Agile project management: what it is, and why you should use it
By: Emily Finlay
Agile project management is a key component of many organizations and teams around the world. And there’s a good reason why: it’s fast, efficient, and helps to produce better results for less effort. At least it does when managed properly.
In this article, we’ll explore the specific actions you should take as a project manager when using the agile method. With this guide, you can ensure every project runs smoothly and produces the results you’re striving for.
What is agile project management?
Agile project management is an approach that uses multiple cycles, known as sprints, to improve the speed, flexibility, and quality of the project. With the completion of each sprint, the team completes and delivers one part of the project, using client and team feedback to guide and sharpen future iterations.
Though most often used for software development projects, the agile methodology can be used in a variety of project types. Following this technique involves using sprints, maintaining the flexibility to pivot as needed, and improving as you go. Within these guidelines, however, you have the ability to find and use the processes that work best for your team and project.
Agile project management methodology
Twenty years ago, a group of software developers worked together to write down the specifics of the agile method for software management. They came up with four main tenets, which we’ve altered a little to fit any project. These values are:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software (or any service/product) over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
These tenets don’t mean that you should neglect one side over the other. Instead, place greater value on the beginning of the sentences over the end. By implementing these values into your projects, you can find more efficient ways to offer exceptional results to your clients.
Let’s explore them a bit deeper.
1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
When executing an agile project, your team and collaboration are the focus of your work. A typical project, for example, might involve management planning out the exact steps the team would need to take to complete the deliverable. They would focus on the processes that need to be followed and the tools that should be used for each step.
Using such a rigid structure, however, can quickly lead to problems, especially if your team experiences hiccups or delays. If you tie your team to specific processes and those procedures can’t resolve these issues, you’re in danger of having your entire project derailed.
If, instead, you use your team and interactions as the focal point, as the agile method does, progress is only limited by the individuals involved. Inviting ideas and suggestions ensures that every piece of work reflects the best your team has to offer. When you experience the unexpected, your team can easily switch to a better process that fits the new requirements.
Most importantly, your team’s collaboration quickly uncovers issues and flaws as you go. Rather than restricting communication to scheduled meetings or calls, everyone can push each other to be and do better. By giving your team the space they need to find the best solutions, you can achieve higher quality and faster results.
2. Working software (or any service/product) over comprehensive documentation
This tenet may be more relevant to software development, but it’s still important to note. Rather than creating a plethora of documents related to the creation, functions, and execution of the end-product, focus on the product itself. This paperwork tends to hinder progress, creating delays where none are needed. Focusing on the service or product you’re designing streamlines your processes, keeping the bulk of your attention where it’s most needed.
That said, you shouldn’t completely eliminate documentation from your agile processes. Some of this information is important to write down. As long as you prioritize the work you’re doing over creating these documents (you can delay documentation to give more attention to the product but not vice versa), your project will stay on-schedule.
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Most projects that use typical project management techniques only involve the client at the beginning and end of the project. During contract negotiations, management and clients create detailed plans for the project, without any real knowledge of the actual outcome. They choose hard deadlines, outline exact details, and agree on specific processes before the team even knows what the project entails.
Then, once the project is delivered, the client gets their first look at the product. Only then do they find the problems that need fixing and changes they want made, when it’s most difficult and time-consuming to adjust the framework. The project often takes far longer to complete than anticipated at this point, causing headaches and frustrations on both sides.
Allowing customers to collaborate throughout the entire project avoids many of these problems. Clients share their vision at the start of the problem and managers use this information to guide their work, rather than trying to determine every detail.
With each iteration, the client gets to evaluate the product, its individual pieces, and the direction it’s taking. Teams can use this feedback to adjust features in their early stages, before they’re too entwined with other elements of the product. Collaboration ensures that clients get the exact result they want, without putting your team through unnecessary stress in the process.
4. Responding to change over following a plan
Flexibility is key to the agile project management process. Along with avoiding detailed project planning with the client, you should also refrain from plotting out specific steps for your team.
Now, that’s not to say that you should go into the project completely blind. You should still create a roadmap that outlines the iterations you will follow and the features you create. Within those sprints, however, you will leave much of the planning up to your team.
Using this loose structure keeps your team agile, giving everyone the ability to find the ideal solution for every issue. Client feedback changes are also easier and quicker. No matter the situation or need, your team can deliver without causing significant issues throughout the rest of the project.
Agile project management tips
Today, many teams that use traditional project management methods struggle to keep up with the changes and uncertainties presented by their projects. Implementing agile strategies limits these unknowns and gives every team member the chance to offer their best work in every project. From software development to marketing to construction to many more, as well as all the projects that companies in these industries undertake, agile project management provides endless benefits.
If you want to implement the agile methodology into your own projects, here are some ways to start.
1. Do your research
While you don’t have to follow a strict guidebook, you’ll get the best results when you follow time-tested agile project processes. In recent blogs, we’ve covered the basics of agile planning, best practices, and templates for outlining your projects. These articles are a great way to determine your new project plans.
The processes you use will vary depending on your industry, so use others’ experiences to guide your own projects.
2. Discover the value of estimating and reporting
Your project plans won’t include details, but estimates of the processes, deadlines, and resources you’ll need and follow. With each iteration, your team will learn more about their capacity and speed. You can then use this information to adjust future sprints, improving the estimates you make on later projects.
Just be sure to track the data you gather throughout the project. These numbers will help you make informed decisions and adjustments for every other project you take on.
3. Break projects into sprints
Perhaps the most defining feature of the agile project management method, iterations determine everything you do for future projects. These short cycles help your team focus on quality and speed, enabling you to progress faster without sacrificing the excellence of your work. It also ensures that the client is involved in every step of the process. Using agile methods increases your success rate and keeps clients thrilled with the products they receive.
Since each cycle ends in a deliverable, however, the iterations used in different industries can look vastly different. If constructing a building, for example, you can’t exactly create part of the building without knowing what the rest will look like. What you can do is involve the client in every stage of your construction. By implementing agile principles, you can avoid end-of-project problems and mid-project hold-ups.
While this process may look different than an agile event planning project, you can still benefit from agile project methodology and principles.
4. Rely on feedback
Using feedback to improve is one thing that stays the same across all projects and industries. Both your team and your clients should share valuable insights that you can use to refine your processes in the next iteration. If you make improvements a priority throughout all the work you do, you can shape teams and processes that are able to thrive in every project.