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Learn Agile Project Management Basics

Looking to learn what is Agile project management? If so, find out where Agile comes from, what it focuses on and why it is important for today's businesses.

Why Agile Project Management?

Developing a new product, service, report (or literally anything) and bringing it successfully to the market is not an easy job. You need to prepare the concept for it, do the planning, go through execution and monitoring, and only then reach the closure phase.

At first look, you have everything mapped out, so you can expect your project to run smoothly. However, things usually don’t happen that easily, do they? There are emerging changes that you need to be able to respond to in order to keep your project moving forward.

Unless your organization is agile and has a way to respond to those changes, you risk continuously delaying the delivery of your projects and as a result, becoming uncompetitive on the market.

That’s why a solution to that problem lies within the adoption of the Agile approach to project management. This can provide a number of benefits to your business, helping it become more flexible, productive, transparent, capable of producing a higher quality of products and services as well as successfully delivering them to the market.

In addition, Agile project management helps teams find and resolve issues faster and frees up capacity which allows for the rapid implementation of a given solution.

A Brief History of Agile

It all started with the so-called “application development crisis” in the early 1990s. There was a huge lag time of about 3 years between a business need for an application, and the actual software delivery.

Those significantly longer lead times led to the frustration of thought leaders in the software development industry. They started organizing informal meetings between themselves, determined to find a way to develop software solutions in an easier and more effective way.

This is how it came about the now-famous gathering of 17 software development leaders at the Snowbird ski resort in the Wasatch mountains of Utah between 11-13 February 2001. The group met to talk about skiing, have some drinks, eat and relax. However, what eventually emerged was the “Agile Manifesto” that changed the way we manage projects today.

What Is Agile Project Management?

Let’s first explore the definition of “agility”. The word literally means “mobility, nimbleness” as well as from the Latin agere: “keep in movement”. This signifies the ability to move something forward in a quick way that allows easy changes of direction.

Originally having its roots from the software industry, Agile represents a set of beliefs that can be used to make decisions about how to better produce software products. A lot of people confuse it with being a methodology, whereas it is more of a way of thinking for collaborative problem-solving. Its real utility lies within giving people a common foundation for taking a specific approach to developing software as well as other solutions in a knowledge work environment.

In terms of project management, “agility” has four important attributes:

  • Customer focus
  • Adaptability
  • Sense of Ownership (Effective Leadership)
  • Continuous Improvement

Agile project management attributes

Let’s break each one of them down and explore them below:

Customer Focus

There is a famous quote by the serial entrepreneur Dave Mcclure which states that “Customers don’t care about your solution. They care about their problems”. In other words, even if you have the best solution in the world, in case your customers don’t see how in reality it will help them solve their problem, they are not going to want to use it.

That’s why the Agile approach to project management places a heavy focus on customer satisfaction which is done through constant collaboration. The goal is not to just provide customers with what they asked for but also what they really need.

The rapid feedback loops that come with Agile allow customers to see how “what they thought they wanted” actually looks in practice. This contributes to the development of new knowledge and the exploration of possible innovative solutions.

Also, through customer collaboration, Agile aims to bring efficiency to projects. This happens through the reduction of extensive project rework which creates huge wastage of both time and resources. As a result, you can enjoy lower levels of production and delay costs which make the final product or service cheaper for the end customer.

Adaptability

The main idea behind Agile project management is to make teams be more capable to respond to a changing environment whenever necessary and deliver value more frequently to the end customer. That’s why, instead of producing one big batch of work, Agile focuses on an iterative approach where teams breakdown their projects and continuously deliver smaller chunks of them while retaining flexibility for the remaining work.

The goal is to make sure that what is being worked on is actually synchronized with the end user at every step of the production process. As a result, whenever customer requirements change, you will be more flexible, adapt to that situation and avoid any significant delays in the final delivery of the project.

Agile Project Management Phases

In general, the way that the Agile project management process works can be summarized in the phases below:

  • Envision – create the product vision and scope for the customers as well as determine who will be involved in the project
  • Speculate – this is an extension of the “Envision” phase where teams gather the initial broad requirements for a product/service and develop an iteration plan based on the vision
  • Explore – work on the project deliverables with a focus on flow, aiming to get feedback from the customer as fast as possible
  • Adapt – review delivered results and adapt as necessary to current conditions
  • Close – conclude the project, pass along key findings

Agile project management phases

Here, unlike the stages of traditional project management, there is one key difference that happens inside the “Adapt” phase.

After you have created the vision for the product and prepared an iteration plan, you proceed to the “Explore” phase. There, the aim is to continuously release small deliverables to the market instead of waiting for all of them to be completed.

Then, in the “Adapt” phase, results are being reviewed by the end customers who give their feedback. The idea is to adapt to the current situation and, if necessary, go back to apply small modifications instead of doing an extensive rework.

