Originally developed for software development (with the creation of the Agile Manifesto), Agile helps teams improve quality while reducing cycle times and development costs. Today, people in all disciplines use Agile project management methods to build structure, accountability, and quality into team workflows. Read on to learn the basic principles and practices of Agile project management and whether this methodology might be right for your team.
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Waterfall to Agile
Before the Agile project management method emerged, software development teams often used the waterfall methodology to manage projects. Waterfall is a linear, sequential method of project management (used almost exclusively in software development), in which teams move sequentially through the various phases in a project, from concept through deployment and maintenance. This method generally supported highly coordinated software launches, which happened periodically (usually a few times a year).
A waterfall approach is practical in theory, but in practice, it produces a considerable amount of waste. To coordinate efforts across teams, organizations would have to undergo extensive planning cycles, relying heavily on estimates. If estimates were inaccurate or projects were delayed due to unforeseen circumstances, teams would have to regroup, create new plans, also based on estimates, and race to meet deadlines - often to find that customer requirements and goals had shifted in the process.
Agile emerged as the more flexible, iterative approach to project management. The Agile project management method helps companies strike a balance between cutting waste, cutting cost and preserving the quality of the product. Rather than planning work months in advance across multiple teams, Agile teams can plan in short (usually 2-week) sprints, in focused, cross-functional teams, allowing them to more easily respond to new information, market shifts, delays, and other changes.
Breaking work into smaller chunks and working iteratively to improve products and services allows Agile teams to hone their processes, isolate problems, and achieve specific objectives quickly. This makes teams using Agile project management better suited for achieving any organization’s goal: To satisfy the needs of customers, quickly and effectively.
Agile Project Management Practices
There are actually several approaches within Agile project management - Scrum is the most popular, but others include Scrumban, Kanban, and XP (Extreme Programming). Each of these Agile project management methods contains some version of the following:
Iterative development sets Agile project management apart from other project management methodologies. Iterative development is based on the idea that customer feedback should drive project decisions. Rather than waiting until something is “perfect” before releasing it, Agile teams aim to release bits of value quickly and frequently - and then use customer feedback to make improvements over time. Iterative development allows teams using Agile project management to ensure that their efforts are being used to create products, processes, and services that are truly valuable to customers.
Agile teams use product backlogs to record ideas for future work to move quickly from one high-value initiative to the next. This enables Agile teams to stay focused on delivering increments of value as quickly as possible, while methodically organizing ideas so they don’t get lost.
How does this work? When a new idea or request arises, it’s placed in the backlog and prioritized against existing work. This helps Agile teams ensure that their efforts are being used to meet the most pressing customer needs first, rather than simply completing work as it arises.
Frequent, short meetings
Another key element of Agile project management is the use of frequent, short meetings. These meetings, called standups (because their short duration doesn’t require you to sit), provide Agile teams with the opportunity to quickly review recently completed work, identify anything blocking progress in ongoing projects, and collaborate to deliver work as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Kanban can be an incredibly helpful tool for visualizing and managing work in this way. Holding these meetings daily (or frequently) helps teams coordinate their efforts, so they can more effectively collaborate to deliver value.
Reviews and retrospectives
Agile teams move quickly – which could make it easy to lose track of valuable learnings and run the risk of repeating the same mistakes over and over. This is why Agile teams hold regular reviews and retrospectives, to take time to reflect, document, learn, and identify opportunities for improvement.
Focus on creating customer value
Every Agile team shares a similar goal: To deliver customer value faster and more efficiently than ever before. With this goal in mind, teams use Agile project management methods to optimize processes, eliminate waste, and get more done with fewer resources. This efficiency not only helps teams better satisfy customers, it also can drastically improve project ROI.