What Is Agile Project Management?
Agile project management is a flexible, iterative approach to software design and development. In Agile development, small, self-organized teams with cross-functional skills work closely together to produce incremental, value-driven pieces of software that are shipped at regular intervals. Additionally, rapid feedback at the end of each iteration provides a built-in opportunity for continuous improvement. The Agile approach is defined by value and adaptability: teams prioritize work that provides the most value to the customer. Rather than resisting change, Agile welcomes it—this adaptability is fundamental to providing the highest valuable product to customers and stakeholders. In this section, we’ll dive deeper into the history of Agile philosophy and the leading values that drive the methodology.
The foundation of Agile project management was laid in 1986 in an article published in Harvard Business Review. In it, authors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka observed that some prominent manufacturing companies in Japan and the U.S. were deviating from the traditional sequential, hand-off approach of product development in favor of more continual product evaluation and improvement through close team collaboration. They likened this approach to a rugby team passing the ball back and forth down the field, and expanded on this observation to offer a more flexible alternative to project management.
The technology boom of the early 1990s resulted in many new approaches to managing software development projects. The traditional Waterfall, step-by-step method was not well suited to the rapid pace of technological advancements, and many projects were cancelled as the requested software often became outdated long before the final product was actually delivered.
In 2001, the Agile Manifesto was published by a group of 17 software developers, and Agile project management as we know it today was born. The Agile Manifesto outlined the foundational values and principles for rapidly delivering high-quality, value-driven software, listed below:
Four Foundational Values
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
The authors also note that “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
Twelve Principles of Agile Project Management
- Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
- Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
- Business people and developers 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.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Working software is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users 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.
Five years later, the authors wrote the Declaration of Interdependence, which extended the original Manifesto beyond software development. The addendum focused on value-added development, shared ownership, iterative work, group accountability, and shared responsibility, and encouraged non-software teams to embrace the methodology as well. The tenants of the Declaration of Interdependence are as follows:
- We increase return on investment by making continuous flow of value our focus.
- We deliver reliable results by engaging customers in frequent interactions and shared ownership.
- We expect uncertainty and manage for it through iterations, anticipation, and adaptation.
- We unleash creativity and innovation by recognizing that individuals are the ultimate source of value, and creating an environment where they can make a difference.
- We boost performance through group accountability for results and shared responsibility for team effectiveness.
- We improve effectiveness and reliability through situationally specific strategies, processes and practices.
Of course, these principles are meant as a guide rather than hard-set rules. Ultimately, Agile philosophy values experimentation, and teams that communicate often and maintain flexible workflows will be the most successful. Click here to read a comprehensive guide to the Agile Manifesto.
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The Agile Process and Lifestyle
At its core, Agile is a continuous, cyclical process that encourages experimentation and adaptability. The six phases of Agile (requirements, plan, design, develop, release, and track and monitor) are flexible and evolving, and the phases often overlap one another so multiple projects are in process simultaneously. Although Agile teams may label and organize these phases differently - one variation would be concept, conception, iteration/construction, release, product, retirement - the overall sequence should remain the same.
Agile methodology stands in comparison with the traditional Waterfall approach, which follows a lengthy, step-by-step process. In Waterfall, each step must be completed before the next one begins, and upfront planning requires comprehensive documentation and a formal contract negotiation with the customer. While waterfall can be effective for some projects, it can be cumbersome for software development or other products with rapidly changing technology.
Agile philosophy also values a non-hierarchical distribution of work. While Agile projects will still have a project manager (called a Product Owner), all team members’ ideas are equally valued in decision making. This collaborative nature of work is at odds with a more traditional, stratified division of work, but a strong team leader is still an important part of any Agile project. Here is a list of responsibilities commonly held by Product Owners:
- Liaison between customer and Agile team
- Defines product vision
- Identifies in-demand features and prioritizes releases based on customer’s needs
- Constructs product roadmap (time & effort estimates)
- Prioritizes task backlog (most urgent or highest-value items first)
However, the product owner works with the team to outline the quantifiable, relevant, and detailed requirements based on how end-users will be using the product. Additionally, all team members work together to draft a release plan of the prioritized backlog. Once the release plan is complete, the iteration phases can begin.
Simply adopting an Agile methodology will not solve all current project roadblocks. Before beginning your project, it’s important to understand what Agile is not, so you can take advantage of the pros without falling victim to the challenges. You can read more about the Agile process and lifecycle in our complete Agile lifecycle guide.
- Agile is not a manager. Agile manages projects, not people. The product owner is still responsible for prioritizing the product backlog, but the team decides which features to include in a sprint, sets delivery dates, and assigns tasks based on appropriate knowledge and skills.
