How to tell if Agile is the right project management style for your business

Agile is exploding across enterprises. Here's how to decide if your organization can benefit from the methodology.

Video: Agile Project Management ... in less than two minutes

Businesses are increasingly turning to Agile project management for continuous improvement in development cycles. But determining whether or not this methodology is right for your project or enterprise as a whole depends on exactly what kind of work you are producing.

For those unfamiliar, Agile is a project management methodology created in 2001 that uses short development cycles called "sprints" to allow for rapid adjustments continuous improvement in the development of a product or service.

The majority of software produced today is developed using Agile methodologies, according to Peter Hyde, research director at Gartner. "Team level adoption has spread to the enterprise and is crossing all areas of the business," Hyde said. "Agile and Lean practices have replaced traditional development methods."

Agile is responsive to changing requirements, and through iterative and incremental change, allows organizations to work closely with customers and create the right product to satisfy their needs, Hyde said.

SEE: IT leader's guide to Agile development (Tech Pro Research)

"With an increased focus on quality and maintainability, Agile development accelerates product performance and delivery," Hyde said. Empowering teams in this way also boosts innovation, increases motivation, and improves retention, he added.

A 2017 survey from the Project Management Institute found that 71% of businesses report using Agile sometimes, often, or always. Virtually all--98%--of businesses report that their organization has realized success from Agile projects, according to a 2017 VersionOne survey.

"Agile certainly started as a software method or ideology, but we're seeing it spread from end to end," said Rachel Burger, a senior project management analyst at "We're seeing it appear in non-traditional businesses like construction and manufacturing. This is the future of work."

Agile offers businesses flexibility, Burger said. Workers tend to be happier at their jobs when they have more individual responsibilities and feel accountable for themselves, Burger said. Agile doesn't rely on extrinsic forces as much as traditional methods do, so you see teams working more closely together and setting their own goals. "It's a faster, more flexible style of work, which the emerging workforce is particularly fond of," Burger said.

The methodology also makes sense given the current business landscape and our ability to constantly communicate, Burger said. "One's target audience tends to change much more rapidly than it would in the '90s," Burger said. "Agile is affording companies the possibility to be able to pivot easier with the market."

And with the rapid growth of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) in the enterprise, companies that can quickly pivot will be far more successful than those that struggle to respond to market changes, Burger said. "Agile businesses are going to be the only ones who can successfully compete by 2025," she added.

Is Agile right for your organization?

Adopting Agile requires sustained, focused effort at all levels of an organization, Hyde said. "Cultural change must run alongside changes to development practices and tooling," Hyde said. "Agile adoption may begin with software development, but done right, will transform your business."

Indeed, culture and behavior were the top impediment to Agile adoption for half of organization surveyed in a 2017 Forrester report, as Agile adoption requires the creation of new roles and collaborative processes.

SEE: Research: The rise of agile IT (Tech Pro Research)

When considering adopting Agile, an organization must determine how flexible it can be on projects, Burger said. For example, a firm with a government contract with several legalities and required resources may find that traditional development makes more sense, because there is a set goal that is unlikely to change from start to finish.

Agile may be the stronger choice for projects that are more flexible, where you have more communication with stakeholders and changes may come in at the last minute. "If there's a more interactive way to be able to develop whatever product you're producing, then Agile makes way more sense for you," Burger said.

The methodology is more of a philosophy than a prescription, and there are different ways of approaching it. For most companies, the question is no longer, "Should we use Waterfall or Agile for this project?" but instead, "Which Agile framework and practices can be applied to produce the highest value?" Hyde said. "The skill is choosing between frameworks and tailoring them to enable high-performance teams to deliver frequent value for the business reliably," he added.

Training courses for legacy methodologies no longer exist for a reason, Hyde said. "It's Agile all the way down," he added.

For companies just getting started, Burger recommends an Agile technique called a retrospective. This involves gathering a small group of contributors and a manager to discuss what's worked and what hasn't worked for the company in the past, as well as what could work in the future. These meetings should happen at least once a month. Managers can then communicate the group's findings to senior leaders.

Organizations can reduce the risk and cost of Agile adoption by running pilot tests, Hyde said. Those tests can be followed by domain-specific tailoring, and finally, enterprise scaling.

We are currently in the final stages of a shift in management theory, Hyde said. "The Agile manifesto provided the seed for a rapid change in thinking and practice," Hyde said. "By empowering teams to deliver early and often, we see a faster realization of business benefit and increased agility to react to change."

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