Adapt and Grow: The Complete Guide to Agile Project Management Workflows

By Kate Eby | March 29, 2023

Agile project management is a popular leadership approach across multiple industries. We've gathered the resources and expert advice you need to build the best Agile workflow for your team and explain how to add them to your workday.

In this article, learn what’s included in Agile workflow processes, how to create and implement an Agile workflow, and how to optimize a workflow. Also, find examples of Agile workflow diagrams and Agile project management flowcharts.

What Is an Agile Workflow?

An Agile workflow is a timeline of steps you need to start, work, and finish an Agile project. Agile workflows break projects into short, repeated phases. Teams use these cycles to seek customer feedback and add updates to the deliverable. 

Workflow phases or sprints last from one week to three months, during which time teams commit to finishing a limited set of tasks. Throughout the process, stakeholders hold frequent reviews, so teams can incorporate insights as the work progresses rather than waiting until the end of the project to make changes. This Agile project management workflow methodology provides teams with regular product review periods and faster turnarounds and, thereby, the flexibility to respond rapidly to problems and opportunities as they arise in today's dynamic business landscape.

Alan Zucker

"A workflow allows us to capture valuable metrics about the flow of work. For example, how long has an item been sitting on the backlog? How quickly are we delivering things?" explains Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials

"Agile is based on empiricism and systems thinking. We need ways of measuring how we work and how we improve. Agile is not the absence of process. It's not like in the old Our Gang kids comedies — ‘Hey, Darla, let's put on a show’— where people just decide to do a project. When experts like Jeff Sutherland and Dean Leffingwell talked about Agile, they talked about increasing the predictability and reducing the variability of our projects," Zucker notes.

Agile methodology and its workflows are useful beyond its initial use in software development. All types of industries use Agile project management workflows, including event planning, marketing, construction, education, healthcare, and more. Agile workflows help teams fulfill the Agile principle of delivering the most value to the customer in the shortest time possible. 

For organizations, universal, team-designed workflows create standard approaches to projects that help teams work together on shared jobs. Standardized workflows make productive processes repeatable and scalable across an organization. Learn more about best practices for Agile managers, find resources to help you prepare to manage an Agile program, and discover the different Agile methodologies.

Agile project management workflows center on the 12 Agile Principles, an amplification of the Agile Manifesto, which describes these philosophical tenets:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change instead of following a plan
Sarah Fruy

If Agile is supposed to free teams from the tyranny of plans and processes, why would a team want a fixed workflow? A 20-year marketing veteran, Sarah Fruy is a Scrum Master and Certified Agile Marketer with marketing certifications from the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management. "I think the workflow is like an understanding of how the team is going to complete the project," she says. "It's good for any working group to understand and have rules for engagement. While a workflow is a form of process, it's not as rigid as some people think it is."

Drew Podwal

Drew Podwal, a New York-city-based Agile coach, says that Agile seeks to overcome perceived deficiencies in traditional project management methods. Therefore, it needs its own lexicon. Podwal notes, "A meeting and an Agile ceremony are both events where people show up, and there is an agenda. But a backlog refinement ceremony is very different from a project-status update meeting. As an Agile coach, if a customer wants to call it a process and doesn't like the word workflow, that's not something I will argue about. I want to make sure that we align with the capability."

Agile Project Management Workflow Diagram

An Agile project management workflow diagram is a sketch of the steps in a process. A graphical flow diagram shows stakeholders any work item delays and blockers. You can use a task board to engage with workflow diagrams daily.

"Typically, Agile workflow diagrams look like flowcharts, with steps going across the page. But a workflow gets operationalized by creating a Kanban or task board. Then we start tracking the stories or features moving across the board," shares Zucker.

Here is an example of a generic Agile project flowchart:

Agile Workflow Flowchart

The paper "Agile Project Management: A Communicational Workflow Proposal," published in the Procedia Computer Science in 2019, defined this Agile workflow example for manufacturing:

  • The product owner receives the solution request from the customer. The product owner continues to liaise with the customer until the solution is complete.
  • The product owner communicates the required solution to the team leader.
  • The team leader and team hash out requirements and decide on a design. The team leader supports the team in receiving testing, financial, and other resources.
  • The team leader delivers the completed solution to the product owner for approval.
  • The product owner hands off the solution to the customer for validation.

