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Do project management tools like MS Project and Primavera make sense in a software team and for a software product, assuming that the team is following agile practices and uses, e.g., Scrum. Are things like product backlog, sprint backlog, etc. replacements for, e.g., work breakdown structures, Gantt charts, etc. or, ideally they should be used together for a successful project management?

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  • We use Trello (essentially a scrum board), and it has enough functionality to meet most of our project management needs. But we are a very small team (of 4), and we don't have a project manager, just stakeholders. Feb 21 at 17:41
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MS-Project and similar project planning tools mainly focus on on the scheduling of tasks. They excel at managing scheduling dependencies between task, resources assignment, workload and duration of tasks.

In an agile context, these features are not very useful: the tasks are very dynamic, driven by the backlog, and self-organized by the team during the iteration. Working together on backlog items cannot be predicted months in advance and documenting it on the flow would be a huge overhead. The duration of iteration sets the pace and not the duration of individual tasks/activities/responsibilities. Lastly, the dependencies between tasks is fuzzy and rarely hard-sequential.

So, project schedulers are not very useful and risk to be an overhead. At best, they can be used to give some visibility on a high level product roadmap and report progress in a corporate way (if required). For larger teams they can also visualize different components in the scope (parallel and overlapping project activities in the scheduler, scheduled by hand: don’t expect a CPM here due to the fuzzy dependencies).

In an agile context, the time dimension of the project is rather straightforward: you define iterations (very often time-boxed), and the team self-organizes. No need for MS project for documenting this. The key feature that you need is to manage backlogs items. This is more efficiently done with Jira, Trello and similar tools. And these also cope better with story points, which would be very challenging to do with project schedulers ;-)

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  • Thank you. Good answer. You said: "At best, they can be used to give some visibility on a high level product roadmap". What tools/practices are used in agile development that help realizing that? Maybe one reason I thought about tools like Primavera or MS Project is to be able to devise a roadmap and have an estimation of when things will probably be done. Having such a roadmap I may be able to better decide about, e.g., how many new developers we should hire. How do other agile teams handle these things?
    – Shayan
    Feb 22 at 6:30
  • @Shayan There are a couple of tools with roadmap features/plugins on the market, e.g Jira. For larger programs, with partially overlapping (in time) and interdependent project, an MS-project tool could be useful for managing the roadmaps at a high level (the “tasks” being projects, or project releases). In an agile context you would never ever make size a team based on a bottom-up estimate of task workload in MS-project! The whole estimating / workload forecast is done radically differently.
    – Christophe
    Feb 22 at 7:33
  • Do you know any real example of what you mentioned about high-level roadmaps? Any report on using such approach? Also, you mentioned " In an agile context you would never ever make size a team based on a bottom-up estimate of task workload in MS-project! The whole estimating / workload forecast is done radically differently." Can you give me any clues about that?
    – Shayan
    Feb 22 at 8:04
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    @Shayan I have worked enough with this approach to confidently tell that it works ;-) About the estimation, an approach that works well for me is analogous estimating (of the project or its main sagas, comparing to experience on similar projects). Radically different because at the start, all the details are not known: if you’d estimate bottom-up there would be too many unknowns.And it would lock you in a plan making everybody change-averse, the contrary of agile.Pragmatically, there’s a high level estimate, and then there er the short-term near future estimates when planning current iteration
    – Christophe
    Feb 22 at 8:51
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    @Shayan if you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend a book because it’s too complex for Q&A here. E.g. Mike Cohn’s “Agile estimating & planning” ? He also has a blog about the fundamentals (mountaingoatsoftware.com/presentations/agile-estimating)
    – Christophe
    Feb 22 at 8:54
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I've never used Primavera, but it appears to be similar to Microsoft Project in that it is geared toward more traditional project management approaches, rather than agile and adaptive techniques. Traditional project management techniques may be fine for projects that have fixed constraints, clear cause-and-effect relationships between changes, and have low amounts of uncertainty and ambiguity. However, agile project management techniques and their associated practices are useful in projects that have more flexibility and have more uncertainty or ambiguity that is reduced as the effort goes on.

I don't think that backlogs and roadmaps are drop-in replacements for work breakdown structures and Gantt charts. They solve similar problems in that they help to visualize the current and upcoming work, but they do so in very different ways and are best suited to different contexts. You'd choose the appropriate set of tools based on your project management methodologies, which would be based on the environment in which the project is happening.

If you have an agile software development team, I'd probably choose a more suitable tool than Project or Primavera. That doesn't mean that you can't make them work, either alone or in conjunction with other tools, but it's usually more effective to choose tools that support the process rather than forcing a tool to be used in a way that it wasn't designed for.

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