Agile project management may be one of the most misunderstand concepts in our line of work. Let's dig into what it really means and how it can benefit you and your project team.
What Is Agile Project Management?
Agile project management is an approach that prioritizes incremental product delivery, allowing teams to retain the flexibility and agility needed to respond to and incorporate stakeholder feedback.
For a quick explanation (using burgers!), check out this video.
Rather than following a linear path as some 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. That means that changes can be made along the way throughout the process without being required to go back to the beginning.
In terms of software or digital product development, agile can also be used to describe a process that takes an iterative approach to product delivery.
While some refer to agile as a methodology, it's really more of a mindset oriented around the Agile Manifesto. It's based on a growth mindset, staying open to change and learning, and prioritizing progress over perfection so you can better meet evolving market demands.
Note: Some folks may refer to agile as a methodology, but that's not entirely accurate. See more about the mindset vs. methodology debate.
Agile Project Management Values
The four core values of agile are:
- Prioritizing people and interactions over processes and tools
- Prioritizing a working product over comprehensive documentation
- Prioritizing customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
These four values make agile an extremely responsive approach that favors flexibility over rigidity. It focuses on problem solving over record keeping.
That means it often heavily relies on agile project management software to align teams and ensure progress.
The 12 Fundamental Principles of Agile in Project Management
The creators of the Agile Manifesto introduced the 12 agile principles that still underpin today's philosophy. They are:
- 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!].
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
- Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
- Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Working software [or value of project outcomes] is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
- Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
- The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
The Benefits of Agile Project Management (APM)
The Association for Project Management (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.
4 Popular APM Methodologies
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 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.
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.
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 sprint retrospectives, but might skip story point estimation, as an example.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (read more about agile planning here).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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 (PS: read more about the importance of change management here).
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 project 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 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.
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.”
What does that look like in practice?
Agile project management:
- Breaks down the project into smaller parts, allowing for faster completion of smaller tasks
- Solicits regular feedback to make sure that all aspects of the work are on track
- Encourages collaboration between teams
- Is flexible to adapt to changes
- Quickly resolves any issues that may arise
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.
Waterfall project management:
- Follows a more structured project plan that relies on rigid timelines and defined processes
- Requires each stage of the project to be completed before moving onto the next step, which 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.
However, there are times where waterfall might be the better choice. Check out this video to learn more.
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 (sometimes using an estimation method called planning poker) 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.
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