Project Management guide

Agile Methodology Basics

Intro

Agile is a project management concept developed to provide project managers with a more flexible and efficient way to get products to market faster. The meaning of agile is the ability to move quickly and easily. Therefore, an Agile approach enables project teams to adapt faster and easier compared to other project methodologies. 

Many of today’s projects have so many unknowns that a traditional project management methodology cannot adequately handle. This makes it difficult to successfully document requirements and adapt to changes throughout the project. 

This guide will help you understand the Agile methodology basics so that you can understand which projects will benefit from an Agile approach and how to implement one successfully.

What Is Agile Methodology?

Agile methodology is an approach to project management that uses 4 key pillars and 12 principles to organize projects. Here’s an Agile methodology overview for everything you need to know about this approach.

The 4 key pillars of the Agile Manifesto book are designed for valuing:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

To define Agile, the method is based on the concept of ongoing waves or sprints of project planning and execution, enabling you to continuously adapt and mature your plan, scope, and design throughout the project. 

According to the Agile methodology definition, Agile projects require an iterative approach, which supports incremental, frequent, and consistent deliveries of workable products to your customer or client. This innovative approach ensures your project team can consistently deliver concrete products without being delayed by changes and evolving requirements.  

Agile has a high level of customer involvement and includes frequent reviews of progress with both the project team and the customer. 

There are several different frameworks that can be used in order to run an Agile project. Some of the more popular frameworks include:

  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • Extreme Programming
  • DSDM

Here is a video that helps further explain the Agile methodology in under 5 minutes.

The History of Agile Methodology

Depending on the source, the history of Agile methodology can be dated back to the 1990s, 1975, and even as early as the 1960s. However, everyone agrees that Agile really took root with the creation of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, released in 2001. 

The Agile Manifesto was originally created in February 2001 to create a new way of managing software development. This manifesto was the result of a retreat in Utah, where a group of leading software developers met to discuss industry problems and potential solutions. 

This group of individuals understood that the software industry needed a better way to get products to market faster. Their goal was to come up with new methods for product and project changes without significantly impacting the project cost or delaying the production schedule.

It was determined that by dividing a project into shorter iterations that could be simply and rapidly developed and tested, customer reviews could take place and changes could be made without having to wait for the end product. Thus, the Agile methodology for software development was created.

While the Agile Manifesto was originally drafted as a solution for software development management, the Agile methodology has since grown to encompass projects across a variety of industries and businesses. 

The 12 Agile Principles

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development outlines 12 Agile principles that all projects should follow. These are: 

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
    The first principle of Agile methodology states that customers should receive project deliverables or iterations across regular intervals throughout the life of your project, rather than just one product delivery at the end.  
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage. 
    One of the issues the Manifesto authors found with traditional project management is that it was difficult to accommodate last-minute change requests from the customer. This principle ensures that Agile projects have the ability to adapt to any changes, no matter how late in the game, with minimal delay. 
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with preference for the shorter timescale.
    Agile projects plan for frequent, short project timelines that allow for a fast turnaround of workable products. Often, Agile projects will be broken into 1 to 4 week-long sprints or project intervals, each one ending in a product delivery.  
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. 
    This Agile principle states that regular communication with all stakeholders is critical to the project’s success. Commonly, this involves a short daily meeting with both the project team and any other key stakeholders.  
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
    A key concept of the Agile project management methodology is that the right people need to be placed in the right positions and given the autonomy required to do their jobs well. It’s important to design a project team based on capabilities rather than job positions or titles within the company. The focus of the project manager should be on motivating the project team and supporting them, rather than micromanaging them.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. 
    The creators of the Agile Manifesto strongly believe in the importance of co-locating teams and stakeholders whenever possible, as face-to-face communication is more effective than other options, such as email or phone. If your team cannot be co-located, video conferencing is an option that can still capture some of the same value, such as non-verbal cues.   
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
    The emphasis within the Agile methodology is on providing completed, working deliverables. This should always take priority over any supplementary requirements, such as project documentation. Also, other metrics, such as hours spent or time elapsed, are not considered as important as delivering working products. 
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. 
    According to this principle, Agile projects should have a consistent pace for each iterative cycle or sprint within the project. This breakdown should eliminate the need for overtime or crashing schedules while promoting frequent output of workable products. It should also create a repeatable cycle that the team can continuously follow for as long as necessary. 
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
    A primary focus of an Agile project should be on improving the end product and achieving advancements consistently over time. In other words, each iteration should always be an improvement over the previous one, and the team should always be looking for new innovations. 
  10. Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.
    The goal of an Agile project is to get just enough done to successfully complete the requested project and meet the requested specifications. Any additional documentation, steps, processes, or work that does not add value to the customer, or enhance the project outputs, should be avoided or eliminated. 
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
    Agile is based on the belief that motivated, autonomous, and skilled teams are required in order to deliver the best results and products. Teams should be empowered to organize and structure themselves as needed. They should have the freedom to collaborate and innovate as they see fit, without being hampered by too much oversight. 
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. 
    A successful, self-motivated team requires a strong focus on how they can advance their skills and processes to continually grow and improve. The team should have regular reviews on their performance and outcomes, including discussion on how they can improve as they move forward. 


