Agile methods do (not) make projects more successful

Major projects such as the new airport in Berlin, Stuttgart 21, or the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, which finally opened its doors seven years later and with 700 million Euros additional cost in January 2017, are undertakings, which seemed to be doomed to failure due to long planning cycles and missing flexibility. Projects that are using agile methods may be the solution. By means of them, the implementation could not only be put into practice faster and more purposeful, but also with fewer mistakes. Is the triumph of agile work unstoppable? Can science confirm the higher success rate of agile and iterative projects?

The basic principle of all agile approaches is to work in short iteration cycles, in which the client is confronted with the provisional result and makes corresponding partial acceptance or change requirements. This results in the specification of the product only during the course of the project itself.

The first approaches to agile work came from software development and programming (e.g. Kentbeck (1999)) and also expressed an attitude of mind. Thus, the Agile Manifesto (Sutherland, Beck, Cunningham, et al.) was formulated from agile principles and values in 2001, a document whose list of signatories continues to grow.

Nowadays, the use of agile methods, especially in software development, dominates 90% in companies. In IT-related projects, 41% of companies use agile methods, whereas in projects without IT, only 27% of companies do so. Basically, the use of agile methods promises a greater success in projects. These figures and the trend that more and more companies and in which organized project teams are striving for agile work are based on the results of the study by the BPM Laboratory for Business Excellence at Koblenz University in cooperation with the GPM and the IPMA from the year 2015.

The study “Status Quo Agile” shows that over 600 participants from 30 countries gave an insight into the spread and benefits of agile methods for the second time.

50% of the interviewees used mixed forms (hybrids) of agile and classic project management approaches, 25% used pure agile methods and approx. 15% used classic tools. Furthermore, agile practices perform better than classic project management methods in all the criteria examined, such as result quality, teamwork, employee motivation, deadline, efficiency, customer orientation and transparency. The user group, which operates completely and constantly agile, is more successful in their projects than the hybrid users. In a further study, the researchers of the BPM laboratory of the University of Koblenz in the analysis of 400 projects determined evidence-based effects of 200 success factors from 14 categories such as communication, stakeholder analysis, team motivation or change request management.

The factor “roll definition and competency clarification in project organization has worked very well” has the greatest effect. In successful projects the tasks were meaningful and clearly distributed. Top factors 2 and 3 refer to the early management of risks and timely decisions. Factors 4, 5, 6 and 7 revolve around fault culture, successful escalation, value-neutral consideration of differences of opinion and working environment (Komus et al., 2015).

HRpepper sets both studies in relation: it is striking that the top 30 ranked success factors of the second study contain special consideration and practices for agile project management methods. For example, statements such as “Keeping a transparent project very important” or “Retrospective (systematic ex-post analysis) have a great effect on success” are the focus of agile practices such as the Daily-Scrum or the Kanban-Board. This can be repeated with other statements.

The well-known scientist Margaret Grün-Kerr (2013) comes to the conclusion – taking into consideration the work (e.g. chaos report by the Standish Group, Tsun Chow, and Dac-Buu Cao A survey study of critical success factors in agile software projects, 2007) – that agile methods, in particular concrete agile practices, can be identified as a key factor for success.

The research results described above show that agile methods are not only increasing in popularity, but are actually making the projects more successful. As it is well known that a conclusion on individual cases is not permissible, it remains open whether we could have enjoyed concerts in the Elbphilharmonie by 2010 by using agile methods.