- Agile is not a specific timetable for achieving goals. Goals and delivery dates are established by the team during the sprint planning session.
- Agile is not a baby sitter. The success of Agile project management depends largely on team ownership and responsibility.
- Agile is not Iterative project management. Agile work is completed in iterations, but where the Iterative method completes project analysis and design before sending to coding and testing, Agile continues to improve on all aspects, including design, throughout the project lifecycle.
Here are some advantages of working Agile:
- Agile encourages changes in order to provide the highest and most relevant product value to the customer.
- Agile development can accommodate end goals that are not clearly defined at project onset.
- Agile results in the delivery of faster, high-quality products by breaking down projects into smaller, more manageable components.
- Daily standup meetings facilitate open communication on project status and roadblocks.
- Live demonstrations at the end of each sprint allow for immediate customer and stakeholder feedback.
- Agile allows for more accurate estimation of both timelines and costs through its emphasis on product prioritization, adaptability, and rapid feedback.
- Most importantly, project managers are able to deliver a high-quality product to customers on time and on budget.
Of course, there are also some tradeoffs in working Agile. Make sure you’re well versed in the potential challenges of Agile before beginning your project:
- Because Agile encourages flexibility, deadlines can often be extended or delayed multiple times.
- Agile teams are cross-functional and require a high level of commitment, involvement, and collaboration throughout the project’s duration. This may require some adjustment on the part of the team.
- The Agile team depends more strongly on team planning and collaboration than on extensive documentation, which can be difficult for projects requiring audits or external checks.
Overall, Agile can help teams increase flexibility and collaboration, and ultimately lead to more successful projects. Next, we’ll take a look at other methodologies that have grown out of the initial Agile philosophy.
Agile Derivative Methodologies
Since the inception of Agile, a variety of methodologies have emerged. The most common of these derivative methodologies are Scrum and Kanban, as well as Scrumban (a hybrid of the two). In this section, we’ll take a look at these emergent project management philosophies.
Scrum also values collaboration and experimentation, but is a little more structured. In Scrum, work is completed in fixed-length iterations, called Sprints. Each Sprint usually lasts two to four weeks and focuses on completing an individual task from the product backlog. Tasks are assigned to a single team member who is responsible for completing the task, and the goal is to produce a single, shippable product or piece of software. Scrum also relies on a more defined set of roles (Product Owner, Scrum Master, Scrum Team) with specific responsibilities, as well as a series of meetings held at different stages of the Sprint (sprint planning, daily Scrum, sprint review, and sprint retrospective). Learn more about Scrum roles and responsibilities here.
Kanban is much more fluid than Scrum. By contrast, Kanban does not assign any specific roles or responsibilities, and work items do not have time limits. Instead, limits are placed on the amount of work in progress (WIP) at any given time - this promotes a smooth, continuous flow of work and helps reveal and alleviate bottlenecks. Therefore, rather than being assigned specific tasks, team members simply pull work from the backlog into the WIP category. Ultimately, Kanban aims to drive continuous improvement—as work flow becomes more efficient, the time it takes to produce a shippable product or piece of software from start to finish is reduced.
Scrumban is a hybrid method meant to reconcile the structure of Scrum with the fluidity of Kanban. Scrum teams can replace time limits with WIP limits to promote a smooth, continuous workflow. Kanban teams, on the other hand, can incorporate more structure by holding Daily Scrums (daily standup meetings) that ensure everyone is on the same page. Scrumban works best in environments where Scrum would be too limiting, such as creative or development projects that experience changes and shifting priorities. Scrum teams who are continually unable to meet the time constraints of Scrum may want to try using Scrumban. Scrumban also provides a useful stepping stone for teams who are planning to transition from Scrum to Kanban.
The decision to implement Scrumban depends entirely on the organization’s environment, culture, and business needs. Scrumban: Choosing the Middle Ground Between Scrum and Kanban offers a more in-depth look at Scrumban and what environments would be best for introducing this hybrid of Scrum and Kanban.
Other Agile methodologies include Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), Adaptive Software Development, Agile Modeling, Extreme Programming (XP), Dynamic Systems Development (DSDM), Feature Driven Development, and Lean Software Development. Read our detailed comparison of Agile project management methods to gain a deeper understanding of the various approaches.
Best Practices for Agile Project Managers
Shifting your team from Waterfall to an Agile methodology can seem daunting, but there are several best planning practices to help smooth the transition process. In the Declaration of Interdependence, Alistair Cockburn and Jim Highsmith set the stage for shifting project management from a set-in-stone, top-down process to a practice driven by collaboration and change. You can read more about the best practices for transitioning to Agile here.
