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Methodologies & Frameworks
Agile Project Management: What You Need To Know For Success With Agile

How does agile project management provide value? Here’s an example:

John had been managing a project for his company for over 6 months. He had chosen to manage the project using the waterfall methodology. But after months of hard work, he was starting to see diminishing returns in terms of progress and efficiency. Despite putting in long hours and making sure that every detail was being addressed, the project seemed stuck in a rut.

John was determined to find a better solution, and he soon began researching different approaches to project management. After reading about agile methodologies, he decided to give it a try on his current project. 

With an agile approach, John implemented incremental improvements and continual adaptation based on customer feedback and data analysis. This allowed him to quickly identify any problems or issues and course-correct as needed with minimal disruption.

After several iterations, John’s team began seeing results much faster than before. Not only did they complete their tasks more efficiently, but they were able to achieve better results overall due to faster feedback loops and improved collaboration between teams. 

John’s experience with the agile methodology changed his outlook on how projects should be managed forevermore; it made him realize that project success could be achieved by working smarter, not harder. His project was eventually completed successfully thanks to the newfound agility that his team had adopted along the way.

Does this sound like you?? If so, read on. 

The agile mindset and associate methodologies focus on continuous improvement, adapting processes to changing conditions while ensuring that the ultimate goal remains the same. 

Agile project management offers many benefits over traditional methods, such as improved communication and collaboration between stakeholders, better time and cost management, and less rework due to improved transparency and visibility. 

With agile project management, teams are given greater responsibility in managing their own tasks and workloads without sacrificing quality or dependability. 

In this article we will look at how an agile approach can be used effectively in managing projects, share a few details of the most popular methodologies and suggest tools for getting started. Let’s go! 

I’ll cover:

What Is The Agile Approach?

In project management, the agile approach is referring to a mindset, the agile mindset. The agile mindset is rooted in the Agile Manifesto, and operates with a growth mindset focused on learning as we go and changing to meet evolving market demands. 

When talking with a software development or digital product company, agile can also be used to refer to a product development process that takes an iterative approach to product delivery.

Rather than following a linear path as other project management methodologies might, the agile approach encourages being responsive and adapting to changes that may occur at any point in the project life cycle or within a development cycle. This means, if things change and a design change is needed, changes can be made along the way through the process without being required to go back to the beginning. 

The agile adaptive and waterfall (or traditional/predictive) approaches to project management differ primarily in their structure. This primary difference is outlined by the Association for Project Management (APM), which notes that while the waterfall approach will “treat scope as the driver and calculate the consequential time and cost,” agile “commits set resources over limited periods to deliver products that are developed over successive cycles.”

scrum methodology plan vs quality infographic
Here’s how to differentiate between agile methodologies and predictive methodologies (source).

Agile Vs Waterfall

The main difference between agile and waterfall project management methods is that agile approaches prioritize quick increments of work and frequent feedback from stakeholders, while waterfall focuses on completing a project in one, linear process. 

Agile project management encourages collaboration between teams, flexibility to changes and adaptations, as well as quicker resolutions to any issues that may arise. Agile methodology breaks down the project into smaller parts, allowing for faster completion of smaller tasks with regular feedback available to make sure that all aspects of the work are on track.

Additionally, by using an iterative approach instead of a linear one, teams are able to course-correct quickly if needed without having to redo or scrap any previous progress.

Conversely, waterfall projects follow a more structured project plan that relies on rigid timelines and structured processes. This approach requires each stage of the project to be completed before moving onto the next step; this can lead to bottlenecks if any issues arise with any individual part of the project. 

With its longer development cycle, it can be harder to adapt quickly when changes need to be made due to external factors such as customer feedback. 

waterfall vs agile infographic
The agile cycle and waterfall model, compared. (Source).

Overall, agile project management offers more benefits in terms of flexibility and agility as compared to waterfall projects; however both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses depending on your specific needs for your particular project. Not sure which is right for your project? No worries, I got you covered with the Stacey Matrix.

agile project management stacey matrix
Use this adaptation of the Stacey Matrix to decide if an agile or waterfall approach is right for your project. (Source)

Agile Core Values

At a ski resort in the U.S. state of Utah, in February 2001, 17 software professionals who dubbed themselves “The Agile Alliance” came together to develop what they called a “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” The document, which emphasizes four values and 12 principles, is now known as the Agile Manifesto.

