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Agile project management: A straightforward guide

March 4, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is agile project management?

Agile vs. waterfall project management

What are the 4 core values of agile project management?

What are the 12 principles of agile project management?

Benefits of agile project management

Agile project management methodologies

How to implement agile project management

A lot of companies are talking about the need to be more agile. Why? 

The pace of change — things aren’t just changing fast, they’re accelerating. Put this down to technology and connectivity in a global environment. A new offering in LA one week quickly spawns new products, platforms, and even companies across the globe the next.  

Companies also have to be agile to keep up with the evolving needs of customers who expect products and services that meet their specific preferences. To keep up, companies need their teams to be more agile, their managers to be more agile — they need their systems and management practices to support being more agile. 

This has been the story for software-driven companies for over a decade. That’s where Agile as a product development approach and methodology came in. Companies needed an alternative to the slower waterfall approach that recognized the value of quickly getting product in the hands of users to co-create.

With its high-visibility success in Big Tech, Agile methodology moved beyond just software. All types of organizations have tried to adopt the tenants, project structuring, and language for their own work. 

Agile project management looks to execute a plan by breaking it into smaller, easier-to-manage phases that deliver outcomes faster.  While it isn’t always successful beyond software, the principles behind the approach help ensure that a proposed plan can adapt to any changes along the way. Agility also permits collaboration between team members. It allows for continuous improvement towards the final product.

This guide will examine what makes up agile project management. For an in-depth discussion, we’ll look at the core values and principles of this approach. We’ll consider the benefits and methodologies of agile frameworks and explore the different ways of practicing efficient agile development.

What is agile project management?

Agile project management divides large-scale projects into several phases, called sprints or iterations. This way, tasks are accomplished in short stages throughout the lifecycle of the project.

To understand this, imagine a big Thanksgiving dinner project. Only, instead of one head cook, the family agrees to split cooking duties and organizes around the individual menu items. 

If the grandchildren (end users) demand a healthy Thanksgiving dinner, this criteria will be communicated to the family. Grandma (the team lead) will then work with the rest of the family to execute this project. To reach their goal, the team might agree to fresh roasted brussel sprouts instead of a salty casserole. 

agile-project-management-a-team-prepping-thanksgiving-dinner

In a similar vein, the team may switch to mushroom gravy to accommodate a last-minute vegan request. Each change and need for accomodation can be absorbed quickly, not derailing the entire dinner by waiting for the aunts and uncles to sign off and then Grandma before moving on to the dinner rolls. Ultimately, the dinner project encouraged teamwork and adapted quickly to changes for the greater good.

The agile approach mirrors this setting. According to the PMI Pulse of the Profession annual report, 48% of deliverables are not finished within the planned time frame. Also, 31% of teams fail to meet their original goals. By embracing agile processes, each section of a project is examined and reviewed by the team. Issues are addressed quickly, and smooth progressions are made throughout the project.

Software development teams initiated agile project development. This process is now embraced by teams like marketing and product development units. Agility helps to increase speed and promotes collaboration. This system encourages faster responses to market changes during development. 

But while the agile approach is an iterative process, there are other systems of project management. One common method is the waterfall approach, which is often compared to sprints.

Agile vs. waterfall project management

The agile approach is recognized for breaking large projects into smaller portions. These portions permit flexibility when executing each project phase.

In comparison, the traditional waterfall approach requires every phase of a project to be clearly mapped out. This means each stage of the development phase is clear, even before the project even begins.

The waterfall model requires one stage to be complete before rushing down to the next. This is similar to the agile method. But while agile methods permit changes in priorities and goals during development, the waterfall model is more rigid. The latter requires considerable planning.

In this case, Thanksgiving dinner would be a pre-planned affair. Each member is aware of their role — whether it is preparing the stuffing or making the cranberry sauce — before cooking begins.

With the waterfall method, a sudden change like a last-minute vegan visitor may work. This is because prior plans listed meat gravy on the menu.

The waterfall approach is ideal for projects that are already well-defined. Here, team members are certain of their role in getting products to end-users. 