Workflow diagrams provide a visual reference that quickly communicates steps in a process and helps to avoid misunderstandings about how teams work. Zucker, who has more than two decades of experience managing projects in Fortune 100 companies, adds, "If we perform our daily stand up referencing a Kanban board, it allows us to collaborate and say, 'Hey, looks like you seem to be stuck on something. Do you need help?’ The visualization also creates accountability. A board is more than tickets in the back of the machine that no one really sees or people looking at a long list in a spreadsheet. We actually see the work — it's tangible, it's there.”

Task boards promote work transparency and accountability because people can observe and ask questions about work progress or a lack of it. In addition, automated workflows offer real-time tracking and control for jobs that need approvals. Learn more about managing workflows.

"I like to show our boards to upper management, people who may not be as familiar with an Agile workflow.  This visualization is handy for some of those more nebulous parts of the project. They can clearly see the different stages as we work. It's a great visual representation of where the product is versus me just talking in a boardroom,” says Fruy. 

“For example, when you're in the planning or design phase, and there isn't anything I can show to say, 'This is what we did.' I can use the board to show that all these different cards help us figure out how long it will take to complete the project or whether we need to hire contractors to support additional resources. A board is a way to visually demonstrate some of the work that can live in your head," Fruy states.

Here is an example workflow set in a Kanban board, as suggested by Sarah Fruy:

Agile Workflow Board Example

"If you have a meeting area, you can put a diagram on the wall. It's like a reference point for people. But it's not something that I'm pointing to every week. Once people get into the flow of doing Agile, it becomes second nature, and you don't need a reminder for it. But as you're establishing a group, it is a powerful visual to set the tone of how you want to operate," advises Fruy.

The Agile Workflow Process

An Agile workflow process has two versions: One version is for project workflows, and the other is for team sprint workflows. Both start by selecting methods and planning backlogs, and they end with reviews and retrospectives.

What Does a Project Workflow Look Like?

The Agile workflow lifecycle generally looks the same regardless of the type of project. The basic steps are ideation, project backlog creation, iteration, release, production, and product retirement.

An expanded version of the Agile workflow lifecycle includes: 

  1. Ideation or Conception
    Product owners, architects, leads, and sometimes customers define the project scope based on business requirements, including the delivery deadline, required effort, and project value. These ideas can need further refinement, often through customer validation. Contributors state plans as value propositions with benefits and risks. This phase is also when you establish whether financial and other resources are available. After proving the project's validity, you determine the project goals and tasks.
  2. User Story Mapping
    In the Scrum framework, product owners express high-level requirements as user stories, which will become features or tasks for teams to complete. User story mapping is a tool for communicating requirements from the customer's perspective. User stories help teams plan and prioritize work.
  3. Backlog Creation for New Projects
    The project backlog contains user stories, tasks, bugs, and features. The product or initiative owner creates and manages the backlog. The backlog becomes more refined through customer feedback. Once backlog items are well defined, they can be prioritized according to customer, product, and company needs, and scoped to fit into the project timeframe. Some teams define a minimum viable product (MVP), the most basic working deliverable, which becomes the source of features or tasks. At the enterprise level, there may be a portfolio backlog.
  4. Sprint Team Creation or Inception
    In this stage, you form work teams, assign responsibilities, set a project timeframe, and assign sprints. New teams create team working agreements that  describe team behavior, work rules, and guidelines. In an agreement, you might find such items as everyone will attend meetings on time, you will all share feedback openly, dogs are welcome in the workspace, and Tuesday is bagel day.
  5. Backlog Grooming or Refinement (optional)
    The product owner and team edit an existing backlog to remove bugs, user stories, and work items they've completed, are irrelevant, or no longer add value. Often teams conduct backlog refinement at midsprint.
  6. Release
    The release stage takes time for quality control or customer review of a completed product or project.
  7. Production
    During the production stage, the product owner hands off the completed project or product to the customer. Teams offer continuing customer support to ensure a successful launch and provide the customer with updates and training.
  8. Retirement
    The retirement phase includes transitioning to a new project or the next product version. New releases replace redundant releases or products that no longer serve the business model.

