What is Agile Project Management? A Basic Guide

Agile project management is an approach to product development based on iteration, or on taking incremental steps, to create and improve a design. In agile methods of project management, teams divide a project into sprints. These are roughly two-week periods at the end of which, ideally, the team delivers some functional product. 

The development team releases a deliverable to a stakeholder at the end of the sprint, be it internal functions or external customers. Team members then receive feedback from stakeholders, and then they incorporate this feedback into future iterations of the product or solution. 

Rather than managing to a fixed specification, agile methodologies of project management leave the final version of the product open. Agile teams are focused on customers and their feedback rather than on some preconceived notion of a product, created internally. 

Agile Project Management Diagram
Agile Project Management Diagram

What is Scrum/Agile project management?

Scrum is an agile framework often used in software development projects. It is one way of implementing the agile approach in project teams. Whereas the Agile Manifesto issued a set of principles for software development, the Scrum Guide (2010, edited 2020) provides steps, explains the process, and defines roles for implementing agile principles.

These roles include:

  • Developers: Team members involved in the agile software development process during each Sprint.
  • Product Owner: Manager responsible for prioritizing the product backlog; accountable for representing the product, the end-user, and all stakeholders throughout the product lifecycle. The product owner also oversees the product roadmap.
  • Scrum Master: Responsible for aligning the team according to the framework in the Scrum Guide, and keeping it on track per Scrum principles.

Scrum teams also use standup meetings to improve collaboration and keep the team on the same page. These are 15-minute meetings where the team, the product owners, and scrum masters use agile planning to strategize how to meet the goals of the sprint and of the development cycle.

What is the difference between an Agile Project Manager and a Scrum Master?

The Scrum Master’s role…

  • Focused set of responsibilities to ensure that the ceremonies and deliverables are following Agile best practices.

The Agile Project Manager’s role…

  • Bridges Agile and standard milestone project management
  • Focus on budgets, schedules, and managing other resources outside the team
  • Manages dependencies
  • Links projects to the Project Management Office (PMO)

They can co-exist or you can have one or the other exclusively

Why agile project management?

Agile project management allows teams to adapt and change. In contrast to traditional project management, such as the waterfall method, agile project management does not depend on a static product plan that is created using a fixed data set, established at the beginning of a project. 

For example, depending on the length of the development project, the customer research a team conducted may no longer be the best data by the time the product comes to market. The information derived from that data has changed, while the team is in the midst of its workflow, but the team did not change with it.

Thus agile project management is a problem solving methodology. It sees the product development process as a long series of customer problems to be solved. The final product emerges from the activity of the team, as it responds dynamically to stakeholder feedback. 

In this approach, project planning is not a one time activity. Agile planning is an adaptive response to shifting conditions, always keeping quality and customer value as the compass that indicates the team’s direction.  

When do you use agile project management?

Agile project management is most useful in any industry or product category where changes occur at a high rate of speed. Since agile project management is oriented toward creating customer value, it is useful within any industry. However, large scale enterprises may need to adapt the simpler models, such as the Kanban Board or sprints, to apply to their more complex product development environments.

Companies can and do select practices from the agile project management domain, be they burndown charts, user stories, story points, Kanban Boards, standup meetings, or other tools that they adapt and apply to their organizations. 

There are thus, no fixed conditions in which it is predictable that agile project management tools will work or not work. However, agile consulting can help bring experience and knowledge to the table.

What is agile methodology for project management?

There are a number of methodologies used to make agile principles actionable. Scrum, described above, is one of these frameworks. Kanban and SAFe are other frameworks.

Kanban is a lean production methodology, which means that it centers around 1) creating customer value, and 2) eliminating non-value-added activities. The Kanban board is the main tool of this methodology. 

The Kanban board visualizes the tasks that need to be done divided into three categories: 1) To-Do, 2) Work in Progress, and 3) Done. At a glance, all stakeholders can see the status of all relevant tasks. Kanban may use metrics such as team velocity and cycle time, defined as the average time to complete a given task. 

Scaled Agile Framework (known as SAFe) is another agile project management methodology. It is mostly used in larger organizations, where breaking down complex initiatives into tasks, and then into sprints or Scrums, is difficult. SAFe essentially involves a “Scrum of Scrums” or a “team of teams” working in a separate but collaborative way to yield a new product.

There are other frameworks such as Lean Product Development that are closely allied with agile and have many of the same characteristics and goals. The beauty of agile is that, contrary to popular belief, it is not a dogmatic process model but a flexible set of principles. Companies can and do select certain practices from agile and its related frameworks that work best for their industry or products: from developing apps to developing large, tangible products. 

