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Agile Project Management: The Ultimate Guide
Agile project management is popular—but is it right for your organization? Get the skinny on this project management methodology, including the steps involved in using it, in this comprehensive article.
Thinking about transitioning to agile project management? If so, you’re not alone. For the past decade, agile has become the norm, with 87% of surveyed organizations now saying they use some form of agile for software development. While agile doesn’t always work for everyone, the numerous surveys and studies surrounding its implementation seem to indicate that, when applied correctly, it is well worth the effort.
So what is the agile project management methodology, and what does your organization stand to gain from it? You’ve come to the right place for these answers, and more. Our guide to agile project management for beginners includes a description of agile and its basic steps, its advantages and disadvantages, and variations on the original approach. And because ClearPoint can be used to help track your agile projects—whether they revolve around software development or not—we also include some direction around how project management software can be used to support your adoption of agile practices. To skip to any of these sections directly, use the table of contents below. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents: Agile Project Management For Beginners
Chapter 1: What Is Agile Project Management (Agile PM)?
The agile approach to project management revolves around breaking down a single large task into smaller tasks that can be completed and evaluated quickly. Generally speaking, it is more fast-paced, people-centered, and repetitive than other project management methodologies.
Understanding agile project management is easier when you compare it to the waterfall project management method. Waterfall uses a linear methodology that requires a project to be completed in sequential steps. At the beginning of the project, you create a detailed waterfall project plan that includes requirements and expectations, among other aspects. The team tasked with carrying out those requirements then proceeds through a series of clearly defined phases until the plan has been fully executed; each phase must be completed before moving on to the next one. Waterfall relies heavily on documented processes and tools to get the job done.
Agile, in contrast, is a more flexible project management methodology. There is a degree of planning the overall project at the beginning, and a breaking out of tasks. But rather than completing all the tasks at once and in a straight line, agile teams go through a series of iterations that involve completing a single task, reviewing the results together, and then making improvements to the work based on that review.
Agile is revered for its ability to help organizations make faster, more informed decisions. Because it encourages continuous improvement of a product, agile teams are better positioned to seize opportunities that will help them produce a quality product that reflects the current reality surrounding the project, whether that has to do with consumer trends and preferences, project costs, resource allocation, or anything else.
Another hallmark of agile is its focus on teamwork rather than top-down directives. Team members have accountability for various tasks and are empowered to get the job done to the best of their ability, without needing direction from a manager. (Note that agile does still require someone in a leadership role to monitor the process.) They are also encouraged to communicate their thoughts and ideas freely, and provide copious amounts of feedback at every stage of the project. Such conditions build a trusting and cohesive team that thinks and acts independently for the good of the project.
The Evolution Of Agile Project Management Methodology
Agile was born out of a 2001 meeting between 17 individuals in the software development field who were looking for an alternative to the current system that relied heavily on documentation and rigid processes. One of the alliance members says the group was driven by a desire to create an “organizational model based on people, collaboration, and building the types of organizational communities in which we would want to work.”
Out of that original meeting came the Agile Manifesto, which detailed four core values and 12 basic principles. Since that time, agile has evolved into a larger movement, with various offshoots of project management that are closely associated. Though each of the offshoots might approach things slightly differently, they all emphasize the same things, which are:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools—People must drive the progress of your project, not required processes or tools. People ensure business needs stay top of mind, and communication keeps the project on track.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation—While developing functional software takes priority over creating documentation, that doesn’t mean there is no documentation; it means documenting simply and with purpose.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation—The agile philosophy believes that the working relationship between developers and customers should be collaborative in order to produce the best possible result.
- Responding to change over following a plan—Change is expected throughout the agile process; team members should be ready to adapt to those changes that will help make the product better.
Today, agile isn’t applicable to just software development—it’s used for managing any type of project. However, it suits software development particularly well simply because of the nature of the product, which rarely achieves perfection as the result of a straight-line process. So what does the iterative agile process look like, exactly? Next we’ll cover the steps of agile project management.
Chapter 2: The Steps Of Agile Project Management
When people refer to agile as having an “iterative” approach, they are referring to the main feature of agile, which is the repetition of “sprint” cycles until certain conditions are met (these are defined by your individual project). But, similar to waterfall, preparations must be made before work on individual tasks—and the cycles that allow them to be carried out—can start.
When people refer to agile as having an “iterative” approach, they are referring to the main feature of agile, which is the repetition of “sprint” cycles until certain conditions are met. Click To Tweet
The steps of agile project management are as follows:
1) Plan your project. Figure out the end goal of your project. To do this, ask questions like “What benefit are we bringing to the customer?” or “What is the value of this project to our organization?” Know that while your end goal likely won’t change over the course of carrying out the project, other parts of your project will!
