Beginner’s Guide to Agile Project Management
Agile management is quickly gaining popularity in the modern workplace as a way to complete work in the complex, ever-changing world. Agile thrives in adaptive cultures where team members are quick to change if the outcome is a more productive work experience.
In this agile project management guide you will discover,
- What is Agile project management?
- How does Agile project management work?
- History of Agile project management
- Agile pros and cons
- Who uses Agile project management?
- What are the 4 core values of Agile?
- What are the 12 principles of Agile?
- Key components of Agile project management
- What are the 6 steps in Agile project management?
- Transitioning to Agile project management
- Getting started with Agile project management
What is Agile project management?
Super-adaptable, Agile project management is an incremental and non-linear approach to project management. It focuses on breaking down large projects into more manageable tasks, which are completed in short iterations throughout the project life cycle. Teams that adopt the Agile methodology are able to complete work faster, adapt to changing project requirements, and optimize their workflow.
As the name suggests, Agile allows teams to be better equipped to quickly change direction and focus. Software companies and marketing agencies are especially aware of the tendency to demand changes from project stakeholders that happen from week to week.
The Agile methodology allows teams to re-evaluate the work they are doing and adjust in given increments to make sure that as the work and customer landscape changes, the focus also changes for the team.
If you’re new to the Agile project management, it might look at first like a complex and difficult-to-manage system. But, whether you realize it or not, you’re already doing many of the things Agile requires. With a few tweaks, you’ll be on your way to shorter development cycles and smaller, more frequent product releases.
How does Agile project management work?
Agile project management does not require the oversight of a project manager, as traditional ‘waterfall’ project management does. Instead, teams share a project manager’s responsibilities to communicate and collaborate better among themselves. Results are analysed more frequently, not just at the end, and teams adapt to changing feedback and desired results, causing a process of continual development.
History of Agile project management.
Agile project management may seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but it has its roots in the rapid application development (RAD), pioneered by English IT engineer James Martin in the 1990s in software development.
This was a reaction to the top-down ‘waterfall’ processes of the previous decades, driven by the technological changes of user interface experience. It fed back knowledge from the development process into the design of the project itself, testing problems early on in the lifecycle rather than waiting until the end.
This Agile Alliance, set up in 2001, was the beginning of today’s Agile philosophy. They developed the 12 principles covered below. From this point, it has evolved among project management workflows across all industries, organizations and markets.
Agile pros and cons.
There are a range of advantages and disadvantages to following an Agile methodology in your business. Consider these Agile pros and cons to help decide if it’s the right direction for you.
Benefits of Agile project management.
There are various advantages of an Agile project methodology, which include:
- Freedom for employees to work on models that leverage their strengths.
- More efficient use of resources and rapid deployment.
- Greater flexibility and adaptability to changing needs.
- Quicker detection of and remedies to problems.
- Improved collaboration with co-workers and users, leading to better functionality in products that better meet user needs.
- Clearly defined goals and processes do not need to be firmed up before work can start.
Disadvantages of Agile project management.
A few drawbacks to consider before you implement an Agile project methodology are that it:
- Is easy to slide off-road without predetermined paths of action.
- Provides less predictable outcomes.
- Works less well for businesses that require plenty of time to analyze problems or undertake market research.
- Can fall flat without good collaborative skills and good personal relations.
Agile v Scrum: what’s the difference?
The main difference between Agile and Scrum meetings is that Agile is a general approach to project management – Scrum is a specific method within it.
Who uses Agile project management?
Originally created for software development, the Agile approach to project management is quickly being adapted by more than just IT teams. Some industries also looking at the Agile methodology and other Agile frameworks to deliver innovative products in uncertain environments include:
- Automotive industry
Many organizations can benefit from Agile project management, and it’s simple to set up and utilize.
In the software world, when a decision to build or further develop an existing technology is made, the end product may be hard to define. Agile allows for that ambiguity because of its flexibility to change direction on a project as work moves into the future.
While you can take advantage of Agile software, books, or Agile coaches, each Agile team is unique. Understanding the basics can help you put together an Agile methodology that works for you and your team.
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What are the 4 core values of Agile?
The Agile Manifesto outlines 4 core values and 12 guiding principles that serve as a North Star for any team adopting an Agile methodology.
The 4 core values of Agile are:
1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
As sophisticated as technology gets, the human element will always serve as an important role in any kind of project management. Relying too heavily on processes and tools results in an inability to adapt to changing circumstances.
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.
