Why Amy is agile and Paula loves her prototype
The 3 schools of project thinking
Recently, I have been asked to go on stage for a “science slam”. I agreed, and after short consideration, I decided to talk about the main schools of project thinking.
Most people have already heard about “agile” project management. But some still have a fuzzy understanding of what it actually is. Does “agile” necessarily mean “Scrum”? Is it superior to traditional, phase-oriented approaches? How is it related to prototyping and design-oriented thinking? These are some of the questions I wanted to tackle. And since – surprisingly enough – the audience liked what I presented, I decided to post this “project slam”.
Too lazy to read? Watch the video (German)!
Once upon a time, there were three kids, William the oldest one, and his two sisters, Paula and Amy. The three lived happily together with their parents, Mary and Marc. Marc was an engineer by heart, and Mary – not less passionate and skilled – a successful sculptor. The three kids, even if they had the same parents (no milkman involved here), could not have been different. They had their individual perceptions, mindsets, and talents. Nevertheless, all three were able to manage the challenges of life – with their diverse approaches.
Let’s talk about William for example. One sunny day, William had an idea. “I want to build a swing”, he stated aloud to himself. “But how?”, he added less noisy.
William, entirely his father’s son, immediately analyzed the challenge. How would the perfect swing look like? William created a detailed list of requirements. The perfect swing would be designed for all three kids, it would be easy to assemble, independent of location, robust, weatherproof, and many things more. After adding dozens of requirements, William started his conceptual work. He made sophisticated technical drawings and undertook concurrent calculations. For these complicated tasks, he went to his room, locked the door, and spent plenty of time in complete isolation.
On the other side of his door, the two sisters were wondering what their brother was doing. But since they knew William, they were not too worried, and went out into the garden for playing.
Paula all of a sudden, had an idea. “I’ll build a swing”, she told her little sister. And Amy smiled in joyful anticipation. So Paula, entirely her mother’s daughter, collected whatever stuff and material she could find. Loose branches from a tree, rusty screws, cardboard, rope, everything that was not nailed down, she manufactured into her first sample of a swing. This of course, was premature in every respect. But it was suitable to demonstrate the idea and quickly receive Amy’s response. Based on this, Paula shaped the design of the swing. Paula re-built and showed, and Amy responded, and Paula re-built and showed again. This way it went, until Amy was entirely happy with the final prototype.
Coincidentally, exactly in this moment, the door of William’s room opened and he proclaimed to have a solution, too. Now the three could decide which conception they’d prefer to implement.
Let’s recap the situation.
William is a theoretician and analytical thinker. He plans like a waterfall. One plan flows into a more detailed plan until it eventually flows into the ultimate plan (or concept or model), suitable for producing the desired result. William believes in a “best solution”. For William, finding this best solution is the goal.
Paula in contrast is a pragmatic explorer who does not believe into a theoretical “best solution”. For her, the best solution is something that is designed for the needs of the target group. Staying open-minded and taking not too many own assumptions are essential for finding out these needs. For Paula, this way of finding out is an essential part of the goal. Paula’s instruments for walking her path are prototypes.
Independent of all mentioned differences, William’s and Paula’s procedures have similarities, too. Both aim to create a “good model”, which serves as a blueprint for the final product. The assumptions of what makes a model a “good” model are different, of course. But in the end, both approaches, (William’s) Waterfall as well as (Paula’s) Prototyping, have a long period of shaping requirements before eventually producing the defined result.
And what about Amy?
As the youngest sister, she learned from the others.
From William she learned to plan. And from Paula she learned to quickly show and adapt. But Amy neither aims to create an ultimate plan, nor does she develop prototypes. Instead, Amy quickly produces useable results! Quite naturally, these results were comparably small, but they were fully functioning. And they could be used to build up a bigger product. This way, Amy invented something new, a step-by-step production. This procedure, she called the “agile” approach.
The agile approach must not be confused with prototyping (even if both approaches are iterative). At the end of Paula’s iterative phases, we have results which are premature and thus can be modified (maybe even entirely thrown away). At the end of Amy’s iterative phases, we have results, which are mature products, small but definite, fully tested and functioning. While Paula’s results are made to be changed, Amy’s results are made to be productive.
To sum it up, William does the waterfall, he thinks like an engineer. Paula loves prototyping, she thinks like a designer. Amy is agile; she combines elements of the two approaches and adds something special. The following tables compares the three schools of project thinking in greater detail.
by Frank Habermann