How Does a Sprint Workflow Work?

Teams use a sprint workflow to communicate during a sprint and to assess the quality and completeness of their work. Teams should customize sprint workflows and adapt them over time as they mature and their practices evolve. 

  • Sprint Planning: In cooperation with the project owner, teams plan the sprint and choose stories or are assigned stories from the product or project backlog to add. Teams decide how they will complete their work. For each sprint, teams pick up a limited number of tasks that they commit to finishing during that period. Learn more about creating a sprint planning meeting.
  • Iteration: A project includes several sprints or iterations. A sprint is time-boxed. Short sprints ensure teams collect customer and other stakeholder feedback and incorporate it into the work. During each sprint, you should have at least three meetings or ceremonies: the daily standup or Scrum meeting, the review meeting, and the end-of-sprint retrospective. During a sprint, the primary workflow phases are Backlog, Doing, and Done.
  • Review: During the review phase, the project owner views the sprint results and verifies them against pre-established criteria. Customers and other stakeholders also review the output.

    Remember that tasks may move between Doing and Review several times before they finally move to the Done phase.

    Fruy uses the example of a team that realizes it requires two review phases: one for development and one for design. Therefore, the Kanban board needs two review columns.
  • Retrospective: At the end of the sprint, the team meets to discuss what went well and what didn't. Retrospectives provide a platform to express thoughts about tools, processes, and interactions for people who might not want to voice concerns while working a sprint. Although many think of retrospectives as an approach to finding improvements, they are vital for continuing successful practices.

    Retrospective templates can help you capture ideas and plans during a reflection session. Retrospectives should occur at the end of each sprint but may happen less frequently. Learn how to run a retrospective meeting.

Techniques You Can Use for an Agile Workflow

Agile has several workflow management techniques. Agile and standard project management frameworks form the basis of these workflows. These include Atern, Crystal, Kanban, Lean Development, and Scrum. 

You can use the following frameworks for Agile workflow management:

  • Crystal: Dating from 1991, the Crystal methodologies work from the perspective that every project is different. Crystal expects teams to choose any management technique that suits the project. The Crystal Clear method presumes a team of up to eight people and emphasizes frequent delivery of working products, frequent reflection, and continuous process improvement.
  • Scrum: Scrum is an Agile project management framework that highlights teamwork and accountability. Scrum originated the concepts of sprints, daily scrums or standup meetings, user stories, and high-level requirements. Scrum is an excellent method for collaborative teams doing complex work.
  • Kanban: Originating in Lean manufacturing, Kanban manages team workload by tracking resource capacity and limiting work in process. Kanban boards provide a tool for visualizing blockers, work in process, and work completed.
  • Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM) or Atern: Another framework used for software and non-IT projects, DSDM predates the Agile Manifesto. DSDM focuses on establishing the technical feasibility and the business case for projects before delivering incremental releases.
  • Lean Development: Lean development offers principles rather than a strict workflow and is good for optimizing processes and practices. Lean techniques aim to reduce waste and pursue continual improvement. Lean is process- and role-agnostic. The approach values thinking holistically about a product, empowering employees, and embracing last-minute decisions for faster product delivery. 

The following table compares three popular Agile framework workflows and when to use them:

Scrum Kanban Altern
Product backlog Product backlog Pre-project
Planning sprint Requirements Feasibility
Sprint backlog Design Foundations
Sprint Development Exploration
Scrum meetings Testing Engineering
Sprint reviews Deployment Deployment
Sprint retrospective Done Post-project


What to Consider When Building a Workflow in Agile Project Management

When you build an Agile project management workflow, first realize that the team must create its workflow. Sketch out a simple workflow with sticky notes or on paper, and add more stages if needed. 

Start the process by having the team create the workflow. "It shouldn't be the managers, the project managers, or the Scrum Master saying, 'OK, this is the ideal workflow.' It should be a team-based event," says Zucker. If you force a process on people, it will likely fail. 

