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Adaptive project framework (APF) explained

Learn everything you need to know about adaptive project framework — a systematic approach to help managers better respond to changes in projects.
The life of a project manager can sometimes feel like a constant game of getting things done just in time to avoid catastrophe.
However, this "just in time" approach doesn't have to be stressful. If you ask product management legend , it can be a huge strength.
Wysocki is the mastermind behind the adaptive project framework, which claims two things:
You don't know exactly what the future holds for your project.
You can still prepare for whatever comes your way.
He created the adaptive project framework to prioritize flexibility and iteration, making having no strict plan a planning style in itself.

What is the adaptive project framework?

The adaptive project framework (APF), also known as adaptive project management, is an approach to managing projects that face a large number of uncertainties. It arms project teams with the tools to learn from, adapt to, and resolve issues throughout the project lifecycle.
APF is for projects with clear goals but no clear solutions for reaching those goals. Projects like these benefit from a "learn by doing" approach, where the project team finds solutions by taking action and learning from those actions.

A short history of the adaptive project framework.

Robert K. Wysocki first explored the idea of APF in a for the Project Management Institute in 2003. He kept writing and thinking about the concept for the next seven years. In 2010, he shared his findings in a book titled.
In the introduction to his book, Wysocki explains that the idea for APF came from a simple observation: two separate projects he was working on had clear goals but no clear solution. These two factors (goals vs. solutions) led him to create the following matrix.
On the X-axis is the clarity of the project's solutions. On the Y-axis is the clarity of the project's goals. Following this matrix, Wysocki says there are four overall project management categories:
MPx: Emertxe (extreme spelled backwards) project management uses strategic solutions to find a goal during the project lifecycle.
xPM: Extreme project management defines both the goal and the solution during the project life cycle.
TPM: Traditional project management, where both the goals and solutions are clear before the project starts.
APM: Adaptive project management, where the project's goals are clear, but the solutions are not.
Screenshot taken from Google Books preview of by Robert K. Wysocki
Even back in 2003, Wysocki recognized TPM is on its way out, saying that "more and more projects fall into this classification [of needing APF]." Technology, money, teams, businesses, and culture all move too fast to account for all the requirements and issues that may arise.
In response to this uncertainty, Wysocki advocates for an uncompromising focus on the customer and their needs.

How does the adaptive project framework work?

APF has five stages, each of which has its own series of sub-stages with specific deliverables: project scoping, cycle planning, cycled build, client checkpoint, and final review.
These stages have strict rules, but as a whole, the framework lives up to its name as a flexible tool. This flexibility allows the project team to learn from and adapt to obstacles and involve the client at every opportunity.
Wysocki’s illustration of APF from his . In this graphic, the stages have their original names, which he later updated in his 2010 book.

Stage 1: Project scoping.

The first step of APF is to determine the broad strokes of what the project will involve. At the end of this stage, the project team and the client will develop a shared vocabulary for the project's objectives, requirements, resources, activities, and more.

Stage 2: Cycle planning.

With the initial project scope outlined, the project team can begin the actual cycles. Before each cycle is the cycle planning stage, which is like a mini version of the project scope stage, except the client doesn't factor in as heavily.

Stage 3: Cycle build.

Now comes the stage where you do the work involved with the project. No more planning, just doing.
There is a plethora of tools to help in this stage, including
, to help teams actually do the work efficiently.
Before entering the cycle build stage, Wysocki says there are two unique characteristics of APF that you need to understand:
You should never extend the length of the cycle. Any work you don't complete in time needs to get reevaluated and folded into future cycles. This is a learning opportunity for what's truly important to completing the project.
You cannot make changes to the cycle while it's running. Note all changes and obstacles the project team runs into for analysis after the cycle completes. If the issues are big enough to derail the entire cycle, return to stage two.

Stage 4: Client checkpoint.

After the completion of a cycle comes what Wysocki describes as the most crucial stage of APF, the client checkpoint. If anything most differentiates APF from TPM and other methodologies, it's this client checkpoint stage where the project lead and client meet to assess the cycle's results.
There are four questions you should answer:
Do the cumulative deliverables meet expectations?
Should the project continue to the next cycle?
What is the priority order of the remaining functionality?
What should the next cycle include?
The client check-in stage is where change, iteration, and improvement happen in the lifecycle of an APF project. By collaboratively answering these questions after each cycle, both the project team and client will gradually converge on a solution to reach the project's overall goals.
There will likely be a lot of iteration at this stage. And that's a good thing. As Wysocki puts it, "Change is expected in an APF project. Without it, no meaningful learning and discovery could have taken place."

