Agile v Waterfall: Premier League project management

For some time there has been widespread debate in the field of Project Management, Leadership and Change Management over which is the better methodology – Agile or Waterfall. This has led to comments appearing in various articles such as “Waterfall is predictive” and “Agile is adaptive” and others suggesting “Agile is more of a mind-set than a methodology”, or that it is fundamentally a framework, often mis-labelled as a methodology.

As one of the industries prompting the most debate on management style, we’ve looked into the typical approaches adopted by the top managers in the English Premier League to speculate which project management methodology works best in the context of football.

Pep Guardiola, Manchester City

Pep is notorious for his slick, possession-orientated, high pressing football. With huge success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich – he now has control of the reins at Manchester City. In terms of his methodology, Pep requires a lot of effort at the beginning of a project. Historically he has chosen his next club way in advance, which is a rarity in today’s game and only possible due to his success. With this extra time Pep meticulously plans his team’s approach to the season and is likely to agree budgets and expectations in advance with the club’s owners. This heavy front ended planning is then brought to each game and Pep rarely defers from his original tactics. These attributes suggest that Pep uses more of a Waterfall methodology – with heavy planning up front and a sequential process which is never reversed. What’s more, the owners of the club know what they’re going to get from Pep from the beginning to the end of his contract.

Average number of trophies per year in management: 2.6

Jose Mourinho, Manchester United

The self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ is arguably the most successful manager in the modern game, having won the Champions League with three different clubs. He now manages Manchester United. His success has been in rapidly changing the fortunes of successful clubs that were not performing to their potential. Whilst it would be foolish to say that Mourinho has no pre-game plan, we can see many examples of how he adapts his team throughout the match if things aren’t going the way they should. Well known for substituting players before half time and making the most of the transfer windows, Mourinho’s approach is an example of the agile methodology as he tends to work to a simple plan (to win) and continually inspects and adapts his plan as he can throughout his tenure adding new players, new systems and constantly testing his squad to ensure there are no weaknesses in his team.

Trophies average per years in management: 1.4

Arsene Wenger, Arsenal

Similar to Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger is known for his philosophy of fluid attacking football. He has been known for his shrewd business in the transfer market and sticking to a budget set. Evidence of this is his management of the club throughout the years paying back the cost of their new stadium The Emirates. He definitely takes a longer term approach and to this date he has been the manager of Arsenal for 20 years. Wenger falls within the Waterfall methodology as there is a clear plan his team is working towards each season, which rarely deviates from its initial path and budget. His perceived stubbornness to spend money on new players despite struggles in many recent seasons may also support the view that his approach is not an Agile one!

Trophies average per years in management: 0.95

So which methodology works best?

By using the analogy of football, we can see that both Agile and Waterfall methodologies can be successful. The nature of the project and the type of organisation involved will inspire a need for one methodology over another, just as Premier League club owners find their respective clubs in different situations requiring different leadership methodologies to turn around their fortunes or keep them on track. These differing requirements often come to light when consulting with clients and helping them with their IT Project Management recruitment needs as James Parnell, Department Manager, Leadership, Networkers, explains:

“In the same way that pundits argue about the best management style in the Premier League, project managers rarely agree on whether Agile or Waterfall is the most effective. With 13 years’ experience helping companies in both the Public and Private sector, large and small with their recruitment needs I have noticed clear patterns within preferred project management styles. I have found that large corporate organisations typically from the Public Sector favour the Waterfall methodology as budgets and timescales are agreed upfront. This approach is especially preferred by senior managers who have specific cost savings or timescales to meet. In contrast, smaller companies and SMEs tend to favour an agile approach as it allows more flexibility and innovation to adapt to new opportunities in the market.”

The ultimate project manager

Similar to the field of football management, being a project manager is not for the faint hearted. It takes commitment, confidence and top planning skills. Whilst these traits transcend all project managers, different project management methodologies can instil different attributes within them. Agile Project Managers will typically be more open to change, more adaptable and often have people at the forefront of their mind. A Waterfall Project Manager is likely to be a lot more rigid, perhaps less flexible but will arguably have more ongoing focus on the end goal.

Ultimately though, the overall goal is the same for all project managers; to deliver on time, on scope and on budget. Only time will tell which strategy pays off for Pep, Jose and Arsene – we’ll see who comes out on top at the end of the season.

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