Agile project management methods are all the rage and it's easy to see why. They promise greater efficiency and employee engagement as well as happier customers. In this article, we'll discuss how agile project management works, what principles it's based around, and what sort of methods and tools exist for integrating it into your business or organization.
What Is Agile Project Management?
"Agile" project management is distinguished by its dynamic nature, reduced intensity, and encouragement of greater participation and collaboration from among project members, especially in regards to quality, timing, and costs when set alongside more traditional forms of project management.
For example, whereas in classic project management, a precise goal and production process is defined at the outset, ("monolithic architecture"), agile project management works iteratively/incrementally. This means that instead of planning each individual step from start to finish, work phases are defined, wherein certain goals or deliverables (increments) are to be produced. Accordingly, all that's needed to get started with agile project management is a vision or idea that is open to interpretation or modification. Once all work phases are completed, the result should be a finished product that is ready to enter the market (such as a piece of software).
As might be guessed, all of the additional flexibility means that changes are more easily and readily accommodated. Similarly, since the project is divided into phases, errors can be recognized (and rectified) quicker.
Of course, the success of an agile project depends to the greatest extent, upon the team that is tasked with it. Agile projects are self-guided, involve a great deal of learning, and encourage exploration and experimentation. Since a hierarchical structure is largely absent, team members shoulder more responsibility than in other project management approaches.
The Agile Manifesto
In February 2001, the so-called Agile Manifesto was published, containing four values and twelve principles, all of which delineate agile project management from more traditional forms of project management.
- Agile values provide the foundation for agile project management.
- Agile principles delineate the values to be embraced and procedures to be adhered to during agile project management.
- Agile techniques provide guidelines for putting its principles into action.
- Agile methods provide a complete framework for agile project management.
The four agile values clearly mark the approach's differences when set alongside those of more established forms of project management:
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
- 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.
According to the signatories, while "there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more."
The Principles of the Agile Manifesto
As noted above, the Agile Manifesto contains 12 principles that help to detail its four values, providing a clear roadmap for agile teams to make use of:
Ensure Customer Satisfaction
According to the Agile Manifesto, "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software." At face value, this doesn't differ all that much from traditional approaches to customer support, however, digging a bit deeper, some marked divergences become apparent.
For example, in other forms of project management, customers (generally) only experience the end product, or final version, whereas in agile project management, clients are actively included in the design and development phases. Results are frequently presented, allowing for the customer to comment upon them and provide feedback, which can change the product. In this manner, it's also possible to notice errors or mistakes more quickly.
Welcome Changing Requirements
The second principle of agile project management is acceptance of changing requirements, even if these appear suddenly. This is because such changes can offer a chance to have a better result and, returning to the first principle, provide the customer or client with more satisfaction, typically through competitive advantage. The quicker that a process or procedure is recognized as not being productive, or conducive to the project's goals, the easier it will be for team members to 'right the course'.
Deliver Working Software Frequently
One of the main components of agile project management is the regular presentation of results. After a fixed period (for example, four weeks for a Scrum "sprint"), a usable product should be presented, the functions of which can be tested and modified if need be. In this manner, concerns regarding drawn-out planning phases are negated. Generally speaking, the riskier and more time-intensive a project is, the shorter its "sprint" intervals should be.
Foster Collaboration Between Business People and Developers
Agile teams are interdisciplinary, meaning, that all necessary competencies for creating a product (specialists, developers, or process owners) are included, and search for optimal solutions together. To ensure communication between team members, daily meetings are held to align (or re-align) the entire group and keep everyone on the same page. This allows for problems or issues to be recognized early and either accounted for or rectified.
Build Projects Around Motivated Individuals
However, even the best specialists won't be worth much if they don't have the proper motivation. For that reason, agile project management calls for team members to be given a significant degree of autonomy, allowing them to self-organize, and work creatively, so that their capabilities and talents are maximized to the fullest. To realize this, it's important that all team members receive the support they need, and, feel comfortable in the environment in which they are working. Only in this way, will they be able to fully commit their energies to the task(s) at hand. An agile team doesn't require dedicated leadership, but rather, a product vision that they can contribute towards using their own impulses and energy.
Face-to-Face Conversation as the Most Effective Means of Communication
Interpersonal communication is the quickest and most efficient way to exchange information within a team. For this reason, agile project management methods often call for a whole range of different meetings. Agile teams convene daily for 15-minute status meetings, to discuss what's happened over the past 24 hours, what's planned for the day ahead, and which problems or issues have arisen. Thanks to the frequency of communication between all participants (team, customers, task managers, etc.) a regular flow of information is achieved.
Working Software is the Primary Measure of Progress
This seventh principle doesn't really require all that much explanation. Still, for non-software products, it's important to note that how the product is received by the customer or client, what their feedback is, and how that feedback is then implemented into subsequent revisions, updates, or added functionality are all crucial measures of success. The most essential, however, is that the desired result is produced within the agreed-upon time frame.
Agile Processes Promote Sustainable Development
An important condition for agile work is the presence of continuity. Agile methods all have rhythms or cycles, which repeat over the course of a project. The end-result of these cycles should be continuous improvement, building upon successful changes. Accordingly, a kind of reliability materializes, reducing performance pressure. 'Peaks' within an agile project are always a symbol that something is not going correctly, and more attention is needed.
Continuous Attention to Technical Excellence and Good Design
Agile teams only make sense when each member possesses the necessary contextual, social, and organizational competencies. An additional requirement is the continuous development of new capabilities and the refinement of internal processes in order to react quick(er) to changes and problems, finding ideal solutions. In addition, the bar should be set high in terms of technical excellence, since the better the result, the less attention or 'follow-up' will be required later. Fewer mistakes also mean that the customer's or client's satisfaction (first principle) will reach its maximum.
Simplicity is Essential
Agile teams do not base the quality of their work on the amount of time invested, but rather, whether it is of value for the customer or client. This principle necessitates reducing the amount of overlap or redundancy and making all processes "lean" by cutting all unnecessary complications. In other words: Keep it simple, stupid!
The Best Architectures, Requirements, and Designs Emerge from Self-Organizing Teams
As mentioned above, agile teams are self-organized and shoulder much, or all of the responsibility for the results of their work. This means that they don't refer to managers or supervisors when issues or complications arise. Rather, all members or participants of a team find solutions together and define the contours necessary to successfully complete their work in the most efficient manner possible. It goes without saying that this requires trust and the courage to assert oneself in potentially volatile situations. Only when all experiences and viewpoints are taken into consideration within a team, is it possible for the results to be satisfactory to all participants.
The Team Regularly Reflects On How to Be More Effective
The last principle of agile project management is the continual improvement of teams and how they collaborate with one another. It is assumed that all members of the team will contribute equally over the course of a project and adjust or expand the contours of their work together. Here, it's essential not to focus upon structures and processes, but rather, the project as a whole. For this reason, agile teams regularly hold "retrospectives" which they use to reflect upon problems, develop new ideas, or incorporate novel ideas for improving collaboration in their (future) work.
The Most Well-Known Agile Project Management Methods
As we've tried to show over the course of this brief article, agile project management methods rely on a series of values and principles, using which all sorts of products can be successfully designed. Thanks to their inherent flexibility, agile project management approaches are easily adapted to almost any working environment, especially those in the digital realm. A number of tools exist for doing precisely this, as can be seen in our reviews on the best project management software.
In the list below, we've outlined some of the most common agile methods, all of which (except Scrum) are frequently used in software development.
- Unified Process
- Extreme Programming
- Agile Enterprise