"I see all of it as a living, breathing organism," shares Fruy. "The setup really needs to work for the team. Just because something is a good idea for some folks doesn't mean it's a universal application, and you need to be able to modify a workflow to work for the individuals that you're collaborating with." 

The complexity of developing a workflow is one reason Zucker recommends starting with a paper model. Consider using sticky notes and painter's tape on a wall. People can feel a digital model is codified. With a paper draft, people aren't invested in a flow if it needs change. 

"When we're using any electronic tool, it becomes harder to change. In design thinking, we find that people will give you more feedback on a very rough-hewn, hand-drawn sketch," Zucker explains. Plus, any digitized workflow requires some programming, which may require considerable effort to revise. If you must go digital, consider a low-fidelity tool until you refine the process.

Another critical approach when developing a workflow is to start where you are. "We want to start easy and then begin to add detail in our workflow. If we start by saying, ’Let's define the perfect workflow,’ it becomes very complicated very quickly," Zucker explains. 

He suggests starting with the iconic three-step workflow of backlog, doing, and done. Then, break up the doing phase into steps, such as analyzing, coding, testing, reviewing, and ready to deploy. "That works so much better than trying to determine the optimal workflow at the beginning because we are not going to find that optimal workflow just by brainstorming for an hour one morning," Zucker adds.

Finally, monitor the process and make changes when needed. "When starting with a workflow, one of the questions we should ask during our retrospectives is, 'How's that workflow working for us? Do we need to tweak it?'" says Zucker.

Zucker points to Frederick Winslow Taylor's remarks in his century-old book, The Principles of Scientific Management, that it took years to define his perfect processes. Henry Ford took almost a decade to refine the Model T line. Leadership expert John Kotter says organizational change takes 5-10 years. Similarly, Jeff Bezos also discusses lengthy organizational evolution. "You look at this long range of great management philosophy that says defining a workflow takes time," says Zucker. "If you're going to define a workflow, you need to make it front and center of what you do."

How to Create an Agile Project Management Workflow

You can create an Agile project management workflow when your team understands project goals and chooses a framework. Some also compare developing a workflow to the forming, storming, norming, and performing group stages.

You can use business process mapping and other workflow mapping methods to develop a workflow. However, Agile teams often use value stream mapping when they start to create a workflow. As the name implies, a value stream map depicts how a team creates and delivers value to the customer and reveals unnecessary steps, duplication, concurrent activities, and process dependencies.

These are the steps for creating an Agile project management workflow. 

  1. Define the Project
    The project owner, customer, and other stakeholders define a project vision and goal. They document the business and technical requirements, and gather high-level estimates for budget, time, and scope.
  2. Gather a Team
    Choose employees who understand and appreciate Agile to determine the workflow they’ll use to create the product or complete the project. Or start to educate your team on Agile approaches and culture.
  3. Select an Agile Workflow Framework
    You and your team determine how to work, selecting from Scrum, Kanban, or one of the other frameworks listed earlier in this article.
  4. Plan Your Agile Ceremonies
    Depending on your chosen methodology, you’ll need to select Agile ceremonies next. Ceremonies is a fancy word for meetings that provide teams an opportunity to communicate and collaborate as they move through a workflow. The main Scrum ceremonies include backlog refinement, sprint planning, daily standup, sprint review, and sprint retrospective.
  5. Develop Product Roadmap and Plan Sprints
    For a new product, create a product roadmap that is based on high-level product requirements. This document might describe a minimum viable product (MVP), which defines the minimum features required for a functioning product. The roadmap includes all the necessary features in the final deliverable. Use the roadmap to plan work for each sprint, including sprint duration, deliverables, and goals.
  6. Document the Steps to Complete a Project
    As you write down the steps to complete a project, take into consideration that some work items might need to cycle between review and in progress several times during the refinement process. You can adjust these steps in later sprints or projects as you learn more about how your team works.
  7. Give Workflow Stages Meaningful Names
    Conventional names for stages are fine. However, workflow phase names should be clear and reflect how the team relates to each stage.

Some experts describe Agile workflow creation in terms of Bruce Tuckman’s four group development stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing.

