With rapidly changing business environments companies need to respond quickly, and react positively, to change. Very often the expectations and requirements are unclear at the start of a project and many projects need to evolve and change from the initial concept as they move forwards if they are to deliver what the client wants.
So in this sort of uncertain business landscape how can projects satisfy the client and deliver business benefits but still control costs, schedules and scope?
This is where agile project management comes in; agile is an approach to project management for which there are a number of methodologies such as Scrum and Lean. It is an approach aimed at producing frequent deliverables that can help clarify business needs as a project proceeds so that there is an iterative learning process. It ensures that client expectations will be met because it actively embraces change to meet those expectations.
But an iterative approach is not new and not exclusive to agile project management methods so what else does an agile project have that makes it suitable for evolving needs and active change?
Core Agile Project Management Characteristics
- Establishing and meeting client requirements uses a frequent iterative process.
- The planning process is also iterative on a frequent basis i.e. a few weeks.
- Relationships are built between the clients and stakeholders and the team members delivering the work.
- Scope is adaptable and can evolve during the project’s life but not without controls in place and only to realise business benefits for the client.
- The project manager on an agile project, if there even is someone with that title, takes a supervisory role assisting the team in delivering the work by dealing with problems and handling interruptions. The PM may be termed the Scrum Master or Project Facilitator and does make decisions but only as another member of the team.
- The project team is jointly responsible for decision making and hence for the success or failure of the project.
- Solid processes and procedures are in place to ensure the project stays on track to deliver benefits and that the team do indeed work as a team since team effort is essential to an agile project’s success.
I haven’t mentioned the “F” word yet – flexibility – don’t confuse being agile with being totally flexible; documentation is still required as are regular reviews and updates to the documentation but agile does not expect huge documents that dot every “i” and cross every “t” before work begins. Equally having a flexible scope is, or should be, quite distinct from scope creep where scope changes in an uncontrolled way even when no business benefits can be demonstrated.
Agile project management focuses on continuous improvement through close collaboration and effective communication between the project team, client and stakeholders; through scope flexibility and plan flexibility, team input, and delivering benefits to the client. So far, perhaps not so very different to any project.
But where agile differs is that it places much more emphasis on the people and those collaborative relationships both within the project team and without, than on formal (some would say rigid) processes without abandoning formal processes altogether. It also emphasises a working deliverable – something tangible for the client – rather than detailed documentation saying what will be delivered but still has good documentation. So it will have a vision statement describing the aims of the project, a list of what is in scope and an outline of the requirements as well as a broad timeframe. And, of course, it responds positively to change rather than trying to stick closely to a plan or set of requirements while still monitoring and controlling that change.
There are 12 Agile Principles that support project teams in implementing an agile approach, including:
- Establish a relatively short period of time in which certain work will be completed and delivered; this could be anything from a week to a month and is known as a sprint.
- The main measure of project progress is a series of working deliverables.
- Project team and clients should work together every day and communicate face-to-face.
- Teams are self-organising and comprise of motivated individuals who regularly assess how they could be more effective.
All projects, whether agile or more traditional, have different stages during their lifecycle and many are common to all project management methodologies. The difference on an agile project is that these phases tend to be shorter and repeated more often. They include standard project phases such as project planning but also agile-specific stages such as:
- Sprint: A relatively short period of time during which the team creates a working deliverable, although not necessarily a final deliverable. At the start of each sprint the team agree with the client and stakeholders what can be delivered in a certain timeframe and fix the end date.
- Short Daily Meetings: A brief update on what has been achieved, what will be done that day and any problems that have been encountered.
- Review Meetings: At the end of each sprint as assessment of what has been achieved, what needs to be modified and how it can be changed.
Of course, there is uncertainty in this method because work is started before the extent of that work is fully understood but by producing staged deliverables quickly the team can respond quickly to the feedback to offset this uncertainty.
Agile methods lead to a more collaborative relationship between the client and the project team; the team tends to become better motivated, and therefore more effective, because they are more involved and understand what they are doing and why. But it’s not just about the team’s motivation and performance; it’s also about their core competencies
There has been increasing acceptance in all industries that an agile method has a role to play in project management but it is not the panacea for all ills. Without some formal structure and control agile projects can meander towards an increasingly unattainable goal; the collaboration and commitment expected of the client for agile projects to work is not always forthcoming, resources are not well-managed and risks not identified.
However, the sheer pace of business in the 21st century requires an adaptable approach to project delivery although excessive costs and serious risks cannot be eliminated any easier with agile project management than they can with a traditional approach.
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