The agile Crystal methodology provides a unique flavor to the general agile approach to managing projects.
This post defines what the agile Crystal method is, key aspects of the mindset behind the Crystal approach, strategic consideration, and impacts for project managers.
What Is the Agile Crystal Method?
Crystal was introduced by Alistair Cockburn at IBM in 1991. It is codified in his book “Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams”. Crystal focuses on the first Agile principle, individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Rather than framing a process, it provides a guideline for team collaboration and communications.
Crystal includes 3 core beliefs:
- Technologies change techniques – How we work, and the way a team chooses to work together, will be influenced by the technologies that are available.
- Cultures change norms – Agile PM approaches will vary depending upon the situations, including the culture.
- Distances change communication – Crystal favors collocation, but makes it a priority to set up effective lines of communication for separated teams.
Crystal practices are very similar to general agile practices. What differentiates Crystal most is the scalability of the method; there is a matching Crystal method at the intersection or risk level and team size.
The scale in the chart at the top, known as the Cockburn Scale, categorizes projects according to the need for formal processes. At the lower left, with a small team and relatively low risk, minimal formal processes are needed. At the upper right, where teams are large and risks are major, a much more formal set of processes are needed to manage the project.
While the agile Crystal method presents a fairly granular scale, note that there are lots of other factors to consider. For example, not only is team size important, but the actual makeup of the team is a critical consideration. Likewise, the risks in the chart are quite broad. The reality is that there are many risks on any project. Some are critical, and some not, and the likelihood and ability to control the impact are important for each risk.
Note that there are other Crystal methods (colors), with slight variation, of the chart at top. For example, I found one that included an additional color for very larger teams, with over 200 people.
Basic ‘Properties’ for the Agile Crystal Methodology
The Crystal method is known for its flexibility and lack of formal structure. But it is also known for having several basic tenets, or properties, that guide a team’s actions:
- Frequent delivery – Consistent with other agile methods, Crystal emphasizes scoping for delivery within short time frames to ensure high productivity and delivery of something the customer wants. Short delivery time frames allow for feedback and adjustment of direction, if necessary.
- Reflective improvement – Self-managed teams reflect and improve their processes at regular intervals – ideally every sprint.
- Consistent communication – Many say that Crystal is most effective for smaller groups. For such situations, collocation is ideal. For larger teams, it is most important to facilitate and support easy communication.
- Personal safety – Also consistent with other agile methods, Crystal emphasizes the importance of freedom of expression – allowing team members to feel free to speak up with what’s on their minds.
- Focus – Having everyone on the same page – a common goal focus – is a valuable objective.
- Easy access to expert users – This is a common tenet across agile projects. The idea is to bridge the gap between developers and the customer, and between developers and specialized expertise.
- Technical tooling – Having an effective technology infrastructure in place to support the project is critical. It supports strong productivity and rapid evaluation of progress, whether testing or tracking status.
The important takeaway is that Crystal is lightweight – but it pays attention to agile values rooted in the Agile Manifesto.
Strategic Implications of Crystal
In many of my posts, I have written about how the capability to run projects well is a strategic capability.
Well, it is. But…
…there is no one size fits all” approach. An organization needs to keep that in mind when setting up a PMO, for example. PMO’s can easily go heavy on requiring a lot of documentation, which is counter to agile and Crystal approaches. PMO’s need to empower project teams, rather than constrain them – the basis for organizational project management.
I recommend these strategy resources (paid link):
Strategic focus is good for strategy, but focus on PM or agile methodologies may be folly.
What’s important is to understand the kinds of projects that you have, and where they are. It becomes largely a portfolio management effort.
What factors about a portfolio of projects are important to consider? What factors are important to determining the specific approach, such as one of the Crystal approaches?
Certainly you would look at the size of the projects in terms of number of people. You would also look at the risk – such as the Crystal approach of classifying risk to Life, Essential Funds, Discretionary, or Comfort. One approach would be to have a set of suggested approaches to projects based on where they fall in terms of project size and risk, as in the figure at the top of this post.
A company like Boeing, for example, has airplane building projects that surely hit the upper right of the Crystal chart. These would require the highest degree of structure and formality. But they may also have departmental software development applications that might be on the lower left. These would have almost no documentation and a minimum of formality.
But there are other factors…so it all depends…
…but evaluating the strategic advantage of having a strong project management capability will require understanding the whole continuum of needs within the organization as well as the whole spectrum of approaches. It requires a strong strategic organizational understanding. Approaches like the Nadler Tushman congruence model and the Ansoff matrix model can help to build that understanding.
Impact of Crystal for Project Managers
Crystal provides two advantages for projects managers:
- Project uniqueness – It recognizes that one solution or approach does not fit all projects. Even the delineations between the different flavors, or colors, of Crystal can be taken with a grain of salt, as each project can be approached uniquely.
- Workflow optimization – Crystal is lightweight by definition; it requires minimal documentation. Even more important, it emphasizes the team’s responsibility to continually work to improve the processes they are using.
At times, I have seen project managers try to take a highly dogmatic structured approach to projects. Looking back at some of my past project plans, I have even been guilty of this myself!
On any project, I find that it is important to start with at least a project charter. Even with an agile project, whether using Crystal or not, it is important to plan at the appropriate level for:
- Project Definition – Vision, objectives, scope, and deliverables.
- Project organization – Customers, stakeholders, roles, responsibilities, and structure.
- Project plan – Approach, overall plan, resource plan, financial plan, and quality plan.
- Project considerations – Risks, issues, assumptions, and constraints.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but there is some degree of documentation that is important, even on agile Crystal approaches. In my experience, this is best done by judiciously leveraging project management templates, such as those from Method 123 (paid link).
I recommend these PM templates (paid link):
This post has outlined the key tenets o the agile Crystal methodology for managing projects. It implements common agile principles, but documents a whole family of specific approaches based upon risk level and team size.
For further overview, I recommend the following video, “Crystal – Agile Frameworks from the Agile Practice Guide”, by David McLachlan: