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Marcia Lensges, Natalie Powers

Why are projects so painful? Identifying tensions in Hybrid Agile Project Management

Organizations spend millions of public and private dollars each year on projects, making successful project management (PM) an important priority for organizations and society at large. Previously, most projects followed a predictive (traditional/Waterfall) PM methodology, but recently, adaptive (Agile) PM has become popular. Extant research on these individual PM methods demonstrates their impact on project success and better outcomes for stakeholders, such as employees, customers, and suppliers. However, many organizations now take a hybrid approach, combining traditional and Agile methods within the same project/organization to achieve success. Yet little research has explored important aspects of hybrid models, such as how they are structured and tensions that arise. This is a meaningful omission as traditional and agile project methods are seemingly contradictory and can cause employee tensions when combined. In keeping with our Jesuit tradition of cura personalis, we explore Hybrid Agile with the goal of resolving tensions and improving the lives of employees and other stakeholders. Our research addresses three questions: 1. In Hybrid Agile environments, how do various leadership levels balance Agile and traditional methods? 2. How do Hybrid Agile environments emerge? 3. What PM tensions exist in Hybrid Agile environments? To explore our research questions, we used a qualitative grounded theory approach, collecting data through approximately 1-hour semi-structured interviews. All participants had experience working on projects including either traditional project methods, Agile project methods, or a combination of both. We interviewed 12 individuals (five females and seven males) with roughly 3-20+ years of PM experience. Sample questions included “Do you see your company as more agile or more traditional…why?” and “What tensions do you see between users of these (different) project methodologies or approaches within your organization?” All interviews were recorded and transcribed via professional transcription services. Using a data dictionary of themes corresponding to interview questions and our RQ’s, each researcher independently coded the transcript for lower-level themes and concepts. Coding differences were reconciled, with new codes added to the dictionary as they emerged in the data. Sample codes include “hybrid tensions” and “reason for organization’s project methodology”. As noteworthy observations emerged from the data, we created memos explaining the phenomena we were seeing and links to existing PM theory. Next, we analyzed our codes for common higher-level themes, reviewing related extant PM research to explain what we were observing. One important initial finding was that PM practitioners have differing definitions of Agile and traditional methods. This lack of common understanding produces ripple effects throughout the organization, causing confusion on how to implement pieces of each. Second, combining methodologies creates tensions at various hierarchy levels and in areas such as organizational structure, performance systems design, and managing project constraints effectively. These tensions result in resentment of Agile PM, attempts to coerce one methodology into the other, and confusion among project teams regarding leadership roles. We also captured several reasons why Hybrid Agile PM emerges, including customer needs, vendor needs, government project requirements, and project management office requirements. A future research agenda for Hybrid Agile PM is proposed.