For complicated projects with many moving parts, the agile approach could be the preferred option. This approach is suitable where the process for achieving objectives isn't immediately clear.

What are the 4 core values of agile project management?

Originally, the core values of agile management were strictly for software development teams. However, these principles are adaptable to any organization looking to make a mark on its end users.

Agile values remove bureaucratic obstacles and encourage collaboration. These principles promote customer input in designing a suitable end product.

What are the 12 principles of agile project management?

Software developers designed the agile manifesto to promote flexible operations. This system adapts to change, and ensures seamless improvements to operations. This manifesto provided the values that birthed agile principles.

These principles can apply to any business model with customer-centered offerings. They include:

1. Customer satisfaction through early and continuous delivery

When taking the agile approach, end-users and their needs will come first. This means adapting the development model for their satisfaction. By plotting to meet user demands early, higher satisfaction is certain.

By including customer feedback early in the development process, timely changes may be made to suit preferences.

2. Provisions for changes, even late in development

Unlike traditional project management, agility is open to change. These revisions occur irrespective of the stage the replacements are made. 

Priority is given to customer satisfaction. The iterative design accommodates change at any stage of development. 

3. Frequent delivery of value

Agile projects do not emphasize heavy planning and documentation. Rather, team members prioritize quick project execution, permitting constant feedback. This ensures that the end product satisfies the customer.

4. Collaboration between stakeholders and developers

The development team should encourage constant interaction with those involved in the sale/use of the product. This person is usually known as the product owner.

With this, costly mistakes are avoided and revisions are made using interactive feedback.

5. Projects should be managed by motivated individuals

Because agile development requires quick execution, unnecessary drawbacks are largely unwelcome. This means self-starters that can take initiative to push the project forward are best suited. Where team members are unable to work together, or if they fail to make informed decisions, the process is disrupted.

6. Face-to-face discussions

In its original form, this principle emphasized rapid communication between team members. This was usually achieved through in-person conversations, rather than other means like email.

With technological leaps, the agile method does not require physical meetings. The process will flow where constant and reliable communication is possible between team members.

agile-project-management-a-team-stands-around-a-laptop

7. Progress is seen in working outcomes

The agile environment isn’t too concerned with how many changes are made in the development process. At the end of the day, important metrics for success with this approach lie in positive reviews from the end-user.

8. A steady development pace for workers

Despite emphasizing a quick and flexible workflow, the agile approach is not designed to overburden workers.

Team members in the development process are to work at a steady, manageable pace to avoid burnout. 

9. Emphasize technical excellence and design to promote agility

Teams that adopt the agile approach are to strive for excellence. Not only is this a good ideal for the workplace, it also ensures that any last-minute changes or development will not shut down operations. By having a high-quality foundation, the team’s agility is improved. 

10. Simplicity is key

When working in a fast-moving environment, simplicity is the watchword. Complicated, high-effort processes can lead to drawbacks. Instead, a straightforward approach will be more adaptable to change and improvement.

11. Self-organizing teams produce the best results

Agility thrives in teams of self-starters. By giving team members autonomy, this trust will be valued. Teams will be more inclined to avoid mistakes and produce the best results.

12. Regular examinations to improve effectiveness

Agile teams tend to operate like well-oiled machines. This is usually through careful planning and anticipation for unforeseen circumstances. To maintain a seamless workflow, regular reviews of past work should be routine.

Benefits of agile project management

There are several benefits to be enjoyed when following the agile approach. These include:

Early issue identification

Constant feedback and collaboration are pillars of the agile approach. By encouraging constant input during development cycles, potential problems are quickly recognized.

Faster feedback mechanisms

Agile project management isn’t subject to bureaucratic limits. This permits feedback and opinions on the direction of the project to be shared easily.

Higher chances of customer satisfaction

By consulting with end users during development, there are better odds of producing a successful product. Customers are more likely to be satisfied with the finished product when it is made with their preferences in mind.

