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Traditional vs. Agile: Which Project Management Style Suits the Non-Profit Sector Better?

Traditional (waterfall) project management has been around for decades and applies to many industries, it is what most of us working in the non-profit and social enterprise sectors are familiar with.   Agile project management, specifically Scrum, however, is relatively new and is primarily used in the IT sector, specifically for software development projects. At a recent Lunch and Learn, the Eco-Ethonomics team looked more closely at the Scrum project management framework and discussed the benefits the approach may have for managing projects in the non-profit sector.

To begin, let’s take a brief look at each approach individually. Traditional project management follows a sequential approach whereby each activity is generally completed before moving on to the next. The project as a whole, entails carrying out one full pass of all the activities. Scrum, on the other hand, encourages you to run several, short passes of the full set of activities to incrementally complete the project. With every iteration, more of the project is complete. So how could the Scrum framework be adapted to the non-profit sector?

Pilot programs are a perfect example of where a Scrum project management framework might be advantageous. We all know that pilot programs, particularly those in human services, have a higher risk of failure. In these programs, collecting early evidence is vital. Running several full and shortened passes (iterations) of the program activities, allows us to gather evidence and test all its stages earlier than we normally would. As well, with every successive iteration, lessons learned are applied and the service is improved. The risk, therefore, is mitigated and positive results are more achievable.

At Eco-Ethonomics, one of our many services is conducting feasibility studies, which may include modeling an idea, or even testing it in the market. Regardless of the objective, we have discovered that a Scrum project management framework – running several, shortened full cycles of activities – enables us to reach the end goal of validity much faster than with traditional project management. With every iteration, we improve, inching us closer to validity and product-market fit. In instances when our clients are dependent on the successful results of our work for funding, growth and sustainability (i.e. the risks are very high), using a framework like Scrum can significantly mitigate the risks and improve the likelihood of success.

However, we all agreed that for projects like strategic planning – that do not involve ideation to the levels seen in feasibility assessment or pilot testing – work is best carried out using a traditional project management approach. The strategic planning process entails developing a plan fed by the input of an organization, its stakeholders and the surrounding environment. With certain activities, like stakeholder engagement or market research needing to take place before planning, a traditional approach is most appropriate.

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