Agile Project Management: How to Get Started

Software projects continue to grow in scale and complexity. Modern cloud computing enables quick deployment and scaling, and end users’ needs are always evolving. Project management must adapt to this new normal, and adopting an agile approach is a step in the right direction.

Agile project management was developed to help teams work together more effectively and better serve the needs of end users. This guide has everything you need to implement agile project management at your organization, from an overview of its fundamentals to key best practices.

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What is Agile Project Management?

Agile project management is an iterative, flexible approach that emphasizes collaboration, a brisk tempo for project delivery, and adapting to feedback or changing circumstances. While agile project management is often discussed in relation to software development, its principles are applicable to any process with repeatable steps that can be improved upon over time.

For instance, a manufacturing company might constantly monitor and reevaluate process efficiency and product quality so it can make iterative adjustments to improve on them. Rather than periodically stopping production and replacing the entire system, an agile approach allows for regular testing and improvement with much less risk.

The philosophy of agile was codified in the Agile Manifesto by a group of seventeen software developers in 2001. The manifesto includes four key values:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

The Manifesto also features 12 core principles that provide as good a roadmap to adopting an agile mindset as any:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The History of Agile Project Management

While the Manifesto famously put the agile philosophy down in writing, these principles didn’t appear out of thin air. The history of agile stretches back decades as organizations across industries gradually adopted and refined lean and agile methodologies.

Of course, agile initially played the largest role in software development. Development was traditionally guided by the waterfall approach, where teams are given a very specific task within a broader linear sequence of steps. Each team is given the deliverable of the team in the previous step and then passes their completed work on to the next. It effectively emulated traditional manufacturing and construction processes.

The problem with the waterfall approach is that it is slow and doesn’t encourage collaboration between teams. If there’s an issue that needs to be resolved or feedback from the customer that should be incorporated in the product, the whole process often needs to be restarted. The lack of transparency and feedback leads to friction in adapting the product to changing needs.

The problems with the waterfall method led software developers to begin moving towards agile, and the publication of the Manifesto — together with advances in computer technology — have led organizations across the globe to embrace agile. 

Advantages of Agile Project Management

Agile project management offers organizations a range of benefits when compared to traditional methodologies. Here are a few of the biggest.

Faster Project Cycles

Agile is all about leveraging small, iterative releases. Improvements to a product can move from initial planning and scoping to deployment much more quickly than when they must be incorporated into set periodic release cycles. Project managers have the freedom to test out changes and incorporate customer feedback to see the effect on product quality and other important key performance indicators (KPIs).

Improved Collaboration

Agile makes it easy for everyone to work together when scoping out, completing, and improving a project. Team members are involved in a larger portion of the project lifecycle so they have more ownership of and input on the final product. This fosters a culture where everyone has a stake in the end result and is motivated to make the project succeed. And it helps ensure that all team members understand the end goal of the project so they can all swim in the same direction and avoid decisions that will make other tasks more difficult.

Better Ability to Adopt Customer Feedback

Agile also emphasizes the value of constant feedback from end users. It makes it possible to adopt their recommendations on a continuous basis, adapting to changing business requirements and customer needs. It’s the end users that are the final judges of your product’s success, after all, so it’s key to quickly incorporate as much of their input as possible.

Kanban and Scrum

There’s no one perfect way to “do” agile project management, and your organization should fit agile to your needs rather than trying to adhere to a strict implementation of what agile “should be.” But that doesn’t mean you need to start from scratch. Kanban and scrum are two of the most popular ways to implement agile, and you can even combine aspects of each in a “scrumban” approach. Let’s take a look at both kanban and scrum in turn.

Kanban

Originated in the 1940s by Toyota, the core of kanban is the kanban board. Now typically a digital rather than physical board, it lists key information on all tasks involved in a project. Project management software makes it simple to set up a variety of boards, letting users customize them and easily move between them. All team members can check on the status of relevant tasks and even entire projects simply by reviewing the right board. By boosting transparency and efficiency, Kanban enables agile processes.

