How do you adapt traditional project management into a rapidly changing environment? One that is characterised by shifting priorities and high uncertainty. Arguably, you don’t need to – project management has always had the tools for this. But, with the Agile Manifesto of 2001, software projects have a new paradigm. A modification of traditional approaches, called Agile Project Management.
And make no mistake… Agile has become a ‘Big Thing’. In fact, it bears some of the hallmarks of a fad, while also having a lot to offer an informed organisation with wise and pragmatic project leaders to call upon. But, as with all good ideas, it also attracts its converts and zealots.
Of course, here at Management Pocketbooks, we tend to eschew extreme and simplistic ‘right versus wrong’ arguments in management. We’re here to suck out the good stuff and brief you on what it is and how to benefit from it.
Why do we Need Agile?
I could argue that we don’t. There’s nothing new in Agile per se. It emphasises a set of principles that have always existed in Project Management, like:
- incremental development
- distributed responsibility customer focus
All it does is put them to the fore.
And it doesn’t tell us anything about how to do projects. Rather, it leaves that to the many methodologies that have grown up under its aegis. These bear the label of Agile methodologies.
But in another sense, we do need Agile. We need constant re-thinking of our priorities, and occasional trenchant advocacy for the principles that match the needs of the times.
And Agile does meet our present day needs. Or, at least, it meets some of them. Software development – particularly in entrepreneurial settings – needs to develop and grow, as its owners discover users’ behaviours, needs, and preferences. And it provides a paradigm that makes this a priority.
The problem of course is that some Agile Project managers (or ‘Agilists‘) have become zealous in their advocacy. They would have us throw out the old, traditional project management methods (that they sometimes disparagingly refer to as ‘Waterfall’. And in their place, they would introduce one flavour or another of Agile project management across all our project endeavours.
This is, of course, wrong. There’s an idiom in English: ‘horses for courses’. In some contexts, Agile approaches are right. In others, traditional approaches are best. And in many, it pays to learn from both and find the right hybrid approach.
What is Agile?
Agile is an approach to project management. If it doesn’t sound too grand: it’s a philosophy.
It promotes an ‘adaptive project process’. What this means is that, instead of attempting to define a detailed solution to a problem upfront, Agile uses an incremental and iterative approach to create a simple design, build it, test it, stabilise it, and then further develop the design as the project proceeds.
Agile approaches emphasise the following priorities:
- Iterative, or incremental development of project deliverables
- A high level of customer or user involvement in specifying and testing products
- Flexibility and fast turnaround of new functionality or capabilities
- A constant review of the project’s priorities and scope
- High levels of team efficiency, arising from daily reviews of progress and fresh task allocation
- Short cycles of build-test-fix-stabilize
- Minimal and simple planning, using tools (like Kanban) that promote clear project visibility
- Small, non-hierarchical team structures, with no single authority figure
Ideas about Agile have been around since the 1950s. But a group of software development professionals formalised them in 2001, with The Agile Manifesto. This started the approach of defining it in contrast to the traditional, or waterfall, project management approach.
The Agile Manifesto
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
© The Agile Manifesto Authors, 2001
Agile Covers Many Approaches to Project Management
For a start, Agile is a lean project management methodology, adopting many principles that are entirely compatible with Lean thinking. Likewise, Kanban is also a lean methodology, and has been developed into a project management methodology, that is often claimed by Agile.
But there are also plenty of specific methodologies that come under the Agile umbrella. And some predate the Manifesto:
- Rapid Application Development
- Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
- Extreme Programming (XP)
- Scrum (Currently the most widely used)
- Scrumban (Yep, you guessed it: a hybrid of Scrum and Kanban)
These may differ in detail, but each is well suited to more uncertain and rapidly changing environments. They are designed to handle situations where requirements are less clear at the outset, and outcomes are less critical in terms of implications of failure. Agile project management methodologies offer a ‘fast-fail’ approach, that is ideal for an entrepreneurial mentality.
How Important is Agile Project Management?
We can gauge the rising importance of Agile project management by its inclusion in the 6th Edition of Project Management Institute’s PMBoK, its Project Management Body of Knowledge.
The PMI is the largest Project Management professional member organisation in the world. And it issues the most widely recognised project management qualifications, including its premier PMP: Project Management Professional. And it will become part of the PMP certification exam. The first edition of the PMBoK came out in 1996, and all the way up to the 5th Edition, Agile principles garnered no reference. That’s changed.
And I’d expect other international project management bodies, like the UK’s Association for Project Management (APM) to follow suit.
The True Importance of Agile
But all that is symbolic of the true importance of Agile. Around the world there may be millions of Agile practitioners of one level or another. And they are and have been involved in hundreds of thousands of agile projects.
As a result, corporations are increasingly adopting the principles. But not just for software development projects where they are tried, tested and honed. Often, organisations are attempting to adapt Agile principles to a variety of project types. Some are ill-suited to the informality and lack of discipline. Yet often CIOs and project leaders see this as a silver bullet for addressing past project failings.
In conclusion, therefore, I predict we will see Agile rise, fall, and stabilise. There will be some big failures and some equally big successes. Eventually, though, it will become one part of the ever-increasing project management toolset. And, like any tool, when used properly, in the right place, it will get the job done quickly and safely.
What is Your experience of Agile Project Management?
We’d love to hear your experiences, opinions, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.
Take a look at this video, for an introduction to Agile…
And this video will introduce you to the most widely used Agile methodology, Scrum…