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Agile Project Management: Taking Your First Steps

If you’re involved with getting things done for clients in any capacity, you’ve probably heard of Agile. It’s a silver bullet, perfect way of delivering faster and with less bureaucracy, right? Well, not exactly, although it is a smart way of working for the right teams.

In this article we’ll look at what agile is and what it can do for you.

What is Agile?

Agile is an iterative way of getting things done. It’s an approach that emphasizes:

  • Incremental delivery
  • Team collaboration
  • Continual planning
  • Continual improvement

Agile focuses on small, incremental feature releases instead of a ‘big bang’ go live. Agile is perfect for teams that need to make changes regularly and are working on a product that is constantly evolving.

Agile has its roots in software development, but is now used in many industries for all kinds of projects.

There are different ‘flavors’ of agile including Scrum, Kanban, DSDM and others. They all share common principles and values, but they are implemented slightly differently depending on the needs of the team and the organization, and the scale of the work.

Benefits of Agile project methodology

Faster, incremental delivery and a close working relationship with the client via the Product Owner? You can already see the benefits for your team. Here are some more reasons to make the switch to Agile.

It connects client’s goals with what’s possible

Have you ever had a client who has asked for everything, studded with diamonds and delivered by tomorrow? When clients are embedded in an Agile team and see the work involved, they understand the effort – and you don’t even have to tell them. Clients can come to the iteration review and see the progress the team is making.

It minimizes the impact of change

Customers change their mind – all experienced project managers will tell you that the original scope is very rarely what is finally delivered. However, the impact of a change can be substantial if it is made late in a project using waterfall methods. All that goes away with agile.

The Product Owner decides on the priorities, iteration by iteration. Changes can be made at any point with the full understanding of what that means to the timeline and cost. Plus, as customers are involved in feature reviews and seeing the product at regular intervals, they can provide real-time feedback so you hear about changes earlier.

It builds long-term relationships with clients

Agile relies on close working relationships in the teams. Agile teams are built on trust: decisions are devolved to the experts who can best make them. That brings the client into your ecosystem. You learn more about their business and their values. They learn more about your business.

And you can demonstrate real value to them through incremental delivery. They get usable features faster because they don’t have to wait for a ‘big bang’ launch. That alone can set you apart from other suppliers.

Key Roles in an Agile Team

Agile approaches offer a huge degree of flexibility. Back in the early days of the agile movement, teams were co-located and made up of a multi-functional group who could do everything required between them. Today, as organizations scale their agile ways of working, the perfect agile team for you is as unique as your organization. That includes remote and off-shore workers.

However, there are some common team roles that you will find in Agile teams.

Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is an individual expert in using Scrum. They help the team understand the theory behind the method, the ceremonies and the values. They are the guardian of the process and they coach the team in how to be more efficient using best practices.

The Scrum Master is a role specific to Scrum but you may find someone taking a similar role in places using other agile frameworks: a mentor and coach to ensure the methods are implemented appropriately.

Product Owner

The Product Owner is the person who will be using the output of the project – the person you are working for. They define the requirements which are held in the product backlog. They are responsible for choosing what is important for the team to work on from the backlog and set the priorities for development. They represent the customer’s perspective and work with other stakeholders to ensure the end result is fit for purpose.

Development team

These are the people who do the work! The team could be multi-functional (where everyone can do every role) or specialist (made up of individuals with expertise in different topics e.g. programmers, technical writers, quality analysts, UX experts, testers etc).

A ‘developer’ doesn’t have to be an IT person. It simply means ‘person with the right skills to do the project tasks’.

Agile Ceremonies and Processes

The recurring meetings of Agile are called ‘ceremonies’. The main ceremonies are as follows.

Sprint planning

Agile is a fundamentally iterative way of working. Features are developed in a time-boxed way. A sprint is a specific amount of time where the team works together to deliver a set amount of work. Sprint planning is a meeting where you decide what work is going to happen in the next period. The work is defined in ‘stories’ which represent pieces of the finished product.