As important as documentation is, working software is more important. This value is all about giving the developers exactly what they need to get the job done, without overloading them.
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Your customers are one of your most powerful assets. Whether internal or external customers, involving them throughout the process can help to ensure that the end product meets their needs more effectively.
4. Responding to change over following a plan.
This value is one of the biggest departures from traditional project management. Historically, change was seen as an expense, and one to be avoided. Agile allows for continuous change throughout the life of any given project. Each sprint provides an opportunity for review and course correction.
What are the 12 principles of Agile?
Agile methodologies can be as diverse and unique as each individual team. However, the 12 principles of Agile should always guide your decisions and product development.
- Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software (or whatever else you deliver).
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
- Deliver projects frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for the shorter timescale.
- Coordinating team members 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.
- Face-to-face conversation is the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within different teams.
- The final product is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. All stakeholders 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.
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Key components of Agile project management.
Put simply, a user story is a high-level definition of a work request. It contains just enough information so the team can produce a reasonable estimate of the effort required to accomplish the request.
This short, simple description is written from the user’s perspective and focuses on outlining what your client wants (their goals) and why.
Sprints are a short iteration, usually taking between one to three weeks to complete, where teams work on tasks determined in the sprint planning meeting. As you move forward, the idea is to continuously repeat these sprints until your product is feature ready.
Once the sprint is over, you review the product see what is and isn’t working, make adjustments, and begin another sprint to improve the product or service.
Daily stand-up meetings (under 10 minutes), also known as ‘daily Scrum meetings,’ are a great way to ensure everyone is on track and informed. These daily interactions are known as ‘stand up’ because the participants are required to stay standing, helping to keep the meetings short and to the point.
An Agile board helps your team track the progress of your project. This can be a whiteboard with sticky notes, a simple Kanban board, or a function within your project management software.
As project requests are added through your intake system, they become outstanding stories in the backlog. During Agile planning sessions, your team will estimate story points to each task.
During sprint planning, stories in the backlog are moved into the sprint to be completed during the iteration. Managing your backlog is a vital role for project managers in an Agile environment.
Different Agile methodologies may require specific team roles to adhere to the framework, or may not require any specified roles. Though individual Agile implementation may not require all of these roles, here are a few common roles that you may find:
- Scrum Master. The Scrum Master ensures that each sprint stays on track and helps to remove or resolve any issues or challenges that may come up. They are the team’s advocate.
- Product owner. The role of the product owner is to define the goals of each sprint, manage and prioritize the team backlog, and be the voice of the customer or internal stakeholder.
- Team members. The people on this team are the ones who execute the work in each sprint. These teams, usually of three to seven people, can be composed of different specialties and strengths. Or they can be teams of people with the same job roles.
- Stakeholders. This is an informational role only. The stakeholders should be kept up to date on the product and sprint goals, have the opportunity to review and approve work during a sprint, and provide feedback during the sprint retrospective.
Each Agile methodology has its own unique list of team members and roles. While the titles may change, there are a few universal role characteristics that most Agile team structures should have:
- T-shaped: A valuable Agile team member has a wide breadth of basic knowledge about their subject but also deep knowledge, experience, and ability in one (or more) specific areas.
- Cross-functional: Cross-functional Agile team members have skills outside their traditional areas. They might know some basic graphic design principles and data analysis or even some HTML/CSS.
- Adaptable: If they have a diverse skill set, they know how to use it. No matter the environment, their output remains consistent.
- Curious: Part of optimizing and becoming more efficient is asking the right questions and challenging the way things have always been when it’s appropriate.
- Entrepreneurial: An Agile team member is one that doesn’t wait to be told what to do. They’re ready to fill in and develop campaigns where they see a need.
- Team-oriented: Team players prioritize the success of the team over their own personal glory. If everyone is delivering on time and syncing well together, they see that as a win.
- Committed to excellence: One of the key benefits of Agile projects is delivering quality work, faster. Team members who are committed to excellence don’t settle for average. They’re not hung up on perfection, but they’re dedicated to always producing their best work.
Learn more about Agile teams.
What are the 6 steps in Agile project management?
The goal of Agile is to produce shorter development cycles and more frequent product releases than traditional waterfall project management. This shorter time frame enables project teams to react to changes in the client’s needs more effectively.
As we said before, you can use a few different Agile frameworks — Scrum and Kanban are two of the most common. But each Agile methodology will follow the same basic process, which includes:
1. Project planning.
As with any project, before beginning your team should understand the end goal, the value to the organization or client, and how it will be achieved.
