What Is Agile Project Management?
Agile project management integrates an iterative approach to your project planning process. It breaks the development cycle into smaller parts, called sprints. While overall project planning sets the tone and scope of the project, the iterative process.
The agile framework was developed in the software industry. A software development team would use agile practices to increase speed to market by bringing together collaborative teams across disciplines to work in short sprints. During the process, it was proven that agile teams were able to make independent decisions more quickly.
Often, developers create an MVP – a minimum viable product – and use a continuous improvement strategy to continue development.
It’s a bit of a change for those trained in traditional project management, such as the waterfall method. In the waterfall method, you follow a pathway from concept to design to development to testing, flowing from one step to the next.
Agile methodologies go from design to iteration to testing and back to design in more of a looping motion. The loops continue in small bursts until the project is delivered. In the case of agile software development, continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) is typically used in DevOps.
The CI/CD model resembles the number 8 on its side. From planning to coding to testing to deployment and monitoring, then looping.
Working software is created and then constantly reviewed, tested, and tweaked for continuous product improvements. Rather than launch a large once-a-year update, for example, applications get updated frequently, as often as multiple times a day in some cases.
The Agile Manifesto
The principles of agile project management methods were first developed by a group of 17 software developers that got together and published what they published The Manifesto for Agile Software Development back in 2001.
They developed 12 principles that are still popular with agile teams working in the software industry.
- Satisfying the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- 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 for 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 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.
Agile Project Management Methodologies in Other Industries
Agile methodologies are being used in other industries besides software development.
In construction, for example, traditional project management typically deploys project teams to develop and execute project plans in a structured flow:
- Project closeout
User input happens most frequently in the planning-and-design phase. While there are more elaborate models, such as phase gates or bid phases, these projects tend to travel in a straight line with phases only beginning when the previous phase has ended.
Because large-scale projects typically involve multiple team members, including contractors, sub-contractors, designers, and others, coordinating all of the efforts and managing resources and schedules can be challenging. Delays and overruns are common. If one phase of the project falls behind or uncovers a problem, it can delay every remaining phase.
With an agile approach, the product owner sets the overriding project goals and provides oversight for the project. Team members divide up scheduling, progress reporting, and task management. Groups work collaboratively to iterative and problem at each step of the process.
A scrum is the most popular agile starting point.
During the scrum, project requirements are gathered and used to define the project. This is used as a framework to develop shorter iterative processes, known as sprints. A scrum master guides the sprints to ensure projects stay on task. Teams may work in sprints and then provide agile reports in a daily or weekly scrum meeting.
One of the key benefits of agile project management is an iterative approach. With traditional project plans, it can be extremely difficult to change direction when design changes occur, business plans change, or scope creep sneaks in. It’s why so many projects go over budget and fall behind schedule. When there’s a significant change, it can disrupt the flow and stop the project until the next stage is cleared.
Using the agile framework, the larger task is broken down into smaller tasks. Sprint planning allows many phases to work concurrently to speed up delivery. Self-organizing teams are more easily able to pivot and adjust to product changes as granular project execution is only planned and implemented at the sprint level.
Due to complex design, construction specifications, and regulations, a fully agile model isn’t practical. Software developers can create project updates in the final days that don’t affect the overall project or even release updates after deployment. In construction, you can’t deliver a new room or floor plan every few weeks.
However, you can leverage agile approaches and integrate aspects of product increment development, team collaboration, and agile process and agile tools into project management. Many companies find benefits from a hybrid approach where both traditional and agile approaches co-exist.
The Five Phases of Agile Project Management
There are five main phases in project or product development using the agile approach.
In the first phase of agile project management, the project is envisioned. Customer and stakeholder needs, as well as team members, are identified.
Next, initial requirements for the project are defined. Teams will collaborate and create the significant features of the final product, along with project tasks, and then identify timelines for the project tasks.
The development process continues even as teams start to work on single milestones. Teams are encouraged to iterate and explore alternative ways to fulfill project requirements more efficiently.
As tasks are completed, the results are reviewed. In this phase, changes or corrections are examined based on stakeholder, project teams, or customer collaboration. Feedback is an essential part of the adaptation process so that each project meets the requirements of the stakeholders.
During an agile process, the amount of work may vary day to day as projects are broken down into smaller and smaller development cycles. After each cycle, plans are reviewed to provide additional improvements.
As tasks continue to be completed, results continue to be reviewed. Any changes in this phase are measured against deliverables and any updated project requirements. As projects are closed, team members share learnings to be applied against future tasks.
Pros of Agile Project Management
There are pluses and minuses to agile project management. According to Villanova University, the positive aspects of agile management methods include:
- Increased focus on the specific needs of customers/stakeholders
- Reduced waste through minimizing resources
- Increased flexibility enables teams to easily adapt to change
- Better control of projects
- Faster project turnaround times
- Faster detection of product issues or defects
- Increased frequency of collaboration and feedback
- Improved development process
- Increased success through more focused efforts
- Rapid problem solving and solutions
Over the past few years, we’ve certainly seen the critical need to pivot and be flexible. Companies have adapted in ways they would have deemed impossible not so long ago. For those embracing agile concepts, it appears to be paying off.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) 2021 Pulse of the Profession® report calls organizations that have adopted an agile approach “gymnastic enterprises.” These gymnastic enterprises focus more on outcomes than processes and have figured out how to balance structure and governance with agility and flexibility.
THE PMI report says that gymnastic enterprises are delivering better value than traditional companies when it comes to:
- Meeting original business goals or intent
- Completing projects within the original budget
- Completing projects on time
Gymnastic enterprises are also seeing significantly less scope creep and fewer failed projects.
Cons of Agile Project Management
There are also some drawbacks to the agile process if project owners and scrum masters don’t keep team members on track.
Because there are fewer finite steps predefined at the beginning of each phase, projects can go off track more easily, which can lead to bad outcomes. It can also be more difficult to budget due to constantly evolving processes.
Agile also requires fast decision-making at lower levels than in traditional project planning. Some organizations may struggle to adapt as they default to longer periods of analysis before making decisions.
Until you’ve worked in an agile framework, it can sound a bit like chaos. While agile methodologies are built to accommodate rapid iterations and changes, there’s also a solid structure. The vast majority of agile projects require frequent and regular planning. After the high-level agreement and requirements are defined and tasks begin, planning and project management still continue.
In most cases, there is a rigorous daily monitoring and management process that goes on. Scrum masters make sure project teams are staying on task and meeting objectives while the project owner manages the process and tools. It takes well-trained teams that are capable of self-management and decision-making that are skilled at communication and collaboration.
At the same time, strategies must be put in place for communication, collaboration, talent development, and a culture that fosters an agile mindset, including making team members feel comfortable with a new way of doing things along with:
- Collaborative leadership
- An innovative mindset
Companies that fail to create this culture may struggle with an agile approach.
Overcoming Challenges to Implementing an Agile Methodology
There are two significant challenges to implementing an agile methodology, especially in large enterprises. First, you need a strong commitment to communication and the tools to manage that communication. Secondly, you’re likely juggling multiple projects which require detailed sequencing of resources. Scaling agile across multiple projects can be difficult.
You need real-time data and time tracking and a robust communication platform to manage every aspect of your entire project portfolio.
According to the PMI, gymnastic enterprises make technology a high priority. Agile companies deploy tech to help manage and monitor their projects. Important features include:
- Complex problem-solving tools and techniques
- Artificial intelligence tools
- On-demand microlearning tools and apps
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