Agile Project Management: It’s Got Legs

Agile Project Management. Where does it fit on the Stacey Complexity Graph?

Scrum and Agile generally are getting more popular because more and more work is becoming complicated, complex and even chaotic. Scrum and Agile work well in complexity and chaos because they are empirical in nature and as such, feature more frequent inspection. Scrum and most all Agile methods are empirical; empiricism is very effective when the situation under consideration is complex or even chaotic.

The Stacey Complexity Graph depicts these general zones and it is worthwhile to investigate the topography of this diagram if you are unfamiliar with it; this post assumes you know the Stacey graph.

What is happening is this: more and more of the surface of the Stacey graph is being consumed by complexity. More and more work is complex. The frontier of complexity and chaos is expanding. The frontier is more a wide fuzzy band that it is a very clear line or border. Regardless– more and more complexity is reality, even for previously ‘traditional’ project management projects.

Technology is driving all the change-on-change.

This is creating a situation where empirical methods are superior for managing work.

Repeat, this is creating a situation.

And the situation is this: the regular-old Project Manager is getting squeezed. More and more work is complicated and even complex and chaotic. This is forcing traditional PM’s to adopt Agile ways. The egg-shaped region in the center of the diagram is the traditional zone for Project Management: relatively high levels of agreement, and relatively low levels of complexity. There are many projects, even software projects, that are located here. Seriously.


The Stacey Complexity Graph. The frontier of Complexity, driven by technological change, is growing out from upper right to lower left. More and more work is more and more complex, day by day. This has implications far beyond software projects.


The green frontier shows how complexity and chaos are expanding to envelope more and more of our work in modern society. Towards the lower-left of the diagram, we have well-understood, even boring tasks like cutting the grass. Or paying your bills. No PM needed. Up towards the upper right, we have utter chaos and complexity. This is a zone where no Project Manager can help you, whatsoever,  because the rate of change is too big. You must use empirical approaches– frequent inspection—  to get a grip on reality near the upper-right of this graph.

So, using this graph, we can make the following assertions:

  • Some work is perfectly suited for management by traditional PMs. The quantity of this type of work is decreasing every day.
  • The rate of change in the world, driven by technology, is increasing. This increases complexity– and has the effect of making more and more work complex in nature. The quantity of complex and even chaotic work is increasing every day.
  • The traditional PM is getting squeezed. These PMs must adapt quickly.
  • For more and more work, there is a range of blended approaches, with ‘pure PM’ at one extreme and ‘pure Empiricism’ at the other extreme. In between, blended approaches make total sense. This is an opportunity for people managing these projects to engage in an art form. That art form is the creation of a tailored and customized project approach which perfectly manifests what is called requisite agility. It is the ideal, optimal level of Agility for a given situation. It is always tailored. For more detail on this, see the post, Requisite Agility: The Command and Control Military Gets Agile.


I think these explanations may be very useful, perhaps essential,  for anyone busy debating the merits of the Agile Project Manager. The Agile PM certainly has a place in the effective management of work, yet certainly, not all kinds of work. Yet increasingly, more and more work is well suited for an Agile PM approach. This is what I am calling empiricism injection. It is happening everywhere. The name of the game is the proper characterization of the project. From there, the right blended approach can be crafted and deployed.

The scary thing– and the thing driving growth of Agile (read: “empirical”) approaches– is the amazing rate of change IN the rate of change. The rate of change– across the whole world of work, and human civilization as a whole– is accelerating very quickly. This explains why the PMI is coming into Agile, explains the growth of Agile methods, and the effectiveness of using them. There is a small place for the traditional PM, a growing place for the blended PM, and a rapidly expanding place for the the purely empirical Agile approach. At one extreme, pure Agile is overkill. At the other, it is the only way. In between, we have more and more places where Agility plays well, and with it the opportunity to make artful choices.

For traditional PMs, the situation is clear: the traditional PMP “sweet spot” is being overrun by a wave of complexity. Each day, fewer and fewer projects qualify for a pure PM approach. The game has changed, is changing, and will change– in the direction of more complexity, more inspection, and much more overall empiricism in the ‘management’ of projects.

Anyone arguing the relative merit of the traditional Project Manager can probably do well by framing the discussion inside the Stacey Complexity Graph.