Technically, ‘sprint’ is a term specific to Scrum, but many other agile ways of working will do something similar to plan the work for the next iteration.

The daily stand up meeting

You might be familiar with the idea of a daily stand up meeting. It’s a fast way to get the team together to discuss what has been completed, what is being worked on that day and what is blocking progress. The meeting is a quick get together, and people really do stand up! The act of standing helps keep the meeting short.

Iteration review

At the end of the sprint/iteration, the team meets for an hour or so to review what was done. This is the time to demo the deliverables to the product owner and get feedback on what has been built so far.

Retrospective

Retrospectives are kind of like the ‘lessons learned’ meetings you’ll find in more predictive project approaches. They are a time for the team to come together to discuss what is working with the methods they are using and how they could be more effective. It’s not about the deliverables, but the way the team is functioning as a whole. Part of the ethos of agile is continuous improvement, so it’s common for teams to switch up how they are working during a project to be more effective, based on feedback from the retrospective.

Beyond Agile: Hybrid and Blended Project Management

Agile methods work well for many teams, but the shift to being agile ‘by the book’ is a big cultural change for organizations and clients. An emerging trend is hybrid project management.

Hybrid, or blended project management, takes the best of both worlds. You have the speed and customer focus of agile with time-boxed, incremental deliveries, and the structure of a more traditional project life cycle.

If you want your development teams to adapt agile best practices but the rest of the organization isn’t yet ready to follow, then hybrid gives you all of the benefits without confusing clients.

Upland PowerSteering supports both agile and predictive ways of working, making it the perfect choice for teams using both.

Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Hybrid: the differences

Waterfall (sequential) methods of delivery rely on the ‘big bang’ approach where the customer doesn’t get to see the end result until the product is delivered.
Hybrid approaches take a blend of both. The overall timeline for the project is determined by a waterfall life cycle, but the ‘doing’ part of the work uses agile techniques to iteratively deliver the end result.

Cheat Sheet: Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Hybrid

Agile Waterfall Hybrid
Team’s direction Set by Product Owner Set by Project Sponsor Set by Project Sponsor
Requirements Not clear at outset Clear at outset Clear but complex or
not clear at outset
Team structure Small, self-
contained; resources
switch roles as needed
Any size; resources
have specialist roles,
led by Project
Manager
Mid-sized to large
teams; some
resources sometimes
switch roles if
required
Scheduling Time-boxed
iterations
Based on project
phases and a
structured life cycle:
Initiation, Planning,
Execution, Close
Overall project
timeline follows a life
cycle with time-
boxed iterations for
execution
Managing change Change can be done
at any time
Changes can be done
at any time but late
in the project can be
costly due to the
rework involved
Changes can be done
at any time
Progress meetings Daily stand up Weekly status
meeting
Daily stand up and
status meetings as
determined by the
team
Reporting Focus is on hours
completed/hours to
complete. Tracked
via burndown/
burnup charts
Focus is on percent
complete of tasks
Focus is on percent
complete overall
with development
team using agile
tracking methods as
well
Delivery Working features
delivered at the end
of each iteration
Working features
delivered at the end
of the project
Working features
delivered at the end
of each iteration

 

Getting Started with Agile

Now that you understand what Agile approaches could do for your team and clients, how do you get started?

Here are some first steps in making the move to Agile ways of working.

  1. If your team is used to working with waterfall and predictive methods, check out the Disciplined Agile resources from PMI. There is a toolkit of layered resources to meet you where you are.
  2. If you work in software development, the resources from the Agile Alliance will support you in getting started.
  3. Download the official Scrum guide, available to download in over 30 languages to review whether Scrum is a good fit for you.
  4. Check the tools you have to see if they can support agile ways of working. A robust project management or PPM tool that can synchronize data from Jira, including sprints, stories, epics, and backlog, alongside waterfall data points, offer the most flexibility by giving single source visibility into the performance of all your projects.

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