Agile project management: What is it and where to start?

In this article, Dan breaks down what Agile project management is, the key benefits, and how you can start using it in your business.
Written by
Daniel Dovaston
Published on
May 16, 2024
Agile project management: What is it and where to start?

Over the past 20 years agile has become a key approach in project management and software delivery, significantly transforming how projects are handled. The state of agile report found that adopting a strong agile culture can increases commercial performance by 277%.

But what is Agile project management, and how can you start utilising it?  

This article aims to answer these questions by giving a clear explanation of Agile and a concise guide on how to implement it successfully.

What is Agile Project Management?

Agile is a term frequently used in project management and software delivery circles. It’s just one of several methodologies, but what sets Agile apart is its commitment to rapid, iterative delivery, designed to adapt quickly to an ever-changing environment.

Agile's focus on adaptability and regular feedback loops makes it a good choice for projects with unknown details, large timelines, or a high risk of unknown changes.

In such dynamic environments, where requirements may evolve over time or be subject to frequent changes, traditional project management approaches can struggle to keep pace.

Agile methodologies offer a more flexible and iterative approach, allowing teams to adjust course as needed based on emerging insights and changing priorities. This ability to embrace uncertainty and respond effectively to change is a key advantage of Agile, enabling teams to deliver value more efficiently and effectively.

In simplified terms, Agile involves prioritising a piece of work, delivering it, seeking and reviewing stakeholder and user feedback, and then iterating based on the feedback.

This cycle is repeated over and over until the product reaches a satisfactory stage of completion. However, it's worth noting that, in Agile philosophy, a product is arguably never ‘complete’. As long as there's a product, a product backlog will (or should) exist, and Agile methods will be applied to manage it.

Where does Scrum come into it?

Scrum is a lightweight framework within Agile that provides a structured outline for teams to work collaboratively on complex projects.  

It emphasises the iterative and incremental delivery of products, with regular opportunities for inspection and adaptation.  

Scrum divides work into short time frames called sprints, typically ranging from one to four weeks, during which the team focuses on completing a set of prioritised tasks. At the end of each sprint, there is a sprint review where the team demonstrates the work completed, receives stakeholder and if possible, user feedback, and adjusts their plans accordingly.  

Scrum also includes key roles such as the Product Owner, who represents the stakeholders and prioritises the work, the Scrum Master, who facilitates the team and ensures adherence to the Scrum framework, and the Development Team, who are responsible for delivering the work.

Overall, Scrum provides a flexible and collaborative approach to managing complex development projects, allowing teams to respond quickly to changing requirements and deliver value iteratively (Atlassian, 2023).

An diagram showing the differences between the waterfall project management model and the agile project management model.
Agile v Waterfall model

The graphic above demonstrates the contrast Agile with more traditional forms of project management, which generally progresses linearly. Moving through the planning, designing, implementation, and closing stages is only possible after each previous stage is complete. The Agile approach is more fluid and capable of adapting to the ever-changing needs of fast-paced modern businesses.

Agile Manifesto

The Agile manifesto was born out of frustration in 2001 when a group of software developers and managers noticed a significant delay between project creation and software release, rendering the software outdated upon launch due to rapid environmental changes. To address this issue, they collaborated and brainstormed solutions, leading to the creation of the Agile Manifesto.

The manifesto is built on four core principles:

  1. Prioritising individuals and interactions over processes and tools, highlighting the importance of people in achieving project success.
  1. Preferring working software over comprehensive documentation, emphasising the value of tangible progress and iterative development.
  1. Prioritising customer collaboration over contract negotiation, stressing the significance of ongoing communication and visibility with stakeholders.
  1. Favouring responding to change over following a rigid plan, recognising the necessity of adaptation in dynamic project environments.

These principles are the foundation of Agile project management, promoting flexibility, collaboration, and adaptability to drive successful project outcomes.

Where to Start with Agile?

Whether you're improving an established product or creating a new Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or Minimal Marketable Product (MMP) that you can take to market, Agile project management can be a beneficial approach.

To decide if Agile is suitable for your project, ask yourself two critical questions:  

  1. Do I have a specific goal or business need?  
  1. What is the project's priority?

Specific Goal or Business need

To answer this question effectively, you need to determine whether there is a clear, defined goal or business need driving the project. This could be anything from launching a new product or service, improving efficiency in a particular process, addressing a specific customer pain point, or achieving a strategic business objective. By identifying and understanding this specific goal or business need, you can better align your project objectives to ensure a successful outcomes.

Setting Your Priorities and Tolerances

Project priorities typically fall into four categories: budget, timeline, scope, and quality.

  1. Budget - Establish financial boundaries to control project expenditures.
  1. Timeline - Limit the project duration to manage time effectively.
  1. Scope - Determine project boundaries to manage deliverables and expectations.
  1. Quality - Define acceptable quality levels to meet project requirements.

These priorities are set based on three levels of flexibility: "Can Flex", "Some Flex", and "Can't Flex". They are set at the start of the project and are made clear for all project stakeholder, both internal and external sponsors.  

We prioritise setting the tolerances during the kick off meeting, the image below shows how it can be displayed for all to see and importantly refer back to:  

An image of a priorities matrix. The far left column shows Budget, Timeline, Scope and Quality. The top headings show Can Flex, Some Flex and Can't Flex. Bars with a circle show how each of the left column elements are ranked in their ability to flex.
Example of a priorities matrix

Once you've answered these questions and set your priorities, the next step is to coordinate a project team. This step is crucial as the team must comprise individuals with the skills required to deliver your project goal.

Agile: Not a Binary Choice

Understanding the application of Agile in project management is nuanced and not a simple binary decision. It's about finding the right balance that aligns with your specific business requirements and the nature of the project itself. This means considering how Agile principles can complement existing business practices or be integrated in a hybrid approach.

Research shows that blending Agile with traditional project management approaches can yield significant benefits. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey, organisations that adopt Agile practices experience a 30% increase in project success rates compared to those that solely rely on traditional methods (McKinsey, 2021). This statistic underscores the value of incorporating Agile principles into existing frameworks.

In real-world scenarios, projects often face constraints in various dimensions such as budget, timeline, scope, and quality. While Agile offers flexibility in certain aspects, there may be constraints that cannot be easily adjusted. For instance, if budget and timeline are fixed due to contractual obligations or external factors, Agile may need to be tailored to accommodate these constraints while still leveraging its iterative approach for managing scope and quality.

One approach to blending Agile with traditional methods involves leveraging the strengths of both methodologies.

For example, you can adopt a phased approach where initial project planning and requirements gathering follow a traditional waterfall model, while subsequent development and testing phases are executed using Agile sprints. This allows for a structured framework in the initial stages while enabling flexibility and responsiveness during implementation.

By understanding the nuances of Agile implementation and considering how it can be integrated with traditional approaches, stakeholders can make informed decisions that maximise project success. This approach acknowledges the diverse needs of projects and the importance of adapting methodologies to suit specific contexts and objectives.

Conclusion

Agile project management offers an adaptive, iterative approach to delivering projects, particularly beneficial in an ever-changing environment. Starting with Agile involves understanding your project's goals and priorities, assembling the right team, and determining to what degree Agile aligns with your project.

Remember, Agile is not a hard and fast rule but a flexible approach that can be tailored to fit your project's unique needs. It's a compass, not a map, guiding you towards your project goals while offering the flexibility to navigate any unexpected changes in the landscape.

Adopting these methods helped us create the UK's first fintech platform designed to close the investment gap and they could help your business to.

If you're interested in implementing Agile project management but unsure where to start? Get in touch and start your journey today.

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