Improved productivity

Agility balances independence and collaborative efforts. Team members are therefore more likely to be productive. This process enables self-sufficiency and better project outcomes.

Agile project management methodologies

There are different ways to adopt the agile methodology. Agile project management is a broad term to cover approaches like scrum and kanban which happen to be the most common approaches to take. Here’s how they work:

Scrum

Under this methodology, team members meet every day in meetings known as standups— the idea being that everyone stands for the meeting to keep it short and focused. Now that many people are working remotely, daily stand-ups are also a way of connecting, however briefly, as a team. During these meetings, the tasks of the day are discussed, as well as any challenges team members might be facing. Development cycles take place in sprints. A scrum master leads the team to ensure obstacles are taken away.

Considerations for the scrum methodology

The scrum team will manage their tasks using aids like the product backlog. This is a list of items that are to be featured in the final product. Another is the sprint backlog which contains a list of tasks to get the product to its final form. 

At the end of each sprint, teams have retrospective meetings to go over what was accomplished. This gives the team room to learn from mistakes, and acknowledge what should be continued in subsequent cycles. 

The scrum method receives praise for efficient product development due to constant planning and reviews. Scrum practices will likely produce higher-quality end products.

On the flip side, scrum projects may take longer to complete. This is because multiple sprint divisions can cause uncertainty for product delivery timelines.

The independence given to team members may also affect product quality. This is because they may be unfamiliar with the process. They may also lack proper supervision to move forward.

agile-project-management-a-team-working-at-a-table

Kanban

This is a common method of executing agile project developments. Around 43% of companies claim to use this approach in formulating products.

With kanban, development teams take a visual approach to keep track of their tasks. Whether with the kanban board, sticky notes, or online apps—teams stay on top of expected duties. 

To manage productivity, kanban focuses on works in progress. This prevents the team from becoming overstretched. 

Considerations for the kanban methodology

An integral feature of the kanban process is greater visibility of the tasks necessary to execute the project.

The kanban board reveals what is in development, testing, in review, or ready for deployment. 

This visibility leads to better efficiency among team members. Also, unnecessary ideas do not come up because development plans are clearly planned. With direct and efficient processes, the development team is more productive. Team members are more open to collaborating to get the project to its best state.

However, despite being a more collaborative and efficient process, care is required when adopting kanban. Any changes in development must always be reflected in the board. Where this fails to happen, an outdated kanban board can lead to confusion. Likewise, while kanban emphasizes a clear view of projects, the timeframe for these stages to be completed stays unclear. This can lead to uncertainty and timeline complications for team members.

How to implement agile project management

Organizations looking to be more agile may follow these steps:

1. Create a vision for the project

When adopting a new methodology, business goals should be considered. Team members should create a blueprint and examine how agile processes can achieve these goals efficiently.

2. Analyze the roadmap for the product

With clear business goals and strategy in place, a development guide should be mapped out. This will include the requirements of the operation, and user stories that describe the proposed project from a consumer’s point of view. An idea of the timeframe for completion should also be discussed. 

3. Map out sprints

The development team in collaboration with the product owner will then plan out the sprints. These sprints will cover the development cycle where tasks are carried out and accomplished.

4. Keep track of tasks with daily stand-ups 

To stay on top of progressions in the development process, daily check-ins are important. These stand-ups encourage communication and keep track of progress in each cycle.

5. Carry out sprint reviews

After shipping the product, the team should endeavor to examine the process with stakeholders and team members. This is an opportunity to look through what worked, and what could be done differently.

Final thoughts

Any team looking to produce a lean, efficient development process stands to gain from agile methods. 

Not every project will consider an agile process suitable for operations. But organizations looking to have quicker, more efficient responses to change and uncertainty will find these methods valuable.

To get the best results from agile processes, it isn't enough to simply appreciate their value. Companies should build structures that encourage collaboration and the empowerment of managers/team members. 

These arrangements will ensure that expectations are met.

Agile values ensure customer satisfaction. They are also instrumental in improving collaborative and independent initiatives within team members.

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Published March 4, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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