While the individuals who met in Utah were not the pioneers of the agile principle in general, they did solidify the values that had been brewing for some time in the background in the software development world. Today, the agile methodology has permeated almost every industry.

To understand how the agile approach can be applied in the project management field and to traditional projects, we took some time to focus on what the methodology is all about. 

There are four core values that differentiate the agile approach from traditional project management approaches. These values explained here are present at the start of the Agile Manifesto:

  • People and interactions are much more important than standardized or rigid processes and tools used in completing a project. 
  • Agile is customer-centric. It prioritizes the delivery of value as opposed to rigidly sticking to contracts.
  • Agile is an extremely responsive approach, favoring flexibility over rigid structures in general.
  • Agile places a premium on problem-solving over record-keeping.

The 12 Fundamental Principles of Agile

When the software professionals who met in 2001 in Utah, created the Agile Manifesto, they introduced the 12 principles and agile values that still underpin today's philosophy:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software [but this can be applied to non-software projects, too!].
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software [or value of project outcomes] is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

What Are The Benefits of Agile Project Management?

The APM notes that the agile approach's main advantage is that it “concentrates on empowered people and their interactions and early and constant delivery of value into an enterprise”. The same association lists other benefits:

  • Builds engagement between clients and end users and supports organizational culture change
  • Reduces waste, allowing for a lighter weight framework  
  • Greater flexibility, thus enhancing project control
  • Quicker turnaround and rapid detection of issues  
  • Enhances accountability and diversity of ideas  

One of the greatest features of an agile approach to project delivery is the short review cycles. I really appreciate when I get early feedback about my work because if I’m going in the wrong direction, I can be corrected quickly and reduce wasted time working on the wrong thing. 

In addition to not wasting time, I also have a tendency not to get so emotionally invested in my incorrect work if I’m able to work closely with project sponsors and be sure we’re in sync at every step of the project. This approach also builds significant trust which sure does come in handy in a pinch, especially when working remotely. 

scrum methodology agile umbrella infographic
A wide variety of methodologies sit under the agile umbrella.

There are over 50 agile methodologies under the umbrella of the agile mindset. This implies that even though we can talk about an “agile methodology,” the reality is that the concept means different things to different people. 

By the term methodology, we refer to the system or strategy used by a development team or project team that follows the agile approach. Here are some of the most popular agile methods:  

Scrum

Scrum is an agile methodology that uses a fairly rigid schedule of events including sprints and daily meetings (also known as Scrum ceremonies) at intervals to address distinct portions or a set amount of work within a project during its life cycle. 

There are three leading roles in Scrum: the Scrum master (the facilitator), the product owner (who could be the client), and the Scrum team members (the individuals developing the product).

Scrum is a great choice for teams who value predictability in delivery, transparency with stakeholders and have team members with distinct roles. Scrum can help promote better collaboration and communication among team members, provide a simple process for delegating tasks and prioritizing them appropriately, as well as improve transparency throughout the project.

Kanban

The Kanban method is based on the visual display of current tasks, future tasks, and completed tasks on a Kanban board while limiting work in progress. The visual display's main advantage is that it assists agile team members not only in seeing where their tasks are, but also other tasks related to their project. In Kanban, work in progress is limited to encourage the team to collectively swarm to solve and finish what they started before taking on new work. 

Learn about the differences between Kanban and Scrum here.

Scrumban

Scrumban is not technically a formal agile methodology, but people are talking about it. Scrumban combines the collaboration cadence of Scrum with the flexibility of Kanban and almost always leverages a Kanban board. 

In fact, many purely Scrum teams leverage a Kanban board because it is not the board itself that makes the methodology, a Kanban board is just a tool to visualize work. Scrumban teams often engage in daily scrum meetings, sprint planning, sprint reviews, and retrospectives, but might skip story point estimation, as an example. 