  • Forming: Ensure that employees understand Agile principles, practices, key roles, and Scrum ceremonies. Pick an Agile framework that suits team personalities and goals. The goals are quick delivery of working bits and continuous improvement of processes and products.
  • Storming: Begin sprint planning by pulling items from the product backlog into the sprint backlog. Planning the sprint together helps the team learn its capabilities, and you might discover potential practice adjustments. 
  • Norming: In the norming phase, employees begin to have a solid understanding of team and organization goals and practices. At this point, assign employees to teams and establish team roles. 
  • Performing: The team embarks on initiative work, including testing, customer review, and incorporating customer feedback. The work stage includes daily standup meetings and an end-of-sprint review meeting before planning for the next sprint. The team holds regular retrospectives to discuss process improvements.
    Form Storm Norm Perform

How to Optimize Agile Project Workflows

You can use the Agile principle of continuous improvement to optimize Agile project workflows.  Customers, stakeholders, and teams can use data from reviews and retrospectives to reflect on project and process improvements. Teams turn these improvement ideas into work items.

One common approach to project and quality management is the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle. PDCA is useful for tracking progress and for tuning processes:

  • Plan: Identify issues.
  • Do: Test a new approach or a fix for a problem. 
  • Check: Evaluate the success of the solution. Review Agile metrics to check for improvements.
  • Act: Implement the solution and propagate it throughout the organization.

Sprint retrospectives are also vital to optimizing Agile project workflows. Biweekly or monthly retrospectives present opportunities to discuss practices and fine-tune workflows. "We can track the stories or the features, and that's great," explains Zucker. "But we get better by saying, 'It seems like we always have a problem in this step. Why are we having a problem here?'" 

Ensure that project or product managers and the entire team attend retrospectives. Display the workflow as a Kanban board or a workflow diagram. Consider having digital tools or pen and paper available in case you need to sketch the steps team members work through or physically diagram a proposed workflow.

Alternatively, you can interview team members and others individually for feedback. If a workflow needs to be fixed, consider assessing how well digital tools serve the team and whether you can consolidate tools. If you must adjust the process, be aware that change is sometimes challenging to adopt. Get input from the team, make changes slowly, and be patient.

Learn more about defining and implementing process improvements.

Best Practices for Creating an Agile Project Management Workflow

A key best practice for creating an Agile workflow is to start from a position where everyone understands and believes in Agile principles. The workflow must serve the team — the team doesn't serve the workflow.

The following best practices can help you create an Agile project management workflow:

  • Communicate the Value of Agile: Top leadership has a role in workflow success by consistently endorsing and living Agile methods and principles. 
  • Get Coaching: Teams can use the support of an Agile coach, who can help implement new workflows.
  • Define Your Processes: When teams don't have to worry about how they work and how to track progress, they can focus on the work. That’s why it’s important to define a workflow.
  • Create and Refer to a Project Roadmap and User Story Map: Agile efforts still need documentation. These documents can help define what workflows and task states are necessary.
  • Make Workflows Visible: Create Kanban or task boards that are accessible, so everyone can see work items and track progress. A visual workflow is beneficial for knowledge work where deliverables may be invisible to people outside the team.
  • Leverage Work Tracking Tools: Automation helps teams with established workflows track backlog items. They can use search mechanisms to filter assignees, due dates, and status. Digital Agile tools aid collaboration and conversation when team members can interact about work items. Are you new to Agile? Consider using an Excel template for your Agile project management.
  • Establish Work-in-Progress (WIP) Limits: WIP limits help teams develop a rhythm that can increase throughput. Ensure any set limits match the team's capacity.
  • Experiment: Feel free to try new ideas for working better, whatever they may be. 
  • Keep It Simple: Don't complicate a workflow. If you add too many steps and statuses, you risk confusing people. They will be more likely to go rogue and use a shadow process.
  • Consider Remote Tools: "Regardless of whether or not you're meeting in person or you have a fully remote team, having an effective Agile process creates spaces for people to chime in and provide feedback at any point in the day," advises Fruy. "This is true especially when you're working with developers and creatives, where 9-to-5 isn't necessarily when they do their best work. They might work best in the middle of the night or over the weekend. A good tool gives them space to chime in outside a typical meeting."
  • Use Agile Metrics to Fine-Tune Your Workflow: Look for a work platform that delivers burndown charts and sprint reports, as well as tracks other metrics, so you can assess sprint workloads and look for work blockers. Knowing and following metrics can boost team effectiveness. You might want the data to provide answers for some of the following questions: 
    • Do tasks often require further work after they are complete? 
    • How long does it take to clear tasks? 
    • How efficiently can the team work down sprint and product backlogs?

