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Our Complete Guide to Using Agile Project Management in 2022

Our Complete Guide to Using Agile Project Management in 2022

12 minutes

July 7, 2022

Our Complete Guide to Agile Project Management

If the word agility brings back tortuous memories of some kind of fast feet drills at school, we hear you. Happily, Agile project management doesn’t require you to juggle project delivery with ladder runs.

Agile project management was developed 20 years ago in a ski lodge in Utah as a response to more traditional project management methodologies.

It sought to deliver projects through short cycles of work, each one bringing the product closer to the final solution. Initially used in software development projects, project managers can now apply it to any business area.

Let’s look at what Agile project management is, its principles and benefits, when you should choose it over other methodologies, and how to manage an Agile project.

What is Agile?

Agile is an iterative approach to project management that is often used when the project’s requirements cannot be fully defined upfront. Work is delivered in short time periods and refined to get closer to the final deliverable.

The infamous ski-lodge meeting produced the Agile manifesto, which details four core values that underpin the Agile project management methodology:

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

As the project requirements are defined over its life cycle, close cooperation with business stakeholders is imperative for its success.

Agile is one of the two main methodologies — the other is Waterfall, a more linear approach with well-defined requirements from project initiation.

Graphic showing linear Waterfall methodology vs. iterative Agile methodology

The Agile project management methodology has several frameworks that sit beneath it — the most common include Scrum, Kanban, XP, and SAFe.

While a methodology guides the overall approach to a project, a framework offers specific processes, tools, and techniques to execute the methodology’s principles.

The 12 Principles of Agile

Alongside the four values, 12 core values guide the Agile methodology. While these principles were initially developed for fast, iterative software development, they hold true for other project types.

The Agile principles are:

1.Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. By producing work at the end of every iteration, the business gets early value from viable products.

2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in delivery. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. By remaining flexible, the project team can adapt to changes and stay responsive to market and customer needs.

3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for the shorter timescale. Short work ‘sprints’ allow for early and continuous stakeholder engagement and feedback, which improves overall quality.

4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. Close collaboration ensures the business gets what it needs and makes implementation smoother.

6. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. The project manager’s role is to ensure the right blend of capability and capacity within the team, then trust them to deliver work as agreed — without micromanagement.

7. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face. Team members should solve problems and share information face-to-face, minimizing email use. Daily standups provide an excellent vehicle for helping this happen.

8. Working software is the primary measure of progress. Be clear on your measures of success and make sure they focus on what will drive the most value for your business.

9.Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. Project planning should enable the project team to be effectively resourced throughout the project without significant peaks and troughs in workload.

10. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility. Ensure project processes are optimized to support flexibility. Review and refine those that aren’t.

11. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential. Consistent refinement during the project should eliminate requirements or ‘nice-to-haves’ that don’t add value to the end product.

12. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. Trust your team to organize themselves in a way that suits how they work best. Let them decide the tools and techniques they want to use to get work done.

13. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective and then tunes and adjusts in behavior accordingly. Continuous improvement is part of the fabric of Agile projects. Make sure to give your team the time to regularly reflect on how they can get better and encourage those changes to happen.

The Key Benefits of Using Agile Project Management

Depending on the nature of your project, using Agile project management can offer a range of benefits to your business.

Graphic showing four key benefits of Agile project management

Improved Speed to Market

Agile projects can deliver a valuable output sooner than more traditional approaches. As the project deliverables are refined, the final product is optimized for the particular customer or market that it serves.

However, that doesn’t mean that earlier iterations aren’t valuable. Early prototypes may act as a test product in the market, offering opportunities for advanced sales, building momentum around the main product launch, and gaining feedback from early adopters.

Increased Flexibility

A core characteristic of Agile projects is that the final requirements evolve alongside the product delivery. As the requirements aren’t set and static at project initiation, it’s much easier to accommodate changes and improvements during the project life cycle.

In a more linear approach, making significant changes can be costly and seriously impact the project timeline.

Reduced Risk

Iterative development offers an opportunity to test the product at the end of each block of work and then modify it based on user feedback. This is essential in rapidly changing markets where businesses need to be responsive to changing customer needs.

