An interview with Michel Thiry conducted by Andrzej Kacperski

When Agile became popular many companies started to use it just because they wanted to be Agile like everyone else at the market. The use of Agile is not as easy as it seems, for example Scrum is “simple to understand but difficult to master”. Fortunately, a  lot of companies managed to implement it successfully. I  believe that mastering of the hybrid approach may be much more complicated. Aren’t you afraid that initially this approach will be harmless for the organizations as they will not be able to implement it properly?

The difficulty is to understand when and how to use hybrid. Many practitioners think that waterfall is about the WBS and Agile is about work without clear scope. In my opinion Agile has always existed, we have just recently codified it. Now, somebody codified hybrid as a  mix of Agile and waterfall, but hybrid likewise has always been used. Will the term “hybrid” be popular in the project management? I  am not sure; it depends how good its promoters will be at selling it. I  would compare it to PMO for example, every company now has a PMO. I think that we could easily not have a  PMO, which is a  department that handles projects, but focus on having a  project-based organization, were projects become part of the day-to-day work. When we need a project, we use Project Management, when we need business as usual, we use operational management, and we mix them when necessary. When we are creating a PMO, we create an additional layer in the organization, another division that often is costly and not necessarily effective to achieve better integrated work practices. 

When I  started practicing, we were using a  lot of Value Management, then TQM, which is a mix of Quality and Value Management became popular; later the Six Sigma, which was a  mix of TQM and Project Management came in; it was a big fad for many years. Then came Lean Management which was a child of Six Sigma. They are all related and if you are in the market long enough you see these things reappearing regularly. For me Agile is a good Value Management practice combined with Fast-Track Project Management. In fact it is interesting because in the late 80s, early 90s, I was a member of Society of American Value Engineers and wrote a  paper about how to combine the Project and Value Management that identified points similar to what we call Agile today. There are seldom really new things, new management techniques are mostly a combination of existing ideas; so will the hybrid be popular? If people adopt it, if Jack Welch or Elon Musk decide they like hybrid, well, everybody will like hybrid.

I believe the goal should be to apply the techniques and methods best adapted to the circumstances. 

Fot. Konrad Zalewski Michel Thiry during the 13th International PMI Poland Chapter Congress

Why in your opinion has Agile become so popular and why is it one of the most common Project Management approaches these days?

I think the reason Agile worked very well is because this is something that was in our nature, that is something we always did in managing projects. Waterfall is probably more artificial and less natural. When I  was an architect I was advocating to my colleagues that they should go to project management because it is perfectly suited for architects. Architects are usually competent at managing the multiple trades and different people, they start with a concept, an idea, organize it and bring all the pieces together. Sadly, architects were not interested because they saw themselves as designers and artists, but engineers saw the opportunity and adopted project management. Engineers are analytical, they break down concepts into their components to reassemble them. So project management today is based on engineering concepts. Agile is more of an architectural concept, where you have continual discussions with the customers; you modify the things until the customer is happy. 

I think that, in fact, we are going back to what Project Management should have always been, more agile, focused on benefits and stakeholder-oriented. But that’s my personal view as an architect. 

Fot. Konrad Zalewski Michel Thiry during the 13th International PMI Poland Chapter Congress

Most of the methodologies, or maybe all of them, are based on some kind of process like Project Management processes in the PMBOK® Guide or in PRINCE2, even Scrum has some kind of a  process integrated in it. Don’t you think that we are a little bit forgetting about the previous techniques like usage of process and tools from TQM or Lean in Project Management?

Agreed, I think there is a danger that people with new concepts, like Agile or Hybrid, forget that there are processes that need to be used and I think you need to master the processes before you decide how to use them. The problem today, with a lot of things we do, with all the systems, is that we make people believe that the tool will make the decision for them. That’s the danger of using tools without understanding the process. If we don’t understand the way the tool works and the process it uses, then we let the tool to make the decision instead of us (By the way, this is the topic of my presentation at the 50th Anniversary PMI Congress in Philadelphia in October). There is an interesting English saying that says: “A fool with a tool is still a fool”. The problem, at the moment, is that IT systems and algorithms are driving us. You open your phone, you have message from Facebook and you forget what you were going to do on the phone and you start answering that, you see a bunch of ads and other information and you end up spending an hour on Facebook before you think: “Oh, what was I going to do?”. It’s like big bureaucratic systems in organizations, where people enter data in their computer and they get an answer on what they should do, they don’t even ask themselves if it makes sense. They just follow what the computer says. I think that’s the big issue and, you are right, we are forgetting about what process is behind that. With Agile, Lean and all of it, often we have read an extract of a summary of a book, then we say: “Oh, I know how to do Lean Management!”. We read a few pages and the full guide is like 300 pages about what Agile or Lean Management is. We are getting really lazy because we get so much information very easily. It’s a concept newspapers have used for years: you have a headline, and when you start reading the article, you realise that it was different from the headline.

More and more, we only read headlines; we do not take the time to gain in depth understanding and where these concepts come from.

Fot. Konrad Zalewski Michel Thiry conducting Program Management workshop during the 13th International PMI Poland Chapter Congress

Maybe it’s because there is so much of information all around us? We don’t have time to read and verify all of them. We read only headlines to choose which article to spend time on. Even we are not opening most of the articles, we learn the information from the headlines.

I don’t think there is really too much of information, but there are rather too many ways to convey the same information. Everybody wants to have the exclusivity of being the author of this special tool or special process, this creates a situation where there are many slightly different versions of the same information. We do not know which is the right one or we don’t take time to look at where it came from. As I said earlier, Value Management led to TQM which led to Six Sigma and so on. What I want to say is that if you follow a process and you know where it comes from, you can trace back and say: “Ok, this is the basis for it”. For example, if you practice change management, there are many Change Management techniques proposed by number of authors but they are all variations of Thirythe basic theory written by Kurt Levin in the 50s which is: unfreeze, change, refreeze. It is the same with Taylorism; today we say that segregation of work is really bad for motivation and purpose of work. At the time Taylor developed it, it was a good concept because you had all these unqualified people coming from the countryside and you needed to give them work, so breaking down the work process was a good social decision. The problem is that we started to focus on segregation of work as the outcome, forgetting why we did it initially. We often forget to ask the question “why?”, that is really the key. We know the “how”, we know the “what”, but we forget to ask “why”. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? In one of my definitions of Program Management I state that it is “Change activities purposely grouped together”. The word “purposely” is there for reason, it’s there because many times we group ideas, activities, projects together and nobody can tell you why they were brought together.

My first question when I go into an organization as a consultant is: “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this in that way? Why are you trying to achieve that?”. The question forces people to think. Today we forget that.