Agile modeling is a set of best practices that apply directly to the development of software, or code modeling. Implementing Agile modeling ensures that developers and stakeholders have a clear picture of the end goal or product and that developers model that appropriate amount of code to satisfy the needs of the customer and stakeholders while not becoming too enmired in detail.
Agile modeling was first used by software developer Scott Ambler as a means for remedying deficiencies with Extreme Programming (XP), but it can be applied to other Agile methodologies as well, including Scrum, Dynamic Systems Development method (DSDM), and Feature-Driven Development (FDD). The key objectives of Agile modeling are to 1) define best practices for effective modeling, 2) offer a way to apply those best practices, and 3) show how to improve the modeling approach. These principles are driven by four values - communication, simplicity, courage, and feedback - and should be followed to help make your transition to Agile software development as smooth as possible.
Is Agile Project Management Scalable?
Another advantage of Agile project management is that it provides a consistent, repeatable blueprint for managing software development processes, no matter the size or scope of the project. Agile can be applied across multiple teams and projects, and works for both on-site or remote teams, or a hybrid of both.
While an individual team typically comprises five to nine members, Agile can be applied to large-scale projects involving multiple Scrum teams as well. Agile project management can also be applied at the enterprise level using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®)—a scalable, modular approach for implementing Agile in a way that best meets the needs of the organization. (However, some of the founders of Agile have expressed concern that implementing Agile methodologies on such a large scale may compromise the adaptability and best practices of Agile software development.)
While Agile has become associated primarily with software development, an Agile approach can be applied to any type of project where high-quality and rapid delivery are paramount. Marketing, graphic design, startups, advertising, newsrooms, and entrepreneurships can all benefit from the Agile process. In fact, many people use Agile’s more fluid Kanban methodology to manage projects outside of the workplace, such as wedding planning, home improvement, and vacations. (Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry elaborate on this use of Kanban in their book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life.)
How to Select the Right Agile Tool
Since the early 2000s, Agile has become the number one project management approach for managing software development. Along with Agile’s rise in popularity, software companies have released numerous Agile-specific tools, each one claiming that they are the ultimate solution for managing the Agile process. As a result, deciding which of these tools is the best for your organization can be challenging. The first step is determining which tool will most effectively support the particular Agile methodology that you have in place or plan to use.
Reading online reviews may help you eliminate certain tools right away and allow you to identify others that offer the specific functionalities you need to meet your business objectives. Once you have narrowed your search down to a handful of tools, you may want to set up a matrix of your required functionalities and compare the tools against one another to help you finalize your choice. And, while your requirements may dictate the need for specific features or functionality, there are some essential capabilities and requirements that an effective Agile software tool should include. At the very least, your tool should serve as a complete resource for managing all Agile functions including tracking tasks, holding discussions, and storing searchable data.
Read more about selecting the right Agile tool for your company here.
Agile Resources for Project Managers
Below is a comprehensive list of resources, from books and templates to educational and professional Agile opportunities. Take some time navigating the various tools and get started working Agile.
Articles and E-books
Agile Project Management 101: A Beginner’s Guide for Non-Project Managers (E-book)
This e-book can provide you with valuable insight into how to manage your Agile projects efficiently and increase production amidst ever-changing requirements. In it you’ll find an overview of Agile project management, comparisons of the top Agile methodologies, and outlined steps for getting started implementing Agile project management within your organization.
The Ultimate Agile Dictionary
This easy-to-navigate, online reference to Agile terminology is an indispensable tool for Agile project managers. Use this comprehensive collection of Agile terms and processes to build or refresh your understanding and knowledge of the Agile project management process.
Agile Project Management Excel Templates
This article provides eight Excel templates that correspond with each phase and aspect of the Agile process, including templates for developing project, release, and test plans, and prioritizing product and sprint backlogs. Templates for laying out a product roadmap, creating a project charter, and organizing user stories are included as well.
Agile Project Management Smartsheet Templates
Smartsheet, a spreadsheet-inspired task and project management tool, includes a series of templates specifically designed to help Agile project managers, product owners, and teams plan, develop, and launch high-quality, high value products that meet customers’ needs.
- Agile Project with Gantt Timeline. Update progress, track deliverables, store files, and set alerts for features, tasks, and sprints.
- Feature Prioritization and Roadmap with Gantt Chart. Organize and analyze feature priorities by category, market weight, and number of requests.
- Feature Prioritization - Simple. Categorize, rank, and assess development effort for product features.
- Requirement Collection Checklist. Organize and prioritize project requirements. Includes sections for discovery, analysis, and use cases.