As well as reducing risk, constant testing also improves the quality of the final output. Defects are identified during each iteration, allowing you to rectify and refine them. This leads to greater customer satisfaction.

Optimized Budget Use

As the project requirements are refined alongside delivery, you only pay for what is actually developed.

During the project, the business can change the project scope to remove attributes that are no longer required or change the prioritization of feature development to bring the most essential ones forward.

This allows the project team to optimize their available budget and means they’re not stuck running out of cash halfway through the project.

Life Cycle of an Agile Project

Both Agile and Waterfall projects go through the same five-phase project life cycle:

Five phases of the project life cycle

1. Initiation

During this phase, the business decides on the overall project goal and broadly what it is going to deliver. A business case should be completed that explains the value the project will bring.

Project governance should be established and key stakeholders identified.

This phase looks broadly similar for both Agile and Waterfall projects.

2. Planning

In a nutshell, the planning phase is about estimating the time and resources required to deliver the project outcome. Despite the goal of this phase being the same for both Agile and Waterfall projects, in practice, this looks significantly different between the two.

For Waterfall projects, this phase will be extensive. The business will propose and agree upon detailed estimates for both the project timeline and budget.

The project scope will be broken down into deliverables and key milestones. These will then be further broken down into individual tasks and sub-tasks.

Tasks will be ordered based on resource availability and any other tasks they are dependent on. Resources will be allocated, communication and risk management plans developed, and a project reporting process agreed upon.

Only once senior stakeholders have plotted and signed off a detailed project schedule will work begin.

For Agile projects, planning only extends as far as the next block of work. For example, let’s consider the most popular Agile framework — Scrum.

Scrum projects organize work into approximately two-week chunks known as sprints. Every sprint starts with a sprint planning meeting, where the business outlines a prioritized list of tasks for the project team to deliver in the upcoming sprint — this is known as the sprint backlog.

Graphic showing the stages of a typical sprint

At the end of each sprint, the project team presents the work back to the business for review.

Feedback from this review meeting informs future planning and influences which tasks make the upcoming sprint backlog to be completed during the next phase of work.

3. Execution

The execution phase is where the work actually gets done.

For Waterfall projects, this is basically the detailed project schedule swinging into action. Any major deviations to the plan will need to be accompanied by a formal change request and could significantly delay the project or cause an additional cost.

Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, and reporting structures are often formal.

For Agile projects, the execution phase is part of the iterative loop of planning, delivery, and refinement. Scope changes are common and embraced as part of a cycle of continuous improvement in product quality.

The project team is self-organizing, with team members free to work in a way that best suits them to get the job done. Collaboration with business stakeholders is frequent and productive.

4. Monitoring and Control

The monitoring and controlling phase of the project is about ensuring that the project is progressing as expected and taking action if any deviations are observed.

For Waterfall projects, this is likely to involve a series of formal reporting and governance mechanisms with a project board providing final oversight.

There may be ‘stage gates’ where the project has to continue to demonstrate its likely return on investment in order for further funding to be released. The use of proper documentation to support the monitoring and control phase of the life cycle is characteristic of Waterfall projects.

For Agile projects, regular meetings — such as Scrum daily standups — provide an opportunity to check in against expected progress.

Review meetings with the business, like those conducted at the end of every sprint, also allow for reprioritization of work, as required.

Agile project teams also regularly reflect on the way they’re working to maximize their efficiency and improve processes. In the Scrum framework, this meeting is called the sprint retrospective.

5. Closure

For both methodologies, this is where project activity is concluded and formally handed over to business or implementation teams.

Project documentation should be finalized and stored, and the project team disbanded.

All projects should take the time to celebrate their success and review and record lessons learned about what worked well and what could be improved for next time.

Agile vs. Waterfall: What’s the Difference?

Aside from the differences mentioned above, there are several key distinctions between Agile and Waterfall projects.