You can develop a project scope here, but remember that the purpose of using Agile project management is to be able to address changes and additions to the project easily, so the project scope shouldn’t be seen as unchangeable.
Learn more about project planning
2. Product roadmap creation.
A roadmap is a breakdown of the features that will make up the final product. This is a crucial component of the planning stage of Agile, because your team will build these individual features during each sprint.
At this point, you will also develop a product backlog, which is a list of all the features and deliverables that will make up the final product. When you plan sprints later on, your team will pull tasks from this backlog.
3. Release planning.
In traditional waterfall project management, there is one implementation date that comes after an entire project has been developed. When using Agile, however, your project uses shorter development cycles (called sprints) with features released at the end of each cycle.
Before kicking off the project, you’ll make a high-level plan for feature releases and at the beginning of each sprint, you’ll revisit and reassess the release plan for that feature.
4. Sprint planning.
Before each sprint begins, the stakeholders need to hold a sprint planning meeting to determine:
- What will be accomplished by each person during that sprint
- How it will be achieved
- Assess the task load
It’s important to share the load evenly among team members so they can accomplish their assigned tasks during the sprint. You’ll also need to visually document your workflow for team transparency, shared understanding within the team, and identifying and removing bottlenecks.
Learn more about sprint planning
5. Daily stand-ups.
To help your team accomplish their tasks during each sprint and assess whether any changes need to be made, hold short daily stand-up meetings. During these meetings, each team member will briefly talk about what they accomplished the day before and what they will be working on that day.
These daily meetings should be only 15 minutes long. They aren’t meant to be extended problem-solving sessions or a chance to talk about general news items. Some teams will even hold these meetings standing up to keep it brief.
Learn more about daily stand-up meetings
6. Sprint review and retrospective.
After the end of each sprint, your team will hold two meetings.
First, you will hold a sprint review with the project stakeholders to show them the finished product. This is an important part of keeping open communication with stakeholders. An in-person or video conference meeting allows both groups to build a relationship and discuss product issues that arise.
Second, you will have a sprint retrospective meeting with your stakeholders to discuss:
- What went well during the sprint?
- What could have been better?
- Was the task load too heavy or too light for each member?
- What was accomplished during the sprint?
If your team is new to Agile project management, don’t skip this essential meeting. It helps you gauge how much your team can tackle during each sprint and the most efficient sprint length for future projects.
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Transitioning to Agile project management.
Once you feel comfortable moving forward with Agile, you’ll want to start by educating your Agile teams on:
- How they will transition into their new roles
- When they will begin having daily stand-up meetings
- How they will transition their current work into the Agile methodology
After you establish transition steps and make sure everyone is comfortable with the new style of work, you’ll want to monitor and track their progress and success.
If they are struggling to run at the same velocity as before, what may be causing those issues? If the team isn’t updating stories with their current status, have those statuses been clearly defined?
Tracking a new Agile team’s progress or success will encourage confidence in the changes. In addition, having these Agile metrics will help justify the benefits of transitioning a team to Agile when in higher-level meetings.
Finally, it’s important to provide your team and new Scrum Masters with a form that outlines helpful questions to ask during daily stand-ups and the iteration retrospectives. This provides some excellent documentation for future reviews of processes. It will also allow for the team to identify areas that need improvement and help it answer questions it may not think to talk about if it is new to Agile.
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Frequently asked questions about agile project management.
What are the three biggest challenges of Agile project management?
Resistance to change is a common pitfall. Waterfall project management remains top of the tree and the go-to for companies reluctant to try out new workflows. There could be a lack of support from management, who want old-fashioned measurables, or colleagues who just want to be told what to do.
What are the most popular Agile project management tools?
There are a wide range of Agile project management tools available. The best one can depend on your business, industry and any priority areas. Some of the most popular frameworks to implement an Agile methodology include:
- Extreme Progamming
- Disciplined Agile Development
When is project management considered truly Agile?
Project management can be considered properly Agile when it offers the following:
- Customer focus
- Sense of ownership (shared leadership)
- Continuous improvement
Get started with Agile project management.
These are the most basic and important parts of Agile project management. As you transition your team to an Agile methodology, these processes, Agile software and tools, roles and principles will help you change your mindset and begin working together to be more flexible and adapt to changes as they come.
Agile isn’t for everyone, but teams who use it correctly will experience enormous benefits, including streamlined work processes and rapid innovation.