Agile project management: manage projects and get work done
Those two words are at the heart of the agile approach, an overarching philosophy or belief system about managing projects and getting work done.
In one sentence: Agile is a project management methodology that breaks down larger projects into smaller, manageable chunks known as iterations.
Agile is defined by a series of sprints, short iterations usually lasting a few weeks. Each sprint has a clear, pre-determined set of deliverables. At each sprint’s conclusion, a product (in some stage of final production) is delivered. This product is introduced for feedback from stakeholders and other users.
Any deliverable not completed in a specific sprint often gets reprioritized — and sometimes pushed to a future sprint.
While agile is prevalent in many organizations around the world today, it was not even conceived until the turn of the millennia.
A brief history of agile
That was the year when seventeen software engineers (“rebels” to some) convened at Snowbird ski resort in Utah to discuss — among other things — a better process for developing software. They were tired of overly-detailed processes and a plethora of tools. They didn’t see the value in reams of documentation and following a strict, inflexible plan.
The result of their meeting? The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.
The Manifesto reads as follows:
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
For a detailed, comprehensive look at the history of agile, check out this 2017 article in The Atlantic.
And while The Manifesto was initially intended to uncover “better ways of developing software” (emphasis mine), the agile philosophy has since infiltrated its way into nearly all aspects of business life.
Why was a new approach necessary?
Pre-agile, the Waterfall Model — a linear project management approach to getting work done — was the industry (gold) standard. And in many cases, waterfall is still widespread in organizations today.
When considering a waterfall model, good preparation is vital.
Following a step-by-step process, checking off the boxes, keeping projects moving forward. Rinse and repeat.
The Waterfall model starts by getting sign off from all stakeholders. Next, a clear mapping out of what needs to get done — by whom and when. Finally, the process is followed “down the waterfall” completing one task at a time until the final desired product or solution has been delivered.
The Waterfall method relies on dependencies — each phase cannot be started until the previous one has been completed. It tends to work best in industries and for projects that are highly repeatable, generally inflexible, and most often remain similar from project to project.
The biggest downside to a waterfall approach is its inflexibility. Once a plan is put in place, it’s very difficult to move backward and make changes. Additionally, since the testing is performed at the very end of an often very long project, bugs cannot be fixed until the project is near completion. This can (a) derail a project, and (b) be very costly.
While still used by many organizations, the Waterfall method has many shortcomings — most of which are addressed (and ultimately, solved) by agile.
What are the advantages of the agile approach?
The original Manifesto focused on 12 guiding principles, summarized as follows:
- Quick product releases focused on satisfying the customer
- Change is good and welcomed
- Quick sprints, often just a few weeks
- Collaboration amongst business people and developers
- Trust and essential support is critical
- Face-to-face conversation wins the day
- Working software is always the goal
- Sustainable development is important
- Attention to technical excellence and good design is the foundation
- Simplicity is essential
- Self-organizing teams create the best end-product
- Reflection and iteration is critical
Here is the list of 12 principles as they were originally written in 2001.
Agile has many advantages, including, but not limited to:
- Visibility: Teams and the end customer can easily see a project progress in near real-time.
- Speed: At the conclusion of every sprint, something of value is produced. As is often the case, these iterations turn into “mini-releases,” ultimately resulting in frequent product updates.
- Flexibility: Agile — by definition — means the ability to move quickly and easily. Agile is all about accommodating change.
- Feedback: Due to the speed at which sprints occur, there is a constant feedback loop. Testing happens much quicker. Mistakes, if they happen, are realized and corrected much faster.
We detailed a few more pros to agile in this blog post.
Yet a discussion of agile is a moot point if it’s not effective. Luckily, the data speaks for itself. Simply put, agile works.
According to the Project Management Institute:
75% of highly agile organizations met their goals and business intent
65% finished projects on time
67% finished projects within budget
Itching for more on agile, including the agile lifecycle? Read Introduction to agile.
A quick note on lean agile
The concept of “lean” gained notoriety as a production methodology by Toyota in the 1930s, though was not coined as a term until the 1990s.
Lean manufacturing or lean production is all about “doing more with less.” Efficiency and no waste are the cornerstones of the lean methodology.
Lean and agile (or “lean agile”) is a term that is sometimes used to describe how projects are structured. It can be argued that the terms are interchangeable, though agile is the more preferred term since the adoption of The Manifesto in 2001.
What are some popular agile project management solutions?
As mentioned, agile is an approach to getting work done. It’s a philosophy run by an overarching belief system. There are dozens (and dozens) of methodologies teams use to implement agile — many of which are iterations and offshoots of each other.
Three of the more popular agile project management solutions include:
- Scaled agile framework
Let’s break each one down a bit:
Scaled agile frameworks (or SAFe as they are sometimes called) are a set of guidelines that help organizations scale agile practices beyond a single team. They are most often used by larger enterprises that want to implement the agile approach across the entire company. According to Scaled Agile, Inc. “SAFe is designed to help businesses continuously and more efficiently deliver value on a regular and predictable schedule. It provides a knowledge base of proven, integrated principles and practices to support enterprise agility.”
Scrum is an agile project management framework, a methodology with which teams can actually implement agile’s principles. Scrum uses time blocked iterations (or “sprints”) to break down goals into manageable chunks of work. P.S. Managing agile sprints doesn’t have to be that difficult. Each scrum is defined by an Epic, a series of Stories, and their subsequent tasks:
- Epic: Think of an Epic as the “big chunk of work” that needs to get done — the overarching objective.
- Story: User stories are high-level descriptions of each task that requires completion. Stories are used to help determine time estimates.
- Tasks: Tasks are the specific parts of the story that need to get completed. They are considered the smallest unit in a scrum. A story general has several tasks associated with it.
Kanban is a visual communication method that helps teams collaborate more effectively. Like Scrum, Kanban is also an agile project management framework; however, instead of a time-constraint, Kanban runs by capacity constraints.
For more details on the above three — as well as several other agile methodologies — read The top project management methodologies: which is right for you?
Is agile right for you and your team/organization?
As with most things in life and business, it depends.
As we’ve delineated above, there can be a pretty compelling case to be made (see: the data) to incorporate an agile approach to at least some — if not all — teams within an organization. However, there are always exceptions: based on industry, team composition, type of project, and so on.
Finally, with most things we write about on this blog, we use the monday.com work OS — and our hundreds of customizable templates — to make our workday run efficiently.
Why use monday.com for agile project management?
Simply put, monday.com’s agile software is 100%, fully-customizable — any team in any industry using any work method can leverage our templates.
Our solution means:
- Teams can release better products, faster: cross-functional teamwork made easy. From pre-planning with the product team to getting user feedback from customer support, everyone works together in one platform to push the product forward.
- Real-time reporting is a reality: visualize team progress against the product roadmap. Better estimate story points based on predicted capacity.
Teams use monday.com’s agile project management solution to track bugs, plan sprints, and (efficiently) launch products.