Understanding Agile

This is a guest article by Isidora Roskic.

Learning to successfully manage agile projects requires you to first familiarize yourself with the concept of Agile. What is the agile methodology? Where did it start? What does it truly encompass?

If you know all of the answers then you’re off to a good start! If not then the following will help.


Where it all began

The agile movement first began in the 1970s when it was introduced by a doctor named Winston Royce.

Royce sought out an alternative to the traditional project management approach which was based on an assembly line routine. In fact he believed projects should be managed totally differently.

He believed project teams could respond better to uncertainty if they followed a pattern of incremental work. Today the pattern is known as sprints.

They are extremely useful to project managers using agile methods because they allow all aspects of the project to be reviewed and analyzed to help discover any issues.

The Agile Manifesto helped codify what is important in agile ways of working and share it with a wider community.

However, there are many things you need to keep in mind as a project manager if you choose to follow this approach. Let’s start with three things that make agile projects different from what you might be used to.

#1: Teams

Teams are often self-directed. You need to understand this because you may need to keep a bit more distance than you’re used to. They should be free to accomplish their tasks as they choose as long as they are still following the guidelines and company policies – whatever rules you have in place for getting work done.

This means you don’t need to monitor their every move. Create project objectives and clarify any confusion that may exist, but once that’s done, step back and leave them to it.

Read next: 5 Agile team structures that work

#2: Goals

Agile management doesn’t involve as much upfront planning as other methodologies (such as waterfall) do. It’s very common to develop your project requirements progressively, as needs arise, and as the end users develop their own thinking around the outcomes they expect and need.

As a project manager you will have to recognize how this may impact the final outcome of the project. The end result, after your set of sprints is finished, maybe (is quite likely to be, in many cases) different to what was first envisioned.

However, it is your job to maintain the vision and ensure you are still achieving the project’s objectives, even if the output and deliverables are different to what you thought you’d be building when you started.

#3: Feedback

As a project manager working in an agile environment your focus should not only be on monitoring the overall progress of the project but also on providing all team members with constructive feedback.

Since task performers are given more flexibility with the way in which they complete their work, it’s important to take the time to provide commentary on how they are doing.

Remember that feedback goes both ways. You must also seek out information from customers and other stakeholders to gather opinions about your products, projects. You can do that by taking a customer-centric approach on the project.

It’s crucial that you learn from your mistakes and evolve future deliverables. Since agile project management can be difficult to get to grips with at first, it’s important that you get users involved and engaged as they can be on your side as you test out new ways of doing things. After all, you are all on the same team.

Armed with an understanding of those 3 things, you can get to the heart of the framework.

Joining the scrum

It’s known as the “scrum”. Scrum is one of several Agile frameworks (and the one that we’re focusing on in this article) that uses precise roles, agile ceremonies and meetings, and events to deliver the final product in a specific time frame.

The scrum contains 3 roles: the product owner, the scrum master and the team.

Simply put, the product owner is essentially the stakeholder representative. They prioritize project funding, communicate what the final product should look like and help guide its development.

The scrum master manages this process; they oversee communication, solve problems that may arise and ensure each sprint doesn’t take on any additional, unforeseen objectives.

And lastly, the team is made up of a group of individuals working on short phases of work that deliver products at their completion, known as “sprints”.

If you’re keen to find out more about how Scrum stacks up, read more about how Scrum compares to Kanban and Scrumban as an Agile method.

Read next: Best Agile books for project managers

Making the switch to agile

As a project manager you are probably used to endless streams of information and overwhelming data flows, but it’s understandable if Agile seems a bit beyond the normal. Without a doubt agile project management can be difficult but it doesn’t have to be.

With the help of a strong project management tool, you can master working with agile methodologies in no time. The Digital Project Manager has a good comparison of Agile tools as a starting point.

Of course, software won’t replace the understanding you’ll get from working alongside an experienced scrum master and agile team. That support will help you avoid the pitfalls of implementing agile methods at work.

Training and a supportive work culture where everyone understands what agile is all about will also help you make a success of managing projects in this way.

If agile would not be appropriate for all your teams or all your projects, then consider hybrid project management as a way of blending the best of both worlds.

Project management software like ITM Platform can make this easier by guiding you through the steps to get the work done. Choose a tool that’s designed to support the project management approach you want to use and then even if you aren’t 100% familiar with it, you’ve got some support.

A version of this article first appeared in 2016.