Project Management CXO

Agile project management: The smart person's guide

This is the go-to guide on Agile project management for project managers, business leaders, developers, project and product teams, consultants, stakeholders, and students.

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Agile project management (PM) was created out of the desire to give cross-functional software development teams the ability to increase adaptability and improve flexibility, response times, and collaboration, in order to create an environment of continuous improvement. Agile PM was officially recognized in 2001.

This resource guide is intended to be useful for project managers, business leaders, developers, project and product teams, consultants, stakeholders, and students. We'll update this primer when new information is available about Agile PM.

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Executive summary

  • What it is: Agile PM was developed for projects that require significant flexibility and speed. Agile PM is comprised of sprints, which are short delivery cycles.
  • Why it matters: Agile PM is a highly iterative process that allows for rapid adjustments throughout a project, better performance, and agility by project teams. It is best suited for projects requiring minimal control and real-time communication within self-motivated teams.
  • Who it affects: Agile PM affects project managers, their teams that work with this methodology, business leaders, developers, stakeholders in any capacity, end users, the business as a whole, and ultimately clients.
  • When this is happening: Agile PM has been used since 2001 and is currently a well-known and highly utilized methodology within the software industry. Other industries also utilize agile entirely or as part of a hybrid solution.
  • How to take advantage of Agile PM: There are online resources that offer information on using this methodology, and there's formal training from well-recognized PM organizations such as PMI and profit-based companies that offer insights or education to help improve project and team performance.

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What it is

While incremental software development methods similar to Agile were first identified and developed in 1957, Agile-type methods go as far back to 1970 to an American computer scientist named Dr. Winston Royce, a software development pioneer known for his paper that accidentally discovered the Waterfall model. In 1970 he went on to write an article titled "Managing the development of large software systems" in which he presented a few project management methodologies, including Agile PM.

The Agile Manifesto was originally declared between February 11-13, 2001 in Utah by 17 software developers who called themselves The Agile Alliance. This manifesto was officially developed as the result of the 1994 Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM).

Agile PM is guided by 12 principles (Agile Manifesto):

  1. Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even in late development.
  3. Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months).
  4. Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers.
  5. Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted.
  6. Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location).
  7. Working software is the principal measure of progress.
  8. Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design.
  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. Regularly, the team reflects on how to become more effective and adjusts accordingly.

Agile PM utilizes a highly systematic iterative and incremental approach to better manage project activities in an attempt to continually improve product or service development. This allows project teams to apply a more rapid, flexible, and collaborative team-based approach when working with cross-functional business groups. It isn't a guarantee of success--it offers a way to expedite the development of products or services when techniques are effectively used. Agile improves visibility, reduces timelines and risk, and increases the chances of meeting stakeholders' needs.

There are various agile frameworks, including Scrum, Lean, XP, and SAFe. Agile typically includes tasks that are broken into small increments with minimal planning involved in order to allow for increased agility.

Depending on who you talk to, Agile PM is referred to as a movement, a development, a method, or more commonly a methodology used extensively in the software industry in particular, but it can also be successfully adopted in other industries.

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Why it matters

Traditional PM methodologies like waterfall are more cumbersome than Agile because larger teams are required to meet, collaborate, and make decisions in ways that impeded progress. Agile PM not only improves efficiency, but can also increase quality standards, and maximize resources.

Traditional PM approaches also make it more difficult to isolate problems or deficiencies quickly without the use of a significant amount of resources. Because stakeholder needs can change throughout a project, Agile provides a mechanism to adjust quickly in relation to those needs. As these issues arise, or needs change, Agile allows small focused teams to make specific changes more rapidly at various stages of a project. Agile also generally offers a way to improve the attention to quality and decrease the chances of error, rework, and stakeholder disappointment.

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Agile PM enables tasks to be broken into smaller increments and shorter time frames (usually one week to four weeks) so that smaller cross-functional teams are able to better focus on all functions, from planning, through the testing stage. As testing can be addressed within these smaller increments or sprints, it's easier and faster to isolate and address concerns, bugs, or defects, before moving on to the next phase.

Agile PM allows these smaller teams to meet face-to-face more frequently to discuss progress, plans, and issues. This makes the teams more adaptable and flexible to change, and hopefully less prone to significant conflict. Other PM methodologies require more time and effort to assemble larger more formal meetings, and to resolve conflicting schedules. As a result, it takes teams a significant amount of time to meet, make decisions, assign responsibilities, address issues, or see any progress.

Agile PM reduces the time it takes to provide and receive feedback, and improves adoption times when compared to the traditional waterfall approach whereby teams dealt with rigid development life cycles. Other more formal methodologies forced teams to move from one PM phase of a project to the next before truly having a chance to test for, isolate, and address issues until almost the end of the entire project. Traditional PM methodologies also make it extremely difficult, costly, and time-consuming to deal with scope changes, making the time from concept to market a very lengthy process.

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Who this affects

The use of Agile PM, particularly for software development projects, benefits project teams, product developers, project and product managers, testers, engineers, system designers, technical document writers, and company executives. Ultimately, the biggest benefit is derived by the client because of the increased ability to isolate issues faster, reduce defects in a more expedient manner, and shift rapidly to meet their changing needs.

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How to use Agile PM

Although originally used primarily within the software industry, Agile has been widely adopted in many industries. Agile is a methodology that has an iterative rapid process that allows for continuous improvements. It benefits many organizations through increased adaptability, improved flexibility, fast response times, and more focused collaboration. Regardless of industry or company size, the principles and practices remain the same, but how they are applied can flex to meet with industry-specific norms, processes, and best practices.

Other PM methodologies that you might consider

There are other methodologies to consider and evaluate based on the project's nature, requirements, industry, and applications. Some of those methodologies include:

  • Waterfall
  • Critical Path Method (CPM)
  • Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM)
  • Six Sigma
  • Event Chain Methodology (ECM)
  • Crystal
  • Feature Driven Development (FDD)
  • Dynamic Systems Development (DSDM)
  • Adaptive Software Development
  • Rational Unified Process (RUP)
  • Lean Development (LD)
  • PRINCE2

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The future of Agile PM

As global competition continues to pick up speed, so does the need for companies to provide their customers with quality products faster. This puts companies under continued pressure as customer expectations are also on the rise, creating the need for continuous improvement. The principles of Agile will continue to offer continuous improvement benefits, making Agile PM a long-term methodology that addresses the need for speed, while maintaining quality standards, and meeting stakeholder requirements through flexible collaboration.

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