Table showing key difference between project methodologies

These include:

  • How customers are engaged. Waterfall projects have detailed requirements established upfront, which means stakeholder engagement is critical during the early initiation and planning phases.  For Agile projects, customer engagement is critical during the planning and execution loop in order to help refine and improve requirements alongside delivery.
  • How teams are managed. Waterfall projects define roles and responsibilities early, and project teams tend to be hierarchical, led by the project manager, and overseen by formal project governance. An Agile team is often smaller and built around core competencies and experience. It may be more fluid as resources are brought in to tackle specific emergent requirements. In certain Agile frameworks, project teams may be self-managing.
  • How changes during the project are managed. It’s relatively simple to address changes in Agile projects, as new requirements can be added to the backlog during project delivery. In Waterfall projects, it can be more challenging to make significant changes and usually requires following a formal change request process.

When to Choose Agile Over Waterfall

So, given all this, when should you choose the Agile methodology over Waterfall?

Well, it can be tricky to define exactly when one project management methodology is likely to be more successful than another, but here’s what we recommend:

Choose a Waterfall methodology if:

  • Requirements can be clearly articulated during project initiation
  • Critical project resources have limited availability and need robust scheduling to ensure they are available when needed
  • The project falls within a highly-regulated industry, such as defense or construction
  • Your business culture is more traditional, with an obvious hierarchy and set governance practices
  • Your project team works most effectively with clearly defined roles and responsibilities

Choose an Agile methodology if:

  • Initially, only high-level requirements can be determined
  • Project stakeholders are engaged and invested in working closely with the project team
  • Early benefits realization is important
  • The target market is volatile or changes rapidly
  • Your project team has Agile experience or is comfortable working with less guidance to get the job done

How to Manage an Agile Project

Whatever methodology you choose, project management software can make managing projects more straightforward.

For Agile projects, there are some key features to look out for to boost your productivity and likelihood of successful delivery.

Planning Support

Agile projects plan a lot. Agile planning tools need to be responsive to changing requirements and simple to use, yet robust enough that self-managing teams are clear on what they need to do.

In SmartSuite, effective task management is a core capability that underpins all other functionality. It's quick and simple to build and prioritize your backlog of work and for team members to assign themselves to tasks best suited to their skills and capacity.

Example of a project plan in SmartSuite

SmartSuite has eight different visualization types — including Timeline, Chart, Kanban board, and Calendar — so the project team can view important details about tasks, key milestones, scheduled meetings, and reporting requirements in a way that suits them.

Plus, with SmartSuite’s My Work feature, team members can see all their work in one place, including project tasks, day-to-day operations, and personal to-dos.

SmartSuite My Work feature showing daily, upcoming, and future tasks

And with intuitive “If this/then that” automation recipes, it’s easy to automate routine or recurring tasks, leaving team members free to concentrate on work that delivers the most value.

Collaboration Tools

Close collaboration between team members and business stakeholders is a core principle of Agile project management. Tools that support effective communication are essential in enabling the project to remain responsive to changing customer requirements.

In SmartSuite, collaboration is simple and streamlined.

In-platform communication means integrated conversations that happen in context, with discussions about work happening alongside where the work is being delivered.

Text box conversation between teammates

So nothing’s ever lost, and everyone is always on the same page and working with the latest information.

Robust Reporting Capability

Agile projects need to be responsive to a changing market and customer requirements. So reporting that enables data-driven decision-making is critical to project success.

It’s vital that the business can easily understand project progress and make rapid choices about where to invest resources to maximize the future benefits of the project.

In SmartSuite, clear and visually-appealing dashboards effectively engage stakeholders, providing the data needed to support well-informed decisions.

SmartSuite Project Dashboard showing key metrics

Plus, SmartSuite’s multiple view options deliver a high level of clarity around different elements of project progress and key metrics that allow for effective resource prioritization.

Use Agile Project Management to Deliver Faster

Agile project management may require a significant shift in the way you manage projects. But, if you need a methodology that enables you to make changes as you go, then Agile may just be what you’re looking for.

SmartSuite has all the functionality you need to manage your Agile project effectively. Its top-notch collaboration tools mean it’s easy to engage stakeholders in the development process.

Plus, keep everyone clear on progress and what’s going to be tackled next with clear and transparent reporting and easily shareable plans.

Our range of templates helps you get started fast. Why not try out our project management template today?

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