in-a-lifetime Jimmy Buffet concert under the palm trees.


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About the Author

jeff-oltmannflag-usaJeff Oltmann 

Jeff Oltmann is principal consultant at Synergy Professional Services, LLC in Portland, Oregon, USA (www.spspro.com).  He is also on the graduate faculty of the Division of Management at Oregon Health and Science University.  Jeff welcomes your questions and ideas.  You can contact him at [email protected] or read previous articles at www.spspro.com/resources.htm.