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What distinguishes agile from traditional ways of working?

As companies need to act faster and more flexibly, more and more companies are questioning traditional project management methods. Agile working promises to make companies more dynamic. Read in this blog post how agile work differs from traditional work and which projects are suitable for it.

More and more companies are switching from traditional to agile methods.

In the software and IT industry, product cycles are short and the requirements for a solution can change very quickly. Traditional methods such as the waterfall model are therefore less and less suitable for developing applications. It is difficult to separate the individual phases of a project: For example, subsequent tests can reveal weaknesses in the basic architecture. Or the requirements change because a competitor has already brought a better solution onto the market.

In order to be able to act more flexibly, more and more software developers are using agile working methods such as Scrum or Kaban. In the meantime, many other industries also use these and similar working methods. After all, speed and flexibility are becoming important competitive factors throughout the economy and are particularly in demand in innovation management. 

Agile working is based on loops

Agile working is fundamentally different from traditional methods. The process is not linear, as in the waterfall model, but follows a loop: A team derives concepts from customer needs and develops prototypes. These go through tests that show whether the user's needs are satisfied. The result is the basis for a new loop in which prototypes are refined until they meet the defined requirements.

These 4 aspects illustrate the difference between agile and traditional

Due to the process dominated by cycles, traditional working methods differ from agile ones primarily in these four aspects: 

1) Project management

If a project is processed linearly, a project manager is responsible for its success. Often only this person knows about the overall requirements and the schedule and assigns precisely defined work packages to the team members. The project manager monitors the implementation and also creates the environment for the team members to be able to deliver what is required.

For agile methods like Scrum, this role is shared: The product owner is responsible for ensuring that the requirements defined in the product backlog are met. The Scrum master, on the other hand, is not involved in the content of the project. He ensures that the project becomes a success by creating the framework conditions for it. The Scrum Master monitors compliance with the Scrum rules and supports the project team as moderator and coach. 

2) Responsibility

In the traditional way of working, only the project manager needs to know the goals. He is the one who bears the responsibility for success and must therefore be able to decide for himself how he wants to achieve the goal.

With agile methods it is necessary that all participants know about the whole project in detail. Scrum and Co. thus shift the responsibility away from management to the development teams. Because if everyone knows the goals and visions, or even has a say in them, then everyone is responsible for their realization. The team members do not receive fixed work packages, but can decide for themselves how they want to achieve the set goal. Each individual therefore enjoys more personal responsibility. 

3) Communication

If a project is implemented in defined phases, communication is more or less limited to the clear instructions of the project manager. The project manager can assign precisely defined work packages to the team members.

Agile approaches, on the other hand, require much more communication. The success of a project depends on whether everyone involved has the same level of information about the goals, the current status quo, progress, hurdles and any changes. With Scrum, for example, this communication flow is given by various fixed meetings: At the Daily Scrum, the team briefly but regularly coordinates what each individual has achieved since the last meeting, what they will achieve by the next meeting and what obstacles could prevent them from doing so. These meetings don't necessarily have to take place on a daily basis. Rather, the project and the framework conditions determine the meaningful rhythm of the meetings. In addition, Scrum also provides for further meetings. At the beginning and end of each sprint, for example. 

4) Structure

The traditional way of working requires a clear hierarchical structure of an organization. Each individual has a clearly defined role, which he or she fulfils in the best possible way.

At first glance, agile working methods do not seem to be subject to any structure. But this impression is deceptive. The structure at Scrum & Co. refers less to people and functions, but more to rules of the game and communication. A company must adapt and adapt both to its own needs. The technical term for this is "Scrumbut". This includes deviations from standards such as the Scrum-Guide. 

Agile methods are not suitable for all projects

In theory, the agile way of working seems to be generally superior to the traditional: It allows companies to act more dynamically and flexibly, leaving the times behind as ponderous and immobile top-down organizations. And since employees have more co-responsibility, they are more satisfied and feel more closely connected to the company. In addition, agile working offers many other advantages. But sometimes the traditional procedure is better suited to handling projects. In practice Scrum & Co. show the following strengths and weaknesses: 

  1. Simple projects can be completed faster and with less effort using the traditional working method. The communication and coordination effort is higher with agile methods than when a project runs according to previously defined and unquestioned "orderly paths".
  2. The agile approach is the better choice under time pressure. Even if the effort for communication and coordination is higher than in the waterfall model: Scrum & Co. animate teams to deliver something ready, something tangible (Minimum Viable Products) or tangible progress as fast as possible. And: agile working methods also make it possible to process parts of the project in parallel and thus save time.
  3. If a project takes a long time and there is a high probability that the requirements for the finished product will change, Scrum & Co. will lead to better results. Because agile working methods make it possible to realize new or other product characteristics without restarting the entire process.
  4. It is no coincidence that the agile working methods are particularly popular in the software industry. Because the effort to change prototypes is relatively low. When it comes to hardware, designs consume far more resources. Virtual prototypes or digital prototyping are a way out of the dilemma. Computer models serve as designs whose properties and functions can be tested virtually. So it also depends on the product itself whether agile methods can be applied at all. 

Conclusion: What distinguishes agile from traditional ways of working?

Increasing competition forces companies to achieve better results faster. More and more companies are therefore questioning traditional methods for handling projects. In the short-lived software industry, agile models such as Scrum or Kaban have already proven themselves. They promise to turn slow top-down organizations into flexible and dynamic companies. The differences between traditional and agile working methods are enormous. But Scrum & Co. are not always the better choice.


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Tanja Eschberger-Friedl

With her clear and focused way of working, Tanja supports you with strategic innovation management and the successful development of product, process, and market innovations. Tanja always keeps an eye on the essentials. Holistic solutions are her aim. She applies her specialist knowledge as a scrum master and agility coach to achieve this.

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