What is agile project management?

Written by
Changeboard team

18 Jul 2019

18 Jul 2019 • by Changeboard team

The world has seen a shift from traditional to agile project management. How agile is the project management process in your own business? Find out more.

What is the definition of agile project management?

Agile project management is a process that takes an iterative approach to the project management life cycle. Iterations are the small sections in which an agile project is completed. Each iteration is critically evaluated by the team, and insights shape the next steps in the project.

In 2001, software developers first defined the principles that make up an agile approach. Since then, agile project management has spread from the IT and production sectors into the business world at large.

What are the benefits of agile project management?

The key benefit of agile project management is that it enables to the team to respond in a timely fashion to any issues with a project as they arise. This timely, iterative approach can keep a project on track in terms of timeframes and budget. It can also help the team identify and rectify issues before they turn into scope creep – or even scupper a project entirely.

Project planning is essential prior to any project’s delivery, but even the most cohesive project plan cannot account for every eventuality. Agile project management allows the project manager and team to conduct project planning on the go.

In the 21st century, business is in the grips of rapid change. Planned projects often need to be as flexible as possible in order to be successfully delivered in the face of changing requirements and resources. The agile way of working is often an ideal solution to delivering projects in the face of uncertainty and change.

Even if rapid change is not a key issue for either the project or the business, agile project management can also be very useful when delivering products and services to clients who may struggle to voice improvements they would like made until they have something tangible to review. Rather than leaving the client powerless to give their input until a project’s final delivery, agile project management allows clients and stakeholders to speak (and listen) early and often. This can help to ensure a project stays on track, and the final output either matches or exceeds a client’s expectations.

Traditional project management vs agile project management

The benefits of agile project management have already been covered.

Traditional project management can result in the following issues:

  • Poor time management
  • Excess multitasking
  • Insufficient project management knowledge
  • Permanent environmental change – not always for the better

Correctly applied agile project management can result in:

  • Rapid and frequent delivery of products and services
  • Further improvement to launched products and services based on monitoring and analysis
  • Constant productivity at a sustainable pace
  • A flexible, adaptive approach to customer and stakeholder requirements, even when a project is well underway
  • Constant focus on excellence
  • Heightened and timely awareness of risks and impediments to success
  • Greater communication between delivery teams, managers, clients and stakeholders
  • Team ownership, accountability, self-organisation and increased motivation
  • Greater in-team diversity of ideas

Does agile project management work?

Agile working has plenty of benefits, but it has some potential cons, too. As a project manager you need to be aware of these in order to determine if an agile approach is best for the business.

The key to agile project management is that teams, clients and stakeholders make decisions quickly and often. If you’re managing projects for an organisation or employer where decision making is a lengthy process, often requiring decisions to be brought before a committee, then agile working may not be the right approach for that organisation.

The principles of agile project management

Agile project managers will aim to ensure:

  • Required project activities are broken down into small chunks and prioritised in order of importance by the team
  • The team works collaboratively with clients and stakeholders
  • There are regular periods of reflection and adjustment to ensure a project is on-track
  • Planning and execution of a project are integrated as an iterative process, which will enable teams to respond efficiently to changing needs and requirements
  • A minimum viable product (MVP) is established at the onset of a project. This is subject to change and evolution as the project team discovers potential opportunities for improvement along the way

Popular agile methods

Agile project managers have recourse to several methodologies. The key characteristic of any agile project is that a team delivers work in short bursts (known as sprints) which are repeated until the project meets a client or stakeholder’s needs.

Scrum methodology

The scrum method uses software to manage complicated product development. It’s a very transparent way of working. A team will work in a series of sprints to deliver on tasks that they have analysed, set and prioritised themselves. Each sprint features a sprint planning meeting to prepare for the sprint ahead and daily scrum sessions where team members can update each other on how things are going. During the sprint, team members might well use visual tools like Fibonacci cards to prioritise tasks, and task boards or burndown charts to show progress.

Lean methodology

Lean working is a management philosophy that was first inspired by system practices at Toyota. It’s an approach to agile management that aims to maximise value to clients by eliminating risk and wasteful practice. It can be applied in many business areas, from IT to healthcare sectors. Anything that doesn’t add value to the client or the final project can be defined as waste, including services, products, processes or activities. If it turns out that not all the elements of scrum methodology seamlessly apply to your project management style? Eliminate the elements that don’t work. That’s the lean approach. Lean methodology is a useful way to stay as close to initial target costs and goals as timeframes as possible.

Kanban framework

Scrum and lean ways of working are the most popular agile methods, but you can also use Kanban. It’s a good fit for your organisation if you need total flexibility – for example, you need to add ‘stories’ (or tasks) on the go, in the middle of sprints. The scrum approach is that once stories have been added to a sprint, they stay there. Kanban is also useful if you want to deliver your project at any time, you need an easily understandable working system, or your team isn’t comfortable with big changes to their style of working.

Kanban is a very simple visual process to gradually improve what you do.  Just create a Kanban board in your office that has four columns for tasks:

Backlog | To Do | Ongoing | Done

Write each task on a post-it note and move the note across the board from ‘backlog’ to ‘done’ as required. ‘Backlog’ will contain tasks that you’re not planning on doing just yet, but do want to keep a visual reminder for them so that they don’t get forgotten. ‘To do’ will contain tasks your team is ready to begin work on in the near future.

Kanban has six core principles:

  • Start now, but start small – your initial work method changes don’t have to be huge
  • Make small changes as you go, rather than large changes
  • Stick with current team roles and job titles (no need for someone to be appointed a ScrumMaster)
  • Encourage ownership and leadership at all levels

Scrum, lean and Kanban methodologies are all subsets of the agile way of working. Agile project management can use some, all, or a mix of methodologies to achieve a process that is right for the organisation, the team, and clients and stakeholders.

Agile project management: glossary of terms

This glossary of agile terms is by no means exhaustive, but it covers much of the terminology used on an everyday basis.

Agile working – a means of working in an iterative way that allows for changing requirements throughout the project management lifecycle.

Backlog – work that has been prioritised but still needs to be completed.

Lean working – a method of working that places a focus on ‘eliminating waste’, or steering clear of any requirement or enhancement that does not add any real value to the project’s goal.

Planning poker – during a planning session, team members may be assigned Fibonacci cards. The scrum master will call out tasks and requirements, and team members will lay down a card corresponding to their personal perception of a task’s priority/difficulty. This gamified approach to prioritisation is known as planning poker. It can lead to tasks being prioritised for a sprint in a way that enables the producers to have an informed say on what they can and should deliver to help a project progress smoothly.

Scrum – an agile methodology whereby the team has a planning meeting at the start of a sprint. Following the planning meeting, the team will hold a daily scrum. This is a short daily meeting held each morning (often lasting no longer than 15 minutes, often held standing up so that everyone remains at peak focus). These scrum meetings are attended by the project manager and ScrumMaster. Team members share what they worked on the day before, what they’ll work on today, and any impediments to their success. Scrum methodology is often accompanied by a product backlog which lists out all the requirements that remain to be added to the project. Items in the product backlog can be given priorities and updated so that the team always knows what it most needs to work on.

Sprint – agile work periods are divided into sprints. These are short periods of delivery by which the team aims to complete the tasks they have set themselves for that sprint. A sprint might, for example, last for a working week. A long project will be comprised of many sprints. Each sprint is preceded by a planning meeting and features daily scrum meetings.

Stories – requirements are written as ‘stories’ that are amassed in a prioritised list called the backlog.

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