Traditional Workflow vs. Agile Project Management Workflow

Traditional workflows are structured and sequential. The next phase can't start until the previous one ends. Agile workflows favor smaller tasks that teams complete in any order. Agile teams iterate on work and review periods throughout a phase. 

Traditional project management workflow methods emphasize finishing a set plan. In this setup, changes to the project scope must be submitted for approval and might require the team to stop, undo, and redo finished work. For a Waterfall team, the highest priority is completing the project's mission and charter — even user feedback is incorporated only after the release. 

On the other hand, Agile workflows favor projects that are adaptable to changes and that benefit from ongoing questions and fresh ideas. This agility can also help when initial requirements are unclear, or the project involves new concepts or technology. Agile teams aim to respond quickly to customer feedback or other changes. Their end goal is to provide value to the customer continuously.

"I spent the first 10 years of my career as a project manager depressed, wondering why every one of my projects was delivered late or over budget. I thought there was something wrong with me," says Podwal. "Then I discovered Agile, which is much better suited to the problems that are going on in business right now." 

He explains that Agile's current relevance comes from collaboration tools and shared cloud resources, which previously didn't exist. "Before, we needed people to keep managing people to get the work done. Now we have all these tools that help us plan and collaborate and that enhance our communication. We don't need managers anymore. We need leaders."

Here is an example of how an Agile workflow differs from traditional project workflows:

Traditional vs Agile Workflow Story

Challenges of Scaling an Agile Project Management Workflow

The challenges of scaling an Agile project management workflow include merging cultures and processes across teams. However, sharing the same working approach makes team handoffs on the same project easier.

Follow these steps for scaling your workflow:

  1. Reinforce the idea that delivering value to the customer is the primary goal.
  2. Draw a value map to show dependencies and waste in your processes.
  3. Create digital task boards for visibility into team efforts and to visualize the connection between strategy and day-to-day tactics.
  4. Build a high-level task board to show strategic objectives and the workflows that serve them.

How to Overcome the Challenges of Scaling Project Management Workflows

You overcome the challenges of scaling project management workflows by ensuring that all teams embrace Agile. Standard working agreements and workflows add efficiency to shared projects.

Here are some tips for surmounting Agile scaling obstacles:

  • Unify the Entire Organization Behind Agile: Understand that this will make the organization more value driven. The whole company can respond better to market changes and risks.

    For Zucker, connected task boards have value: "By connecting all these boards, you create an organizational structure where every layer regularly feeds information to the layer above it or vice versa. As a result, whenever any emerging and unexpected changes occur, you have the management system in place to take necessary actions as soon as possible."
  • Expect a Flexible Scaling of a Single Process: According to Zucker, every team might have a slightly different Kanban board. But for enterprise portfolios, you might have a high-level task board with varying levels of detail expressed through color.
  • Avoid Excess Customization and Complication: Minimalist workflows are the easiest to understand and follow.
  • Agree on a Definition of Done: For shared projects, all teams should agree on when work transitions between workflow phases.
  • Review the Workflows Periodically: Work and teams change. Ensure that your workflow still serves everyone. Adjust as needed.
  • Consider Kanban: Kanban can support segues from current to new processes and, thus, might reduce resistance to change.
  • Reassure People that Continuous Improvement Means Gradual — not Sudden — Change: People may be overwhelmed because they think they must become proficient Agile ambassadors in a day. But the continuous improvement philosophy and Agile culture emphasize evolution rather than revolution.

Continually Improve and Refine Your Agile Project Management Workflow with Smartsheet

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The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed. 

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.



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