The Benefits of Agile Project Management

The benefits of Agile project management are many, particularly for the following organizations and project types:

  • Any project that evolves over time or does not have clear scope and requirements at the beginning.
  • Organizations that work in a fast-changing environment, such as technology. 
  • Organizations that need to work closely with their customers and other external parties throughout the life of the project.
  • Companies that emphasize process and product improvement and are constantly looking to innovate. 
  • Projects that have a lot of interdependent tasks, where the team needs to work closely together and frequently communicate to ensure success. 
  • Companies that need to create a prototype before building the final project outcome. 
  • Projects that require rapid feedback from stakeholders about each product iteration before moving on to the next version or draft.

Here are the 5 largest benefits of adopting an Agile method:

Continuous customer contact

Traditional project management methods generally only had the project team in touch with the customer at the beginning and end of the project. Which meant that if customer requirements or expectations were not properly captured in the beginning, or changed over time, the project team had no idea until it was too late. With Agile, there’s ongoing contact throughout the entire process and iterative deliveries to ensure your team is on track, so the end product will be exactly what the customer wants.  

The ability to adapt 

What if your customer told you halfway through a project that they needed a scope change? Using a traditional approach to project management, this either couldn’t be accommodated or likely involved significant increases to both the project cost and schedule. With Agile, changes can be incorporated with minimal effort, no matter how far along in the project your team is, as it can easily be added to the next iteration.   

Faster delivery

Agile incorporates a continuous development approach which ensures that your team is constantly delivering workable products. This means that instead of waiting for 6 to 12 months or longer for an end product, your client is getting a working version of the product at much shorter intervals, typically every 2 to 4 weeks. 

Lower project risk

Since your team is developing versions of the product regularly and getting customer feedback early on, the risk of a project failing is minimized. By breaking a large project into iterations, your risk is also reduced to the failure of an iteration or draft only. You’re more likely to find small problems early, that can be addressed easily, rather than discovering a large issue only at the time of final testing before the end delivery. This means less time and money will have been invested by the time a problem is discovered or the project needs to be canceled. 

Ongoing innovation

Agile supports collaboration and continuous improvement, both of which can lead to innovation and the development of new products and features. By co-locating teams and having daily meetings, brainstorming and idea creation is supported. Agile supports an “idea meritocracy” where the best idea wins out, no matter who it comes from. The project team, other stakeholders, and the customer are able to figure out functionality and features together as a team. 

When Not to Use the Agile Project Management Method

Despite the many benefits of Agile, the methodology is not for every project or every organization. But how do you know when not to use the Agile project management method, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of Agile methodology?

Here are 4 times the Agile development methodology isn’t the best option:

The outcome of your project is stable and well understood. 

Agile is intended to help reduce the cost of change and uncertainty on a project by breaking it down into iterative project management stages. However, if there’s already very little uncertainty and a low possibility of change, then Agile may not be the most effective approach. For instance, if you work in an industry with heavy regulations or where many of the project requirements are already known, then you don’t need iterative planning and multiple drafts.   

Your project must produce a repeatable deliverable. 

