Agile Approaches Can’t Save Impossible Projects: Fixed Cost, Scope, Date

You’ve got an impossible project. You have no flexibility. The project is a fixed-price, fixed-scope, fixed-date project. And, you have a specific team to do the work.

(There are other impossible projects. Such as when you have a collection of people who multitask among several projects.)

Can an agile approach save these projects?

No. An agile approach might help you see what’s happening. Any form of agile approach cannot save these projects.

You have a very important word to say. That word is “No.” Say it nicely, but say no.

How You Might Say, “No.”

I see a lot of the fix-everything problem when managers say things such as, “We’ll outsource out the work if you don’t do it when we want it.”

When a manager says that to me, I’ve said, “Please do. And, please monitor what you receive when and for what cost. If other people can do this faster, I’d like to know.”

When I get that quizzical look, I explain. “I’m a great project manager. This team is terrific at what they do. We, together, are your best bet for getting all of this done. If I tell you we can’t, we can’t. And, if people who don’t know the code and don’t know the domain are really good and can do it, well, I’d like to learn from them. In my experience, it takes them longer to deliver less and for a higher price. But, hey, I could be wrong.”

You might need to modify some of these words to fit your experience and your culture. But yes, this is almost verbatim what I said to a manager many years ago.

If people in the organization want to use contractors, they will.

More often, my experience is that these people want to pressure me/my team into taking an impossible project.

In Manage It! I talked about the project pyramid in terms of degrees of freedom. (I showed the pyramid for the first time in Predicting the Unpredictable and the Estimating the Unknown series.)

If the people who want the project try to fix the scope, cost and time, what can the team finesse? Defects, certainly. Maybe the people. Maybe the work environment.

And, because the number of people is often highly correlated with cost, you might not be able to add more people or to change the work environment.

Can an agile approach save these projects? No. An agile approach can’t do the impossible. However, an agile approach can help people see your progress. If they are willing to partner with you.

Identify Your Root Cause(s)

Can you partner with people who want “everything?” Maybe. If you explain you can give them features, one at a time, in the order they want.

I’ve seen two common causes of impossible projects:

Say No to impossible projects. Do offer help in reframing the “how much” to the “how little” conversation. Offer to help manage the project portfolio. But do not say Yes to an impossible project. Agile approaches can’t save you.

Published on Java Code Geeks with permission by Johanna Rothman , partner at our JCG program. See the original article here: Agile Approaches Can’t Save Impossible Projects: Fixed Cost, Scope, Date

Opinions expressed by Java Code Geeks contributors are their own.

Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at
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Karthikeyan Chidambaram
Karthikeyan Chidambaram
3 years ago


(Reminds me of the famous Dilbert cartoon strip on agile.)
This holds true, as many times the impossible is already presumed to be doable in the initial planning.




Johanna Rothman
3 years ago

I like that, the “impossible is already presumed to be doable.” yes! Thanks.

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