Learn about Scrumban.

Lean

As the name implies, the lean development method aims to keep a project or ongoing operations trimmed by discouraging waste. This helps to keep the system clutter-free while improving the flow of value.

Other popular agile methodologies with agile practices are eXtreme Programming, Crystal, and the Dynamic System Development Method (DSDM). There are even some advocates of agnostic agile, an agile framework that prioritizes what’s best for the software development project, rather than a specific agile methodology.

8 Myths About Agile

Agile has become quite a buzzword in digital industries recently. With any good buzz word, come a bunch of misunderstandings about what it is or isn’t. A few of my favorite well-socialized myths about agile include: 

  1. Agile is only for software projects: While agile gained popularity as a method of software development, it can be used in many different types of project management contexts, from web design and product development to marketing campaigns and customer service.
  2. Agile replaces traditional project management: Agile doesn't replace traditional project management but rather complements it, by providing new methods and tools to aid teams in better meeting their goals faster and more efficiently.
  3. Agile focuses mainly on speed at the expense of quality: While agile encourages teams to move quickly, it's still important to maintain high standards of quality throughout the process. Quality should be a priority when implementing agile strategies.
  4. Agile is all about team structure: Although team structure is important in agile and communication within the team is highly valued, it's not the only factor that contributes to successful implementation of an agile approach. The values and principles behind agile are just as important as any team structure or methodology that may be applied.
  5. Agile avoids committing to delivery dates: While agile allows for more flexibility in delivery, schedule-focused planning can be accomplished with close collaboration between stakeholders and delivery teams. “Doing agile” does not mean you can stop planning projects or go-live dates.
  6. Agile eliminates the need for documentation: Documentation plays an important role in an agile environment as it provides a single source of truth for all stakeholders involved in a project, allowing them to stay informed and up-to-date on progress at all times. In high-compliance environments, documentation is simply treated as a requirement.
  7. Agile does not involve stakeholders: Stakeholders remain involved throughout agile projects, from initiation through delivery, in order to provide feedback and ensure that all requirements are being handled appropriately. Agile is communication-heavy and requires swift feedback loops.
  8. Agile avoids accountability to the business: Agile teams value collaboration, value creation, transparency and accountability to each other. Teams that are agile and are not acting in service of the business needs typically have other underlying issues at play such as politics, fear, or unnecessary bureaucracy. 

How To Transition To Agile

agile project management poem on a scroll
My poem describing the agile mindset!

Agile is a mindset, which means you cannot “do” agile, you must “be agile.” This is the core lesson of the agile mindset, and the guiding principle when implementing any agile methodology. 

Transitioning to agile requires more than a change or process, it requires the whole team to have a change of mindset, of heart, and fully buy-in to a new way of working. Teams need significant psychological safety and trust to make this pivot. The change is not easy. Teams often hit bumps along the way, which requires an open and curious mind to overcome. 

If you are ready to take the jump with your team, I highly encourage open communication and team-focused decision making. Talk with the team about why you are considering a change, and ask their participation in the transformation process. 

If you select a specific methodology, such as Scrum, I highly suggest having one or more members of your team attend formal training in Scrum and trying to “run it by the book” for the first 6-months or so before fine-tuning specific items. 

This trial period allows enough time for the team to really give it a go, but doesn’t require so much time that a bad practice feels never-ending. The key to agile transformation is open communication and retrospectives. As you engage in this, be sure you’re hearing from everyone as the team makes decisions on how to operate—everyone’s voice matters! 

Things To Consider When Delivering Projects In Agile

Agile is great for all the reasons listed above. However, when considering agile for your approach, there are a couple of things to be mindful of:

  • Estimation: As agile is based on the premise that teams won’t always know what the end product will look like, it can be difficult to accurately predict the cost, time, or resources needed at the beginning of a project. Constant communication between stakeholders and the project team will be key to navigating this challenge. 
  • Keeping track of long-term goals: Whereas on one hand agile provides refreshing flexibility, on the other hand, it can be hard to keep track of progress on long-term goals or projects that require significant architectural or infrastructural builds. Agile values incremental delivery and sometimes it is hard to see what will be in the end when the blueprint is not 100% set before you begin building. 
  • Maintaining collaboration: While agile fosters greater collaboration between teams both internally and externally, this approach does require considerable and continued commitment from all stakeholders. The best Scrum masters and agile project leaders are excellent communicators—do not undervalue this. 