By definition, a project is “a temporary endeavor with a beginning and an end, and it must be used to create a unique product, service or result.” But, what if a customer asks you to construct 5 identical houses, and you decide to create a separate project and form a project team for each one? Using Agile, this could result in 5 unique houses rather than 5 identical ones. One of the disadvantages of Agile is that it’s not designed for reproducibility. 

Your customer doesn’t want Agile.  

An Agile project requires continuous contact with your end customer. However, some customers may not have the time, ability, or desire to dedicate to a project. If the project is considered low value or low risk, they may prefer a more traditional approach where you only involve them at key phases or final delivery. 

Your company cannot support Agile.  

If your company or project team aren’t ready, trying to adopt the Agile development cycle can introduce risk to your project. 

Here are 5 indicators your company isn’t ready to use Agile:

  1. Agile isn’t well understood. If your team and company don’t have training in Agile or a sound understanding of its principles, practices, and frameworks, then they’re not ready to use it. 
  2. Key stakeholders are resistant. Whether it’s your project sponsor or a key team member, if someone is resisting adopting Agile, then you’ll need to resolve the issue before you can successfully adopt the methodology. 
  3. Your organization cannot support daily collaboration. If there are significant barriers to daily communication and open collaboration between team members, Agile may not be the best approach. 
  4. The company structure cannot support cross-functional teams. On an Agile project, people from many different functions need to meet, communicate, and collaborate throughout the life of the project. If functions are siloed in your company, this might not be realistic.  
  5. Your organization requires heavy documentation. If your company requires extensive documentation and test reports, Agile may be too costly to adopt. One of the 12 Agile principles is based on reducing project reports, requirements traceability matrices, and


Agile vs. Scrum

The Agile method outlines the best practices for organizing projects, based on the 4 values and 12 Agile software development principles documented in the Agile Manifesto. You may have seen comparisons for Scum vs. Agile. The definition of Scrum is “a framework for project management that emphasizes teamwork, accountability and iterative progress toward a well-defined goal.” In other words, Scrum is a framework that you can use to implement these Agile principles, values, and best practices.  

To better understand Agile vs. Scrum, you can think of Scrum as a guideline for how to adopt the Agile approach to project management. Scrum provides the rules, roles, events, tools, and artifacts necessary for successfully adopting an Agile mindset. 

The main difference between Agile and Scrum is: Agile is the process you want to achieve, and Scrum is a tool for its success. Often you will hear Scrum and Agile used interchangeably, as Scrum is the most popular framework for Agile. However, it’s not the only framework you can implement to plan and run an Agile project. 

Agile vs. Waterfall Project Management

Agile methodology project management and waterfall project management are 2 of the more popular methods for organizing projects. When determining how to plan and run your next project, you’ll likely start by comparing Agile vs. waterfall project management to determine which is more suitable. 

Waterfall is a more traditional approach to project management, which involves a linear project flow. It’s best for clearly defined projects which have definitive timelines and well-defined deliverables at the beginning. In other words, if your major project constraints are well understood and documented, waterfall is likely your best option. 

To better understand Agile project management vs. waterfall, the core principles of waterfall include: 

  • Gathering all requirements upfront
  • Completing all work in structured, sequential, pre-defined phases 
  • Conducting testing only after product development or construction is completed

Agile, on the other hand, was created to handle projects where the major constraints are not well understood.

As discussed earlier, the definition of Agile includes an iterative approach to projects and is designed to be flexible. This approach enables you to plan a project in stages or “sprints” so that your plan can mature and evolve as the project progresses and more information is gained. 

When deciding between waterfall project management vs. Agile, it should ultimately come down to the maturity of your end product and how well you understand the project outcomes and requirements in the initiation phase of the project.

Additional Agile Resources

Here are some Agile resources that delve further into the Agile methodology and how to successfully implement it:

blog post

Agile Marketing: Buzzword or Top Strategy for Fast-Paced Marketing Teams?

blog post

How Agile Helps Marketers Overcome Their Top Challenges

blog post

The 4 Pillars of Agile Marketing

article

Agile project management: a mandate for the changing business environment

article

Apply agile methodology to non-software enterprise projects

article

The Agile Project Management Approach