What do you do at the end of each iteration?

At the end of an iteration teams often conduct a sprint retrospective also known as a sprint review. They identify what went right and what went wrong, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Retrospectives are a powerful way for self-organizing teams to move toward continuous improvement. 

Teams may also perform sprint planning, incorporating user feedback, while looking toward the goals of the next sprint. This iterative approach, ending and then beginning again, is an essential element of agile processes.  

What are the five agile project management model phases?

The five phases of agile project management were published in 2004 by Jim Highsmith. They were a variation, tailored to agile management, of the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Book of Knowledge.

The five phases of agile project management include:

1. Envision: A team conceives of a product; identifies the principal stakeholders; discusses the project’s goals; and begins to research customer requirements.

2. Speculate: The team creates a list of features and breaks down the project into its critical tasks. 

3. Explore & Execute: The development team then discusses the means of delivering a high quality product; they focus on a project delivery that meets user needs. They then get to work, often creating a series of prototypes that are put in front of customers. 

4. Adapt: In agile project management, the ability to adapt is crucial. Teams are not managing to a fixed plan, but respond, throughout the development cycle to how they can deliver on user stories. They incorporate feedback in an iterative fashion.

5. Close: In this phase, the teams create a deliverable that meets their current understanding of customer needs and requirements. They might conduct a review to improve their process or execution in the future. 

What software enables agile project management?

There are numerous software tools that claim to help teams with agile project management. According to TechRepublic, the following tools are the five leading agile project management tools in 2022:

ClickUp

This package offers many tools such as sprint workflow automation. It allows teams to automate sprint assignments based on workload. ClickUp also offers a simple way to manage bug and issue tracking. It enables teams to identify bugs, transform them into tasks, and then assign these tasks to team members. ClickUp also features customizable reports and dashboards. Also, teams can start out of the gate quickly with ClickUp because there are pre-set project management templates they can use to get started quickly. 

Monday work management

Monday work management from monday.com includes agile project management tools like a Gantt chart creator, sprint planning, and real-time reporting. Monday work management is easily customizable; you can tailor it to your company’s immediate needs. It accommodates a number of agile frameworks including Scrum, Kanban and others.

VivifyScrum

VivifyScrum is an agile-specific tool. It is an easily accessible web-based platform.  VivifyScrum accommodates Scrum and Kanban. With this tool, agile teams can establish sprint goals and then define tasks associated with each. VivifyScrum also includes reports, and tools for invoicing, time management, and team management. Paid accounts receive free training.

Jira

Atlassian’s Jira is one of the best-known leading project management tools. It is mainly used by software development teams. Jira enables sprint planning, and helps to make daily standup meetings more fruitful and efficient, through reports and custom dashboards. Jira has custom features for companies using both Scrum and Kanban methodologies.

Asana

Asana is used by teams which are utilizing the Kanban framework. Asana offers pre-set, digital Kanban boards and has the ability to automate workflows. This tool also enables a number of other typical processes within agile such as bug tracking, sprint plans, capturing user feedback, and managing launches.

Tips to succeed with agile project management

Agile project management checklist
Agile Project Management Checklist
  1. Agile is cultural; it may take a while to sink in.
    Agile is a cultural change which involves a shift from a command and control style of management to another approach. Even with training, it may be difficult to move managers off of their waterfall methods. Remember to use your change management toolkit to enable agile throughout your teams. 
  2. Make sure you train your people.
    Training cannot be overestimated. Agile project management is based on a set of principles so make sure the teams understand these principles and how you plan to apply them. Prepare your people, train them well, and make sure that you hone and maintain these skills. Continuous improvement is a part of agile.
  3. Choose the frameworks or tools that are right for your company.
    Some people think that agile is all or nothing. It’s not. You can review the principles and practices of agile and its frameworks and select what works for you. You don’t have to use Kanban boards. You don’t have to use sprint retrospectives. Don’t be afraid to use trial and error to find what works. And don’t punish failure. That’s not agile.
  4. Don’t get hung up on methodology.
    Agile is, above all, a set of principles. It is not a fixed toolbox or a rigid set of processes. Too many companies get lost in the details of such helpful tools as the Scrum Guide and forget what they’re doing which is making their organizations more adaptable, flexible, transparent, and customer-focused. Don’t lose the forest in the trees.
  5. Focus on customers.
    Agile practices are focused on customer value. For example, the product owner in Scrum methodology is all about representing customers and other stakeholders to the development team. The point of agile is not just to get to the end quickly, but to take the time to iterate and incorporate customer feedback into the product. Agile is not just for you – it’s for your customers. It’s about creating value and quality that end users will notice.