Stage 5: Final review.

The final review stage is relatively straightforward and is like a more extensive, final version of the client checkpoint.
You should re-address the questions in stage four as well as the following questions:
Did the team find an acceptable solution?
Did the solution meet the expected success criteria laid out in stage one?
How well did APF work for both the client and project team?
With these questions answered, you can start to assess the business value generated by this project and begin to prepare for the next.

What are the benefits of the adaptive project framework?

APF is a great project management approach for projects where you're not exactly sure how you'll reach your goal. The point is to collaboratively iterate after each cycle, keeping a tight focus on what the client needs and how they'd like the project team to meet those needs. Overall, there are three core benefits to using APF.

APF is client-focused and client-driven.

When the only "North Star" on a project is the client's goal, your project needs an intense focus on the client's needs. The entire APF system Wysocki designed revolves around client involvement. You can't start planning without agreeing to and documenting the client's goals. As the project progresses, two factors drive all iterations:
The project team's learnings in pursuit of the client's goal.
The client's feedback between cycles.
The client's needs are always front-and-center in an APF project.

APF creates a continuous feedback loop.

Because APF prioritizes client involvement in the project, a continuous feedback loop is essential. This loop is why Wysocki built APF around cycles. These cycles have feedback built into their processes, from daily meetings to the issues log to client checkpoints.

APF prioritizes achieving business objectives.

With such an intense focus on both the client's goals and iteration towards those goals, well-run APF projects never lose sight of the underlying business value of the project. The project team is always laser-focused on what matters: the bottom line.

What are the drawbacks of the adaptive project framework?

Wysocki is the first to admit that APF only works well for a specific type of project: one where the goal is clear, but the solution isn't. If your project doesn't meet these criteria, APF might be more work than is necessary.

APF's flexibility can lead to ambiguity.

In the project planning stage, there will be a lot of blank spots. You will not know every detail of how exactly to accomplish the project, and that can lead to ambiguity and stress for the project team. They'll need to learn to be OK with unanswered questions and with learning by doing.

APF's rigid cycles can cause friction.

Even though APF as a whole is flexible, individual cycles aren't. Change requests to the overall project have to wait until after the cycle finishes and can only come into play during client checkpoints and future cycle planning stages. This waiting period can be frustrating for stakeholders.

Scope creep.

Because there's no clear strategy for achieving the client's goal, the scope of the project can balloon. The project team can't answer the question of "What will it actually take to reach the goal of the project?" until they try a few cycles into the project. At that point, the budget might be at risk of running out.
This threat of scope creep is why it's vitally important to answer the question, "Should the project continue to the next cycle?" in the client checkpoint stage.

When should you use the adaptive project framework?

Use the adaptive framework when you have a project with a clear goal but no clear solution. It requires a specific business environment where:
The project and client team that's comfortable in a constantly changing environment.
Both teams are comfortable with a process of experimenting to find a better solution as the project progresses.
Failure, iteration, and pivots are welcomed and even encouraged.

Seven free templates to help you use the adaptive project framework.

These seven templates can slot right into the stages of APF. Each can help you manage and learn APF efficiently for free.

Project Plan Template

This will work well in the project scoping stage.

Project Requirements Process Template

The will help you create the RBS of the project scoping stage.

Work Package Template

This can help you create a WBS in the project scoping stage and the cycle planning stage.

Project Execution Plan Template

If you need more firepower in the cycle planning stage, you can use this .

Task Tracking with Dependencies Template

You can combine this with the project execution plan template to assign dependencies as a part of the cycle planning stage.

Basic Project Management Template

The cycle build stage can benefit from a , especially individual micro-level schedules for each team member. Each stakeholder can get their own, because everyone can have access to each others' you can use them as guides for the daily team meetings.

Cross-Functional Project Tracker Template

If the cycle build stage includes many different sub-teams, consider using this to manage dependencies across different teams.

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