Should Your Next Project Use Traditional Methods or Agile?


How do you know if you should start your next project using a traditional methodology (SDLC) or an Agile one? The first step is to determine the type of system you are working within.  Systems are a set of interacting parts that form to create one whole, for example different specialities that together form a hospital. If you are doing business, you are managing a system.

Different Types of Systems

As humans, we like it when the world around us is simple. We like knowing if we change A, then B will be affected in this way. Unfortunately many systems are not simple, and it is important to know which systems are simple and which aren’t, so that you can use the best approach to manage them.

So how do you determine the complexity of your solution?  A helpful1 model for understanding complexity is the Cynefin framework.

Cynefin system.png


Simple Systems

Let’s say your company makes medical devices. You know exactly how many you need, what they will look like, the materials to create them, etc. The making of the device is formulaic, so you know if you change one thing another thing is affected. You don’t need a process that can handle much complexity. You can load up your machines and they can do their thing. No problem. That is a simple process.

When your project is simple, the relationship between cause and effect is clear, and you can implement best practices.

Image: Berger, Jennifer Garvey; Johnston, Keith (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 237, n. 7.

Complicated Systems

In a complicated business system, cause and effect can still be determined, but it requires analysis and investigation. It is still possible to have “best practices” and to follow them, because although complicated, it is still clear what the problem is after some analysis.

Take a pharmaceutical manufacturer, for example, where the process is known, but there are multiple variations. The many paths along the way, depending on the concentration and formulas, can add a layer of intricacy. Careful analysis can uncover these paths in detail, which can be mapped. Experts can explain exactly the cause and effect of each decision.

The ability to map out each scenario means you can have one person delegating work to the team, as the tasks are clearly laid out.

Traditional Project Management

If you are working in a domain that is either simple or complicated, traditional project management techniques will work well for you. The detailed plans that are inherent to this process can help you understand the upcoming work and control it.

Complex Systems

In complex situations, you ask questions and learn more, sense what is going on, and respond. Since each situation is unique, there are no practices that work exactly the same for each situation. The product, time, circumstance, market, and technology have never been done exactly like this before. Instead, you experiment to discover patterns and deduce the best solution for the problem.

Experts can reference what has worked in the past and craft experiments to see if those approaches will work in this circumstance. It’s not quite a “best practice” because there’s no way to know if the practice will work until you’ve tried it, it’s more of a “best-practice to experiment with.” This means that answers are emergent – you only know if you’ve found the right thing by trying it. It makes more sense to test something than to create a detailed plan.

In order to thrive in this environment, expect that you will have to adapt to changes quickly, deal with multiple conflicts, and be continually learning and iterating behaviors based on those learnings.  

Having a top-down hierarchy, where the boss directs their subordinates, won’t work well in this scenario. The system is too complex for one individual to know what the best course of action is for every situation. Instead, leadership needs to coach team members who have the authority to choose the best action in the moment. Team members have the best knowledge of what to do, and seek counsel and coaching from leadership as needed.

Chaotic Systems

Finally, if the business is chaotic, there is no relationship between cause and effect. Similar to a complex situation, you learn by doing, but you don’t have time to probe and find more. You must immediately act, then sense what might be the best solution and respond.

Emergency rooms are often chaotic. If a patient comes in bleeding, you immediately jump into action to help, and try to move the situation from chaotic to complex. Once the situation has been controlled a bit, then it becomes complex, and the medical staff can begin the probing, so they can fix the problem.

Situations that involve people can often become chaotic, because individuals have different histories, beliefs, and ideas. Leadership must be present so that some systems are in place and people feel cared for. This keeps teams in complex situations rather than chaotic ones.

If you’ve worked at a business where people are in a cycle of fear, without leaders who care, you know what it’s like to be in a chaotic system. If a leader comes in who cares, and can implement some processes that work, it becomes the difference between that company’s success and failure.

Complexity and Chaos in the Healthcare Industry

The healthcare industry is built on complex problems with more complicated solutions. With each product launch or introduction of a patient program, using the right process can often be the difference between success and failure. If you are in the healthcare industry, Agile methodologies can help you traverse the complex landscape of today’s quickly-changing world.

The market moves quickly–can you adapt to move with it, or will you be left behind?


1  “All models are wrong but some are useful.” Box, George and Norman Draper. Evolutionary Operation. New York: Wiley, 1969 and Appelo, Jurgen, Management 3.0.


Once you’ve selected a methodology, it’s important to build a strong team. Check out this blog post by Medullan’s Director of People Growth, Mike Moore, on the  5 Must-Haves for Building Great Teams.


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