Sense of Ownership

Another attribute that “agility” brings to project management is the instilment of a sense of ownership within teams which contributes to more effective leadership.

In traditional project management, all pieces of information go through a dedicated project manager who allocates tasks to different team members. This can be ineffective due to the increased likelihood some of the information to get lost.

That’s why in agile projects, a fragment of the decision-making process goes to the team members because, in reality, they are the ones that work directly with the client. Instead of all information to be distributed by a dedicated project manager, it goes directly to the team members. Eventually, they are encouraged to collaborate with each other and find a solution to the problem based on their own understanding as opposed to waiting on the “boss” to say what needs to be done.

Agile leadership

This creates an environment of shared ownership which motivates and empowers teams to be more efficient in the work they do. As a result, they contribute in the best possible way towards the successful completion of the project.

The leadership becomes more effective because the focus is only on the work (not the workers) which is what actually generates the profits for the business. In addition, successful leaders in Agile projects set shared goals with their team members, help them remove impediments by optimizing the flow of work, provide them with the necessary resources and encourage collaborative learning.

Continuous Improvement

One of the most important attributes of the Agile approach to project management is that it creates an environment for continuous improvement.

As the work is broken down on small deliverables, they are being continuously handed over to the customers for their examination and feedback.

This contributes to the continuous refinement of a product or service with the goal in mind to make it perfectly fit for the target customer. In addition, teams gather valuable knowledge which they can transfer to their next project, making its future delivery both faster and more successful.

Agile Values and Principles

Becoming agile is all about shifting your mindset and following specific values and principles in the way you work.

The 4 key values of Agile are the following:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  4. Responding to change over following a plan.

It’s important to mention that these values were defined in the following format: “While we value the things on the right, we value the things on the left more”. This means that processes and tools, documentation, contracts and planning are still extremely important. We just have to use them wisely.

In addition to the values, there are also 12 principles of Agile software development:

  • The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Changing requirements must be welcomed, even late in the development process. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  • Working software must be delivered frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  • Business people and software 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 a 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.

Learn more about the 12 principles of Agile project management.

Even though Agile project management stems from the software development industry, it is being successfully applied to many other areas such as product development, architecture, marketing, financial services, etc.

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As Agile became a hot topic at the beginning of the 21st century, many frameworks took advantage of the rising hype and rapidly became famous (Scrum, SAFe, etc.). However, many companies seeking true business agility realized that highly prescriptive frameworks and agility are kinds of opposite things. This is why many organizations today are looking into methodologies that create and support a stable workflow and tailor the processes to their own needs, instead of adopting highly prescriptive frameworks.

Today, the most popular Agile methods or frameworks for project management are Kanban, Scrum, and Scrumban.

So, let’s start with Kanban.

Kanban

Kanban is a method formulated a decade ago. It focuses on evolutionary change and continuous process improvements.

The method has 6 core practices:

  • visualize work
  • limit work-in-progress
  • manage flow
  • make process policies explicit
  • implement feedback loops
  • improve collaboratively

Teams visualize their work on a Kanban board that serves as a central information hub where all tasks should be placed. This will allow people to exchange information much faster and collaborate more effectively while working on different projects.

Agile Kanban

A Kanban board is divided into columns which represent different stages of the workflow. This helps project managers and teams organize and manage work much better, keep track of different projects and acquire a better overview of the whole process.

One of the most important Kanban practices is limiting work-in-progress. The WIP limit is the amount of work that’s allowed to exist in each of the board columns. This is one of the most effective tools you can use to create a massive focus on your team. It will help your team focus on finishing work and improve overall efficiency.

On the other hand, we all know that projects, teams, and individuals are unique. Different teams have a different set of skills, level of experience, expertise. Different projects may have different scope, budget and so on.

This is why Kanban suggests that you should start with what you do now and evolve gradually. No drastic changes, no revolutions. This is what makes Kanban one of most adaptive Agile project management methods.

As a matter of fact, Kanban can be applied by any team in your organization from IT to marketing. The main reason is that Kanban:

  • respects the current processes and roles
  • doesn’t require revolutionary, but evolutionary changes
  • suggests you should pursue incremental, evolutionary change and try to improve continuously

If you want to use Kanban just put it on top of your current processes and start improving step by step.

Learn more about Kanban.

Scrum

Many believe that Scrum is a method, but actually, it is a prescriptive framework. By nature, it is an iterative approach that uses time-boxed intervals and split projects into fixed periods called sprints. The main purpose is to support teams to productively and creatively deliver products of the highest possible value.

