What We Can Learn From Programmers About Complex Project Management

Design |


The process of developing complex creative projects—from design, to strategy, to marketing, to advertising—takes its cues from software development methods from the 1970s. This all started with an essay by Winston Royce. The basic process illustrated was:

Plan, design, build, test, launch.

It’s known as the waterfall model, because each phase cascades into the next. Software developers thought this was a great idea and adopted it, then the world followed suit. The waterfall process came to define how companies approach complex project management from computer programs to marketing campaigns.

The problem is that nobody noticed that Royce was giving the waterfall process as an example of what not to do for complex projects.

Waterfall is ill suited to complex project management because it was designed for the manufacturing industry, where everything can be defined and controlled in advance. Trying to impose a detailed, inflexible itinerary onto long, complex projects doesn’t work, as the software industry soon discovered. Learning from this, they developed a new approach that better responds to the factors always present in complex development: change, risk, and time sensitivity.

You may have noticed that change, risk, and time sensitivity are also huge challenges in the creative and communications space. So why are agencies still using a manufacturing process that can’t handle them? It’s time creative professionals looked again to developers for inspiration, now that they have an approach that works.


Agile is an approach to complex project management that responds to change while managing risk and delivering results quickly. It still values things like process, planning, and documentation, but its top priorities are collaboration, responding to change, and getting things done. It’s more of a philosophy than a strict process, but there are many frameworks that apply the agile approach. It developed organically through the experience of software engineers and its manifesto was coined in 2001. It has since been adapted in a wide range of industries due to it’s success in managing unknowns.

Responding to change

Agile handles change by expecting it. The waterfall approach assumes that nothing is going to change once the “execution” phase begins—but change inevitably happens. By expecting change, agile can leverage it and turn it into value. In fields like PR and marketing, responding to change is vital. If your approach allows you to do this instead of locking you in, you’re already ahead.

For example, imagine a large online brand development project with a six month timeline. A lot can happen in that time. If the project is planned out in waterfall fashion, as soon as something big changes the rest of the plan starts to fall apart. If the project is approached through agile, the change can be addressed and incorporated into the project.

Managing risk

Agile manages risk by delivering working results incrementally and iteratively, and as early as possible. By delivering pieces of finished work regularly, risk is reduced because no matter what, at any given point you have delivered business value. Waterfall carries 100% of risk throughout until the product is finally delivered.

Now imagine in this large online brand project that one of the website’s features isn’t right. When do you want to know that you need to course correct? In five month’s time in that one big testing phase? Or in two weeks when that part is done and you try it out?

Learning faster

A great result of responding to change and delivering early is that you learn lot more about a project and can actually apply it. That means budget, scope and timelines can be more accurate, opportunities can be identified, crises avoided, all as you go. If learning is relegated to the very beginning end of the project, there is no way to benefit from any insights.

If this large online brand learns new things by iteratively releasing and testing work, it means better decisions and better results throughout.

Can agile work in the complex world of marketing and communications?

Agile is designed specifically for complexity, and it is already making a difference in a wide range of industries outside of software development. Some of the most high-risk and change susceptible industries like aviation, military, government, sales, healthcare and yes, even marketing and PR, are using agile processes to manage risk, and leverage change into knowledge.

If your agency is approaching its work from an agile perspective, it means it can respond effectively to the changing environment and deliver business value faster and more consistently.

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