When it comes to managing your work, there are dozens and dozens of project management methodologies to choose from.
But as you begin your research into which methodology is right for you, you’re probably going to see one particular word show up over and over again:
It seems to shimmer in your peripheral vision like some sort of project management mirage. Is it real? Can all the avowed benefits of agile project management really be true? Or is it just a trendy buzzword that promises more than it delivers?
It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of noise around the benefits of agile project management. But what exactly is it? And how do you know if it’s a good fit for your team?
What is agile project management?
First things first, there is no single universal “agile methodology”.
Instead, what you’ll find is that the term “agile project management” covers lots of different agile project management methodologies, all of which draw on some shared agile principles and core values.
So where did they all come from?
A brief history of agile
Most current agile project management methods have their roots in software development. Back in the 1990s, software teams were finding that the highly-structured “heavyweight” traditional project management methodologies (for example, Waterfall) just weren’t cutting it when it came to the way they needed to work.
They were finding that the pitfalls of these heavyweight methods — such as a lack of flexibility, adaptability, and even autonomy — made it more difficult for them to respond to change or incorporate their learnings as they worked. As the project plans were outlined at the outset, there was no room for surprise, and deviations could be costly.
But as opposed to industries where the process was fixed and the outcome was reliable and stable (think: a manufacturing process that creates the same product on an assembly line), change is a fundamental component of software projects.
Maybe stakeholder requirements pivot, or maybe testing reveals that something isn’t working the way it should once an end user gets their hands on it.
Instead of being held captive by the project management plan they outlined at the start, agile project management methods meant that teams could take those changes into consideration to make the best possible product. To do this, they needed shorter development cycles (called sprints), a more iterative process, and continuous feedback and testing.
Then in 2001, a bunch of software developers got together to discuss the core tenets of agile and really drill down into the philosophy behind it. They came up with The Manifesto for Agile Software Development, a collection of values and principles that would be a North Star for teams wondering how to become agile.
The definition of agile project management
If this all sounds very software development focused, don’t worry. Many agile project management methodologies were developed with software in mind, but the core agile values and agile project management principles are useful to many different types of team, from product teams to marketing teams.
Knowing the history of agile project management (or at least the summary of it outlined above) can help to give context some of the terminology and processes that still characterize agile project management, and which we’ll be looking at in more detail shortly when we break down the Agile Manifesto in more detail.
But if you’re just looking for a definition of agile project management now, rather than the backstory of what it used to be, here’s a useful agile project management definition.
Agile project management is a collaborative, iterative project management approach that incorporates continuous testing and responsiveness to change.
Sound good? Let’s circle back to the Agile Manifesto to learn more about the core values and principles you can use to guide any agile project.
The 4 core values of agile
As mentioned above, the earliest agile project management methods focused on software, and the Agile Manifesto was created by software developers. So you’ll see that word, and other related terms like “developers” and “customers”, throughout.
But don’t feel limited by that.
Whether you’re creating software or something totally different (like a marketing campaign), there are lots of takeaways you can apply, no matter what industry you’re working in.
The original Agile Manifesto declares that agile has 4 core 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.
These core values are at the heart of all agile project management approaches, informing everything from standard ways of working to the 12 agile project management principles.
What becomes clear from the core values is that agile approaches are, above all, collaborative and people-driven.
That applies not only to the working processes (progress is made through “individuals and interactions” and “customer collaboration”, putting the human element front and center), but also to the finished products. That is, the goal is to create something functional that delivers the most value to the end user.
The 12 agile project management principles
According to the Agile Manifesto, there are 12 key principles of agile project management. In the manifesto’s own words, they are:
The number one priority is customer satisfaction through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
Welcome changing developments, 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.
When it comes down to it, whether you’re talking about actual software or using it as a metaphor for whatever you’re creating (let’s call it “The Thing”), agile methods encourage you to deliver iterations of “The Thing” quickly and often — because it’s better for “The Thing” to exist in flawed reality than in perfect theory.
Another recurring theme in these principles? Get aligned, stay aligned, and work together. That goes for everyone involved: your own team, the “business people”, other departments, and stakeholders. Agile project management methods rely on a highly collaborative process and strong interpersonal foundations. So as Bill and/or Ted once said: be excellent to each other.
What are the benefits of agile project management?
Agile project management can seem like it’s just a trendy project management methodology du jour, but it’s proven itself to be more than just a flash in the pan.
That’s because the results speak for themselves. Agile project management principles have allowed teams of all types to work more iteratively and flexibly, empowering them to adapt to their project’s shifting requirements and deliver faster.
Here are some of the most commonly-reported benefits of agile project management.
More adaptability (and less risk)
One of the greatest benefits of agile methods is the ability to manage changing priorities. With agile’s iterative approach and emphasis on continuous feedback, you can get the data you need during the development process, not after, allowing the team to make more impactful choices based on actual conditions, not just predicted conditions.
And with designated short sprint cycles, clearer project visibility, and regular reporting updates, teams can improve project predictability and reduce risk.
Greater customer satisfaction
You might remember that customer collaboration is one of the 4 core values of agile project management.