- Product Feedback Survey Web Form. Organize and customize product owner and customer feedback from Sprint Review meetings.
- Team Task List By Priority. Group and prioritize tasks, assign ownership, and use symbols to portray your Agile or Scrum team’s progress.
- Blank Sheet. Organize, categorize, and prioritize any component of the Agile process.
Agile Project Management Professional Organizations
- Agile Alliance. The Agile Alliance is a non-profit global community dedicated to advancing Agile principles and practices for software development. Onsite and virtual conferences, articles, blogs, research papers, and access to international user groups are just a few of the resources that the Agile Alliance has to offer.
- Scrum Alliance. The Scrum Alliance is a non-profit organization for Scrum professionals and is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of Scrum methodology. The Alliance offers a series of professional courses and certifications, as well webinars, a job board, and other resources for building your career as a Scrum professional.
- Scrum Foundation. The Scrum Foundation provides certified Scrum training and consulting around the world. Their staff includes Scrum co-creator Jeff Sutherland and leading international Agile experts Gabrielle Benefield, Pete Deemer, and Jens Østergaard.
Agile Project Management Educational Opportunities
Although advanced education may not be required for managing an Agile team or serving in an Agile role, many courses and certifications can provide you with a solid knowledge base that you can build on throughout your career as an Agile professional. This section includes a wide variety of Agile and Scrum certification programs offered by various professional organizations.
- PMI-ACP®. The Agile Certified Practitioner (ACP) provides formal certification for project management professionals who already have real-world experience managing agile projects, including Scrum, Kanban, Lean, extreme programming (XP) and test-driven development (TDD). Provided by the Project Management Institute (PMI).
- Scrum Certifications. The Scrum Alliance offers eight professional certification programs: Certified scrum master (CSM), Certified (CSPO), Certified Scrum Developer (CSD), Certified Scrum Professional (CSP), Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Agile Leadership (CAL), Certified Team Coach (CTC), and Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC).
- APMG International. APMG International offers certificate programs for Agile project and program managers, as well as a certificate program for business analysts who work in an Agile environment.
- Twenty-Eighty Strategy Execution. This online learning company offers a variety of courses in Agile project management, including using Agile to develop requirements, estimate and plan projects, and manage a project portfolio.
- International Consortium for AgileTM. (ICAgile). This independent accrediting agency offers professional, expert, and master certifications covering all disciplines of Agile, including Leadership, Team Coaching and Facilitation, Enterprise Coaching, Delivery Management, Value Management, Development, and Testing.
- Agile Certification Institute. (ACI). The Agile Certification Institute is a global Agile standards body that offers certifications at both the enterprise and development-team levels (including practitioner certificates for scrum master, Lean, and Kanban).
- Scaled Agile Academy. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) implements Agile development at the enterprise level. The Scaled Agile Academy offers several certification programs for those who are seeking knowledge and expertise in implementing SAFe within large software companies.
Books by Agile’s Top Leaders
- Agile Modeling: Effective Practices for eXtreme Programming and the Unified Process
- The Object Primer: Agile Model-Driven Development with UML 2.0
Scott Ambler and Mark Lines
- Disciplined Agile Delivery: A Practitioner's Guide to Agile Software Delivery in the Enterprise
- Introduction to Disciplined Agile Delivery: A Small Agile Team's Journey from Scrum to Continuous Delivery
Scott Ambler and Pramod Sadalage
- Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business
- On the Road to Kanban
- Agile Management for Software Engineering: Applying the Theory of Constraints for Business Results
Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry
- Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life
- Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game (2nd Edition)
- Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams (1st Edition)
- Agile Software Development
- Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products (2nd Edition)
- Adaptive Leadership: Accelerating Enterprise Agility
- Agile Software Development Ecosystems 1st Edition
Jeffrey Sutherland and J.J.Sutherland
Jeffrey Sutherland and Ken Schwaber
- Software in 30 Days: How Agile Managers Beat the Odds, Delight Their Customers, And Leave Competitors In the Dust
Other Agile Resources (non-book)
- Video - Dr. Alistair Cockburn "Why Agile Works". YouTube video featuring one of the founders of Agile.
- RonJeffries.com. Comprehensive blog site by one of the founders of the Agile. Jeffries provides insights and resources related to Agile and Extreme Programming. (Formerly xprogramming.com.)
- The Lean Mindset. Essays on Lean Development by Mary and Tom Poppendieck.
- Agile Practices Timeline. The history and evolution of Agile starting from its origins in 1968 through to 2011.
- The New New Product Development Game. Article by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, Harvard Business Review, January 1986.
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