2) Break up your project into smaller tasks. What are all the pieces you’ll need to complete to reach your end goal? You’ll often hear people calling this list of smaller tasks the “backlog.” When you’re planning your sprints in the next step, you’ll pull tasks from this list.
3) Plan your sprints. Set a timeline for completing smaller tasks on your list organized around “sprints.” Sprints, or iterations, are normally around two weeks long. You’ll organize a reasonable number of tasks from the backlog to be completed during the sprint. You might assign tasks and prioritize them as well.
4) Conduct a sprint review. This is where the real value of agile comes into play, so don’t skip this step! Review progress on the latest sprint with other team members and stakeholders who might not be directly involved. During this step you’ll discuss key events or problems, and get crucial feedback about any work that’s been done. That feedback might impact what happens during the next sprint, and/or your project’s direction overall. Questions, ideas, and opinions are all welcome. At the end of the review, team members should determine goals for the next sprint.
5) Begin the next sprint cycle. Based on feedback from the previous step, the next cycle of completing tasks and conducting a review begins again. Hopefully you’re another step closer to completing the project!
To make your sprint cycles go more smoothly, experienced practitioners recommend the following:
Chapter 3: The Benefits & Considerations Of Agile
Agile is popular for a reason. Organizations who have made the transition report a variety of benefits, related to everything from products to people to performance.
Why use agile project management?
- It leads to higher-quality products. Improvement is built into the project and happens automatically; it’s not a chore to be addressed after the fact. Each sprint cycle brings more testing, more feedback, and more ideas, continuously allowing issues to be caught early and resolved. It also allows more room for experimentation, which, in most cases, produces a better end result.
- It has a positive impact on workplace culture. Because agile teams naturally collaborate more, are trusted to get work done, and are encouraged to think independently, they tend to be more engaged in their work and supportive of one another. Increased employee motivation and a more open, productive culture were cited as two of the top five benefits of agile in one survey.
- It improves operational performance. Breaking from the traditional single straight-line process, agile forces teams to work more efficiently. Failed projects are scrapped earlier, and teams make decisions and react to change quickly. Agile teams have been found to be up to 50% more productive than teams who are using other project management methods.
- It improves financial performance. Greater customer satisfaction plus improved employee engagement plus better operational performance equals better overall financial performance. One study conducted by McKinsey found as much as 20%–30% improvement for organizations that transitioned to agile.
Considerations For Using The Agile Methodology
While the shift toward agile project management still has major momentum, there are some challenges to be aware of for those considering making the change.
- It is a fundamentally different way of working—and change is hard. Traditional authority figures become less influential, entire teams become accountable for project deliveries, constructive feedback and expected response is the norm, and failures are common. Large organizations that have been using the waterfall method for a long time may experience pushback from employees at all levels; they also may not have the in-house skills necessary to pull it off successfully. Some organizations participate in agile training to help boost understanding and get people on board, and leaders should send a clear message that they are invested in making the change. In some cases, you may even need to pitch the change to clients, some of whom may be impacted by the new way you’ll be producing and delivering services.
- Agile requires a high level of organization and communication. There’s no room for rigid structures and timelines in agile, which means teams need to find new ways to stay informed about rapid task progression and other project priorities. To-do lists may need to be reworked daily. Frequent communication is also key; many organizations switching to agile fall prey to miscommunication issues or challenges related to a lack of documentation. Investing in the right software and tools to support project teams—and making sure everyone knows how to use them—will be helpful in overcoming these issues.
- Going “partially agile” can be risky. Running 100% agile is hard, which is why many organizations try to pick and choose the parts that work for them rather than implementing it fully. While that tactic can certainly work, it could also water down the benefits of this methodology. For example, sometimes organizations promote frequent communication but neglect to invest time and resources in creating the right channels for it, setting the stage for failure. There’s plenty of advice available about how to adopt a more agile mindset without fundamentally changing the way your organization works—you just need to seek it out.
Chapter 4: Variations Of Agile
Agile is a philosophy of project management that, in its original form, follows a prescribed approach to produce results. However, as noted in a previous chapter, practicing agile in its truest form is a challenge; plus, it isn’t necessarily the right move for all organizations. Agile is appropriate for technically risky, uncertain project work; not all organizations are conducting those kinds of projects. Or, if you are considering transitioning to agile PM, you might want to ease into it by incorporating some aspects of agile without going full throttle.
