Trust – a critical success factor for successful agile projects

At first glance, the title of this post might seem obvious – trust is needed on all projects, so what’s so special about agile projects?  This is valid – a certain amount of trust between sponsor, project manager, stakeholders and team members contributes to the success of any project, but I contend that it is vital for the success of agile projects.

The “relay-race” approach of a waterfall project provides for distinct hand-offs between key players.  On a software development project, hand-offs might occur between the customer to the business analyst, from the business analyst to the developers, from the developers to the quality control team, and finally back to the customer.  Similar hand-offs might occur between the customer, the project manager and the team.  When something goes wrong, it is unfortunately too easy to blame the previous “runners” in the race as the source of the issue and finger pointing might occur between participants – the customer and the team (“I don’t believe your estimates”, “You don’t know what you want”).  However, so long as acceptance criteria for hand-offs are well defined, it is possible to complete such projects even if trust issues exist.

In agile projects, there are multiple trust “contracts” that need to exist and because of the hyper-collaborative  structure of such projects they are tested much more frequently than in waterfall approaches.

1. The project team must trust that the product owner or customer has a better understanding of the business value of product requirements than they do and is penultimately responsible for deciding what needs to be delivered.

2. The product owner or customer needs to trust that the project team is able to translate their needs into requirements and that they the team is competent at estimating the effort required to complete the individual “atomic” activities that will lead to the delivery of a business requirement.

3. The project manager needs to trust that the project team is comprised of professionals that don’t require “micro-management” and that accepted (by the customer) business requirements are the best metric of progress.

4. The project team needs to trust that the project manager is there to help them focus their efforts and to shield them from “noise” that will reduce their productivity.  They need to trust that when the project manager requests certain information or asks that they perform certain tasks, that this is necessary and that the information provided will not be used against them.

If any of these trust relationships is lacking, you can end up with a waterfall project in agile “clothing” – velocity and quality will be impacted, and the project will suffer.  On the bright side, the impact of such issues is apparent earlier than on a waterfall project – this provides the customer, project manager and project team the opportunity to take corrective measures in a more timely fashion.


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