There are 3 immutable roles:

  • the Product Owner
  • The Scrum Master
  • the Team

The product owner represents customers and other stakeholders. He/she organizes and manages the product backlog, which is a prioritized task list of all the work items needed for the product. On the other hand, the Scrum master is a servant-leader of the team and helps everyone understand and apply the rules correctly.

Agile Scrum

The Sprint backlog should be filled with items selected from the product backlog until the capacity for the Sprint is reached. The work itself is done by a self-organizing team during the Sprint, which may be considered as projects with a fixed length of no more than one month.

There are 4 major Scrum events:

  • Sprint Planning
  • Daily Stand Up
  • Sprint Review
  • Sprint Retrospective

An interesting fact is that in the original paper that formulates the framework and later the Scrum guide, the authors never mention the usage of a task board.

However, nowadays you can observe that all teams or organizations use a task board while practicing Scrum, which is a borrowed practice from Kanban.

After all, the board increases transparency and supports the Agile project management values.

Scrumban

As Kanban was becoming more and more popular, some people of the Agile community saw an opportunity to develop a method which makes it easy for Scrum teams to move forward and focus on continuous improvement and evolutionary change. And this is how Scrumban was born.

An interesting fact is that 81% of the Scrum masters use Kanban along with Scrum.

Scrumban takes the Kanban philosophy and practices and lays them on top of Scrum as well as it eliminates some rules.

Let’s see what Scrumban takes from Kanban.

Visualize work. This is the first thing that Scrumban prescribes as mandatory. This is very important because Scrum doesn’t mandate a board, while in Kanban the board is a must.

Limit Work in Progress (WIP). If you know anything about Kanban, you will know that limiting WIP is the game-changer. One of the most important Agile metrics. Scrumban takes this practice and applies it successfully as it makes it possible for teams to focus on finishing work. Limiting WIP is a good prerequisite for creating a pull system, where the tasks enter naturally into the workflow, instead of being pushed.

Extend the board. In other words, add more columns to the board. This is typical for Kanban and it is a great way to visualize the different workflow steps on the board. This way, your team can have a better overview of the process and it will help you discover where exactly in the process bottlenecks appear.

Prioritizing. Scrumban applies another technique from Kanban – prioritizing. It is pretty simple. You order the cards in the Requested (To Do) column and there is one simple rule: the top one is the most important. Having in mind this rule, the team starts pulling the cards one by one.

(Stop) Estimating. This is probably where Scrumban cheats on Scrum. Why is that? Scrumban states that you don’t need to estimate work. Here is the thing. According to Lean every activity which doesn’t add value to the end result is considered waste. In this sense, estimating is a wasteful activity. Here is why in Scrumban the planning sessions are relatively short and they are focused on prioritizing, instead of estimating.

Planning on demand. This is one of the main differences between Scrum and Scrumban. Scrumban eliminates Sprint planning in its initial form. Instead, the team plans if there is a need for this. In other words, the team pulls work items from the backlog until it gets empty, which is a trigger that the team should plan more tasks.

Agile Scrumban

As you can see Scrumban takes Scrum to the next level by applying the Kanban principles and practices. This allows teams to increase output and decrease waste while providing visibility and higher productivity. It also lets teams apply Agile planning in its full potential.

Other Honorable Mentions

There are other Agile project management methods that had a positive impact on developing the Agile community, but during the years they were slowly pushed aside. This is why we won’t dedicate separate paragraphs to them. However, we have to mention that some of them are:

  • XP (Extreme Programming)
  • Crystal methods
  • FDD (Feature-driven Development)
  • DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery)

In the beginning, Scrum was accepted pretty well (and still is) and it became mainstream in the software development industry. However, through the years, Kanban, Scrumban and the usage of hybrid models grew in popularity and it helped Agile spread across various industries. After all, Kanban, Scrum, and Scrumban are the top 3 that successfully crossed the chasm and spread across other industries such as product development, architecture, marketing, financial services, healthcare, insurance, education, and others.

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End-to-end Organizational Visibility

 

In Summary


Applying the Agile approach to project management will help your team:

  • Put the focus on customers
  • Easily adapt to changes
  • Create a common sense of leadership
  • Improve continuously
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Step 1

Agile Project Management Principles

12 Agile principles build the foundation of the most popular project...

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Step 2

Building an Agile Workflow

Adapting to changes and delivering value to customers requires you to have an...

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Step 3

What Is Agile Planning?

Get to know what Agile planning really is. Learn what the difference between...

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Step 4

Structuring Work with Agile

Agile management doesn’t treat all work homogeneously. Instead, it tries to...

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Step 5

Agile Implementation

Shifting from traditional to the Agile way of managing projects can...

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Step 6

Agile Metrics

One specific aspect of the Agile methodologies for project management, which...

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Step 7

Benefits of Agile Project Management

Learn about the benefits of Agile for reducing risk of project failure,...