Luckily, there are several different ways to approach project management using some agile methodology. Below are brief descriptions of a few of the main variations. Keep in mind that even these variations aren’t set in stone, and elements from one can be mixed with elements of another.
- Scrum—this is the most popular agile framework, and one of the simplest to use. It gets its name from rugby—a “scrum” is a formation of players that work as a unit—to emphasize the teamwork element. Scrum focuses on delivering business value in the shortest period of time; collaboration between team members happens on a daily basis during a prescribed stand-up “scrum” meeting. This framework works well for projects in which the requirements for the final output are likely to change or not specifically known at the outset.
- Kanban—Kanban puts heavy emphasis on process, focusing on managing and improving the flow of work. Kanban boards represent a visualization of the project process, making it easier to see where there are bottlenecks. It also does not use predefined cycle lengths. Instead, teams work toward a goal, for example, which may still be accomplished in a fairly short period of time.
- Extreme Programming—Referred to as (XP), extreme programming is favored by software developers. It uses frequent testing to drive development, and encourages developers to work in pairs (in part because it’s a form of testing, requiring code to be inspected by more than one person). Some believe that a downside of XP is that it is more focused on the code than on product design.
- Crystal—The crystal “family” of approaches focuses on people and communications. It encourages people to work in teams, and in the way they feel is most effective. It also recognizes the fact that every project is unique, and so allows for some tailoring of the framework to match individual situations.
- Dynamic systems development method (DSDM)—This approach brings a bit more discipline and structure to the agile process; for example, it requires that an increment produce just enough progress to facilitate moving to the next increment. A foundational philosophy behind DSDM is that projects must be aligned to clearly defined strategic goals so they deliver real benefits.
Transitioning To Agile PM: Small Vs. Large Teams
It may be easier for smaller teams to utilize an agile project management methodology because in some ways they are more naturally suited to agile:
Large teams can stand to gain the most from an agile mindset, but they are also harder to transition to agile because:
Chapter 5: Agile Project Management In ClearPoint
Like other project management methodologies, the agile methodology is more likely to be successful if teams have the right tools to support their efforts. Project management software like ClearPoint gives teams a way to manage and track tasks and results, stay on top of project progress, and keep everyone on the same page. Since agile is a fairly fast-paced, collaborative environment, your software should enable you to update information quickly, create tailored status updates for various stakeholders, and collect and share the latest project data easily.
ClearPoint allows you to track hundreds of projects across your organization, and the individual tasks associated with them. It supports project management teams using the agile methodology in multiple ways.
It simplifies team communication.
ClearPoint holds all your project management details in one place, keeping everyone on the same page. It also promotes communication by allowing teams to set alerts and notifications for when new tasks are assigned and when they’re completed, so everyone knows when the next task is kicking off. And because ClearPoint is cloud-based, team members can access the data from anywhere.
It stores historical information for analysis.
Agile project managers are responsible for following numerous projects and managing their performance over time. Historical data can be valuable for planning and estimating aspects of future projects. For every project you initiate, ClearPoint lets you take snapshots of historical data that can be called up at any time. For example, if you want to know the status of all your projects this month vs. last month, one click displays last month’s performance using status indicators of red, amber, or green (RAG). (Most other project management software doesn’t offer the ability to go back in time.)
It allows different team members to see different data, anytime.
Not everyone needs (or wants) to see the same project data. ClearPoint gives you the flexibility to deliver specific data in a variety of formats to different audiences, so anyone can view project status information at any time. You can create one dashboard for finance, another for the executive board, and another for team members, for example, showing the exact details they require. You can also easily create PDF reports or briefing books for all projects, quickly and frequently. And because ClearPoint is a strategy platform, we make it easy for agile teams to tie projects to business strategy and view their performance in that context, so everyone always knows how projects are contributing to the larger goal.
It automates project reporting.
When managing a multitude of projects, it can be easy to lose sight of how everything is working together to impact your strategic goals. ClearPoint automatically assesses how well you’re progressing toward your goals by allowing you to set contribution percentages for each project—for example, Project X is worth 15% of my strategic goal and Project Y is worth 25%. You can then set it to evaluate performance (using either red, yellow, or green indicators) based on certain parameters, calculating an overall “score” or status of your strategic goal. You can also do the same for overall completion rate, budget numbers, and more.
See how ClearPoint supports agile PM
Agile project management can produce huge benefits for an organization; the right software can help support it. Our team would be happy to show you around ClearPoint, and how it can help your agile team manage, track, and report on strategic projects. Just ask us to see it live, or take a look at some of our customer stories to see how we’ve helped other organizations successfully execute their strategic projects.