Well, one of the major benefits of this is that with greater customer collaboration comes greater customer satisfaction.
Agile project management methodologies foreground the customer and encourage you to work closely with them, as well as with other stakeholders, to ensure you’re creating something that actually solves their problem.
And because agile projects incorporate regular testing and review with each sprint, you can get their real feedback, in real-time, with each iteration of your working product.
Agile teams are more autonomous. That is, they’re often granted a freedom to suggest new ideas, innovate, and problem-solve that can be lacking in traditional project management methodologies.
With that kind of responsibility, people are trusted to get the job done and encouraged to see themselves as integral team members who can make a tangible difference to the project’s bottom line.
Not only that, but the emphasis on collaboration and communication can help to foster more transparent, efficient, creative — and, yes, happier — teams.
How to become agile
Higher quality outputs, more satisfied customers and users, improved team morale — it can sound too good to be true.
But here’s the thing: agile project management isn’t a magical cure-all that’s going to solve all of your project management ailments. And it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
For agile methods to have this sort of transformative impact, you need support, buy-in, and some truly exceptional people on the team.
So if you’re wondering how to become agile, here’s what you need to bear in mind.
Get the right people on board
Agile project management methodologies rely on hiring great people and empowering them to do their best work. It’s even outlined in the agile core values: people over processes.
That means that you need to focus on recruiting and hiring the right people first and foremost. Find the right people and free their talent to solve problems, not mindlessly follow orders, and you’ll already be halfway there.
And get the right people on board
According to the 13th Annual State of Agile Report, the top three barriers to adopting or scaling agile project management practices are all rooted in organizational culture issues. They are:
Organizational culture at odds with agile values
General organization resistance to change
Inadequate management support and sponsorship
For agile to work, you need to get buy-in and commitment from everyone — including leadership. Survey respondents praised internal agile coaches, executive sponsorship, company-provided training programs, consistent practices and processes across teams, and implementation of a common tool across teams as the top 5 tips when it came to rolling out agile project management methods across the company.
Get a certification
There’s a common misconception that agile is just an “anything goes” free-for-all — but that’s absolutely not the case. Agile isn’t the absence of methodology; it’s a type of framework in itself.
If you’re committed to agile project management, you can always invest in getting an agile project management certification to learn more about the agile values and principles and get a great insight into how they can work for your team.
Use the right project management tools
Not only is the implementation of a common tool across teams one of the top 5 ways to scale your agile practices, it’s also essential for helping your team to become agile in the first place.
Look for a flexible project management tool that supports your way of working, rather than dictating it. Teamwork has everything you need to give everyone on your team the visibility, flexibility, and collaboration they need to keep work moving forward, whether you favor Scrum or kanban boards — and when it’s time to scale, it can scale right along with you.
Agile vs Scrum: what’s the difference?
We’ve already mentioned how many types of agile project management there are (answer: just so many), but of those many agile methodologies, there’s one in particular you might want to brush up on.
Scrum is undoubtedly one of the most popular agile methodologies used today, with a whopping 72% of respondents to the most recent State of Agile Report saying they use “Scrum or a hybrid that includes Scrum”.
Like other agile project management methodologies, Scrum abides by the main agile values and principles (iterations, responsiveness to change, all that good stuff discussed above).
However, there are a few Scrum-specific terms and processes you need to know if you’re thinking about implementing agile project management with Scrum.
Agile project management with Scrum
There are three main roles on a Scrum team:
The person responsible for maximizing the value of the work completed by the Development Team. One way they do this is by managing the Backlog.
A small group of people who are ultimately working on The Thing. The team has a flat hierarchy and it’s self-organizing; once the goals are set, team members are free to tackle them however they choose.
Works to facilitate and support the Scrum process across the Product Owner, the Development Team, and importantly, the organization at large.
Here’s a rough overview of how it works:
Everything that the team needs to do (for example, everything that’s needed in a product) is listed out in a Backlog and ranked in order of priority by the Product Owner. The Product Owner’s job is to optimize the Development Team’s work by ensuring the Backlog is the best Backlog it can be (i.e. clear, accessible and organized for success).
Scrum uses sprints of a fixed duration (usually a few weeks, always less than a month). Each sprint has a predefined Sprint Goal. Items from the Backlog are identified and worked on as part of each Sprint.
Before a Sprint can happen, you need to do some Sprint Planning to figure out what your Sprint Goal will be and how you’re going to accomplish it.
Once the Sprint is underway, the Development Team has a short daily standup — called a Daily Scrum — to report on the previous day’s progress, what they’ll be focusing on today, and any risks they’ve identified.
At the end of each Sprint, the team holds a Sprint Review (sort of like a Sprint-specific post-mortem meeting) to assess their performance and inform the next round of Sprint Planning.
Iterate, iterate, iterate.
Which agile methodology is right for me?
If you’re still trying to decide which methodology you should go with — agile vs Scrum vs Kanban vs Scrumban vs some other hybrid? — remember that you can start by borrowing the principles and processes that make sense for you and your team.