Of course, the above can be mitigated by having an experienced, committed team well as by using the right tools.

Agile Glossary

If you are beginning to dive into agile, there are many terms you will hear across contexts. Here are a few of our favorites. If you have more to add, throw them in the comments and we’ll iterate together!    

  • Agile board (usually actually a Kanban board reference): Can be a physical board or function within a project management tool used to keep track of team progress.
  • Agile Manifesto: A set of values and principles that guides an agile development team to create better quality software faster.
  • Backlog: The outstanding tasks or deliverables documented for the team to consider doing. In the sprint planning process, any backlog stories will be moved into the sprint where responsible software developers or other team members work on them. In software development, this is often referred to as the product backlog.
  • Continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD): As code changes throughout an agile development process, CI/CD helps ensure that developer changes don't break existing functionality. CI/CD allows developers to push to production frequently while mitigating risk.
  • Definition of done (DOD): A set criteria established by the development team which must be met when completing any task or user story in order for it to move onto further stages in an agile process; items such as user acceptance tests are included in DOD criterion checks  
  • Epic: A large user story that is too big to fit into a single sprint or release cycle and needs to be broken down into smaller stories before it can be completed.
  • Kanban board: A tool used to visualize the workflow of an agile project and track progress toward completion of tasks and stories on a continuous basis.
  • Product backlog: A list of features, bug fixes, changes, enhancements, etc., prioritized according to business value and organized into releases for an agile project.
  • Scrum: An iterative and incremental agile project management methodology for managing complex projects.
  • Sprint: A time-boxed period, typically two to four weeks long, during which a set amount of work is completed and made ready for review by the development team.
  • Sprint planning meeting: Held at the start of every sprint. During this meeting tasks are identified and estimated based on the amount of resources available and the scope defined in previous meetings. The team then commits to a section of the product backlog as the sprint backlog.
  • Sprint retrospective: An opportunity for the team to meet at regular intervals (ex. at the end of each sprint) and reflect on what went well, what didn’t go well, and how they can improve in future sprints, cycles, or releases.
  • Stand-up meeting: Also referred to as 'Scrum' meetings; these short daily collaboration meetings throughout an agile project are intended purely to discuss progress & identify any impediments faced since the last stand-up or Scrum meeting. 
  • User stories: A tool used in agile development to capture a description of a software feature from a user's perspective.
  • Velocity: The average number of units or points achieved by a team per iteration, measured over multiple iterations to create a sort of baseline.

If the idea of agile project management appeals to you, you may want to try some of the best agile tools we could find on the market. To develop this list, we took some time to look at what each tool promises about agile project management and what reviews from users are saying:

  1. Wrike

    Best for scaling organizations

  2. monday.com

    Best agile planning tool

  3. Zoho Sprints

    Best for backlog prioritization & release management.

  4. ClickUp

    Best visual aids to support your sprints and make important items easy to distinguish

  5. Kintone

    Best for building custom agile workflows

  6. Kanbanize

    Online portfolio Kanban software for agile project management to organize and manage your workflow

  7. Forecast

    Best agile tool for scrum methodologies

  8. MeisterTask

    Best agile tool with Kanban boards

  9. Trello

    Best for card-based task lists

  10. Taiga.io

    Best agile tool for user experience and interface

Final Thoughts

Where do you stand on the agile vs waterfall debate? What’s your favorite agile methodology? Do you have terms to add to our glossary Let us know in the comments!

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By Liz Lockhart

Liz Lockhart is the Sr. Director of PMO & Training at Smarsh, leading the intersection of People and Project strategies and execution. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Portland and is pursuing a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Liz holds numerous Project Management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work. Liz has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting and technology firms.

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