Organizing Flexible Projects
Picture a start-up technology business, where the founders are trying to carve out a sustainable business niche. The sector is changing fast, and they must quickly develop a service that users are prepared to pay for.
This is tricky!
They can only find out so much through market research, so they need to experiment. This means trying a variety of different offerings. Step-by-step, they need to learn from these and try improved offerings until they develop a solution that really works.
You can probably see that many work-related projects – particularly those involving complex, fast-moving situations – resemble this scenario. You can be working towards one deliverable or solving one problem, but then need to change course and revise your plans.
If you're using a traditional project management approach, these revisions will lead to missed deadlines, inflated costs, and increased workloads. And, in a worst-case scenario, you can find that the situation has changed so much during the course of the project that your final product, when it is eventually delivered, is no longer relevant.
Agile Project Management is an approach that helps you deal with these challenges. In this article, we'll describe what Agile is, and we'll explain why it's beneficial.
What is Agile Project Management?
Agile Project Management is built around a flexible approach. Team members work in short bursts on small-scale but functioning releases of a product. They then test each release against customers' needs, instead of aiming for a single final result that is only released at the end of the project.
The end product of an agile project may be very different from the one that was envisaged at the outset. However, because of the checking process, team members can be sure that the product is one that customers want.
This makes Agile Project Management particularly appropriate for new or fast-moving businesses, for those in a fast-changing environment, or for highly complex situations, where managers are "feeling their way forward" to find the optimum business model. It's also helpful with urgent projects that can't wait for a full, traditional project to be set up.
The Origins of Agile
The elements of Agile Project Management have been around for decades. However, two events helped to lay the foundations for the approach.
First, in 1986, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka published an article called "The New New Product Development Game" in the Harvard Business Review. In it, the authors outlined a new way of developing products that resembled a rugby match.
They imagined a project management approach in which, just as on the pitch, team members would achieve their goal by constantly re-evaluating the situation and responding accordingly. Projects would therefore evolve, but would lead to products that met customers' needs more fully as a result.
The second event occurred in 2001, when a group of software and project experts met to discuss what their most successful projects had in common. They created the Agile Project Manifesto, which outlined the values and principles that underpinned Agile Project Management.
Agile Project Management is built on the product development approach of Takeuchi and Nonaka, and incorporates the values and principles outlined in the Agile Project Manifesto.
Agile Versus Traditional Project Management
Let's compare Agile Project Management with traditional project management to show how the approaches differ.
|Agile Project Management||Traditional Project Management|
|Teams are self-directed and are free to accomplish deliverables as they choose, as long as they follow agreed rules.||Teams are typically tightly controlled by a project manager. They work to detailed schedules agreed at the outset.|
|Project requirements are developed within the process as needs and uses emerge. This could mean that the final outcome is different from the one envisaged at the outset.||Project requirements are identified before the project begins. This can sometimes lead to "scope creep," because stakeholders often ask for more than they need, "just in case."|
|User testing and customer feedback happen constantly. It's easy to learn from mistakes, implement feedback, and evolve deliverables. However, the constant testing needed for this is labor-intensive, and it can be difficult to manage if users are not engaged.||User testing and customer feedback take place towards the end of the project, when everything has been designed and implemented. This can mean that problems can emerge after the release, sometimes leading to expensive fixes and even public recalls.|
|Teams constantly assess the scope and direction of their product or project. This means that they can change direction at any time in the process to make sure that their product will meet changing needs. Because of this, however, it can be difficult to write a business case at the outset, because the final outcome is not fully known.||Teams work on a final product that can be delivered some time - often months or years - after the project begins. Sometimes, the end product or project is no longer relevant, because business or customer needs have changed.|
Ultimately, traditional project management is often best in a stable environment, where a defined deliverable is needed for a fixed budget. Agile is often best where the end-product is uncertain, or where the environment is changing fast.
About the Process
Agile Project Management is also different from other project management techniques in the roles and events it uses. We've outlined these below.
"Scrums" and "Sprints"
The heart of Agile Project Management is the "scrum" framework. This uses specific roles, events, meetings, and increments to deliver a usable product, say, every 30 days.
The framework involves three key roles:
1. The product owner is an expert on the product being developed. He or she represents key stakeholders, customers, and end users, and is responsible for prioritizing the project and getting funding.
The product owner describes how people will use the final product, communicates customer needs, and helps the team develop the right product. His or her expertise also helps combat scope creep.
2. The scrum master is responsible for managing the process. This person solves problems, so that the product owner can drive development, and maximize return on investment. The scrum master ensures that each sprint is self-contained, and that it doesn't take on additional objectives.
The scrum master oversees communication, so that stakeholders and team members can easily understand what progress has been made.
3. The team is the group of professionals responsible for turning requirements into functionality. The team should be working on this project and nothing else until its completion.
The team will work on each project via "sprints" – 30-day phases of work which deliver completed, tested, documented, and functioning products at their conclusion.
Each sprint begins with a sprint planning meeting. Here, team members decide what they can deliver within 30 days. They define the goal and assign task responsibilities.
During the sprint, team members focus solely on achieving their defined goal. They will meet every day for a 15-minute meeting to report on progress, to discuss what they will work on that day, and to talk through any challenges that they're facing. These meetings are an essential part of the daily inspection process.
Teams are free to change their approach, based on what works for the specific project.
In Agile Project Management, there are regular opportunities for reporting on progress.
As well as daily scrum meetings, team members meet the product owner and key stakeholders after each sprint to present the sprint deliverable. In this meeting, the group decides together what they should change for the next sprint.
After this, the scrum master (and sometimes the product owner) holds a retrospective meeting, in which they look at the process that they used in the last sprint and decide what they can improve for the next one.
If you're working with a virtual team, make sure that everyone is using the same instant messaging (IM) software to speed communication. Virtual meeting software is essential for daily scrum meetings.
Social media can also be useful for helping team members collaborate between meetings.
Agile Project Management aims to deliver fully working upgrades of a product or process on a regular basis – typically, every 30 days.
It's ideal for software development and other projects where requirements are likely to change during the project – for example, in new or fast-growing businesses or in fast-changing business environments.
Teams are entirely self-managed and have the freedom to change their approach when needed. This flexibility can save costs and ensure that the final product meets customers' needs.