Advantages and Drawbacks of Kanban

Kanban is a flexible system that's easy for employees to learn and incorporate in their daily workflows. It's also incredibly flexible, as each team member can build boards that suit their preferences. However, Kanban isn't built around a set cadence or timeframe like the sprints of scrum. This doesn't mean you can't set deadlines or build schedules with kanban, but these are layered on top rather than integral parts of the framework.

Using Kanban

A kanban board consists of columns representing the various steps in the applicable workflow. For instance, a simple workflow might have separate columns for "To Do" tasks, "In Progress" tasks, and "Completed" tasks. Tasks are represented by cards, making it easy to visualize where each stands. There are also work-in-progress (WIP) limits that set capacity at certain parts of the workflow, ensuring that no new tasks can be moved ahead until existing tasks are pulled to the next step. This makes it easy to identify bottlenecks and work to resolve them. 

Scrum

Scrum is built around sprints, which are periods of usually no more than 1-2 weeks during which a set amount of work is done. Sprints break up projects into digestible segments and dovetail perfectly with the iteration encouraged by agile, although not every sprint leads to a release or new version of the product. 

Scrum depends on team members effectively filling several important roles: Scrum Master, product owner, and development team. The development team carries out goals set by the product owner, while the Scrum Master oversees the process itself, coordinating between the other parties and ensuring they follow agile principles. Scrum is kept on track through daily meetings, or standups, that all members of the team attend.

Advantages and Drawbacks of Scrum

Scrum offers both flexibility and predictability thanks to sprints. Team members all follow the same cadence and are free to focus on the immediate goal. However, as each sprint may represent just part of an overarching project, it can be easy to simply add more goals to complete in more sprints, risking unmanageable scope creep. And the daily meetings required by the traditional scrum process can be time sinks unless carefully managed.

Using Scrum

Scrum begins with prioritizing work in a list of project tasks that remain to be completed — called the product backlog — and assigning the prioritized tasks to the next sprint until that sprint reaches capacity. Prioritization should take into account feedback from team members, end users, and other relevant stakeholders. The product backlog is always evolving, but tasks assigned to an active sprint should not be changed by the product owner. After each sprint, the team and product owner should meet and review progress made, see whether the sprint’s goal was achieved, and plan the next sprint. There should also be a sprint retrospective held between the Scrum Master and the other parties to cover feedback and ways to improve upcoming sprints.

Best Practices for Agile Project Management

If you’re interested in making agile work at your organization, start by following these best practices.

Plan the Transition and Train Your Team

Adopting agile doesn’t happen overnight. Carefully examine current workflows and talk to team members across the organization to see how you can best use agile to fit your company’s needs. Once you’ve decided on just how agile and your business fit together, plan out the transition in detail, including how you’ll train team members. Training should include everything from ensuring team members understand agile at a high level to covering details like metrics for success, changes in responsibilities, and everything else that is key to a quality project cycle.

Set KPIs, Track Metrics, and Adapt

Agile requires constant iteration, which in turns requires you to monitor projects and see how you can best improve the processes they rely on. Define KPIs ahead of time to ensure that you’re tracking the metrics that matter. The number of projects or tasks completed per sprint, the number of bugs or product defects found per release cycle, and customer satisfaction ratings are great examples of quantifiable metrics that can be tracked over time. To keep the right data at your fingertips, though, you need a robust agile project management solution.

Use Project Management Software

Modern agile processes rely on project management software to facilitate easy adoption across the organization and keep everyone on the same page. Team members need visibility into what tasks they’re responsible for and where the project currently stands. They also need a central location for tracking and updating their progress, as well as communicating with other team members. A dedicated platform like Atlassian’s Jira is a must for agile project management.

Agile Project Management Made Easy

Agile project management is a set of universally applicable principles that are easily adapted by organizations to fit their unique needs. But without a centralized platform that was built with agile project management in mind, getting everyone on board with your company’s new agile approach is an arduous task.

Jira is one of the most established and feature-rich tools available for using agile methodologies, no matter what your company’s niche happens to be. While it’s an intuitive platform, customizing it to suit your business requirements can be overwhelming. Contegix’s team of Atlassian experts can assist your organization with seamlessly adopting agile, training all employees on Jira quickly, and keeping your Jira deployment aligned with your business requirements. Contact Contegix today and learn how it can help your organization get the most out of Jira and adopt an agile approach to project management.