Originally designed to be applied in software development, the Agile philosophy has since become popular across all industries. Companies use it to manage marketing campaigns, develop new products, plan events, and implement new work processes into their businesses. So much so, that this mindset is widely used by teams that need to be more flexible and responsive to changing requirements.
Agile project management is a philosophy whereby short development cycles are used during a project’s life cycle to ensure continuous value is delivered, and that services or products are improved on throughout the whole process. Its key focuses are on self-organizing teams, collaboration and shared responsibilities.
In this article, we will explain how Agile projects are managed, what the key responsibilities of an Agile project manager are, and where you can learn Agile project management skills.
History of Agile
In traditional project management, each project is usually divided into five stages: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure. It implies a linear progression from one stage to another, and it relies on careful preparation and detailed documentation.
This approach works well where project specifications are clear from the very beginning, and not many changes are expected.
However, back in the 1990s, business leaders in the tech and software development industry felt that this approach slowed their teams down, and made it hard for them to adjust to evolving requirements or changing priorities. In the end, they came to the conclusion that they needed a more flexible and iterative approach to project management.
In 2001, a group of software developers — advocates of several alternative approaches — met to share their ideas and to find common ground. Together they created the Agile Manifesto — a document that outlines the main principles of a new iterative and people-centric approach to software development.
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
So, how have these values impacted the way individuals manage projects? Read on to find out!
How Are Agile Projects Managed?
In Agile, each project is divided into groups of tasks that will be completed in short ‘iterations’. During each ‘iteration’, teams go through these phases; planning, executing, testing and evaluating.
Agile teams release project segments frequently, they ensure that they are successful, and fix any flaws, if needed.
This approach also involves continuous collaboration with stakeholders, incorporating customer’s feedback into the work and looking for ways to improve the work at every stage.
According to the 15th State of Agile Report, the most important reasons for implementing Agile processes are:
- To enhance the ability to manage changing priorities
- To accelerate software delivery
- To increase team productivity
- To improve business and IT alignment
- To enhance software quality
Teams can use many different methods to implement Agile. Here is a brief overview of five popular frameworks.
Scrum is built around the idea that small cross-functional teams, that are led by a Scrum master, work together to complete tasks during short cycles called ‘sprints’.
An essential part of Scrum is daily meetings, and this is where team members discuss current tasks. After each sprint, there is also a retrospective meeting to evaluate the work done and to plan the next cycle.
Kanban focuses on streamlining processes and preventing tasks from being stuck or delayed.
Teams visualize the project on a Kanban board, which is a large board that is typically divided into several columns. Each column represents a different stage of workflow: ‘to do’, ‘in progress’, ‘in review’ and ‘complete’, for example.
Tasks are placed in column one and are moved through the columns until they reach the ‘complete’ column. It is a simple but very effective visual method to track project progress, and you can match the work to a team’s size.
Extreme Programming or XP
Extreme Programming takes elements of traditional software engineering practices to "extreme" levels — that is where its name comes from.
XP practices include simple design, pair programming, constant testing, ongoing integration, refactoring, coding standards and small releases. This approach allows teams to produce higher quality software and to better adapt to evolving requirements.
Feature-Driven Development (FDD)
- Develop an overall model
- Build a features list
- Plan by feature
- Design by feature
- Build by feature
Compared to other Agile frameworks, FDD requires more thorough documentation and stricter organization.
Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
DSDM is often used by large companies that rely on more governance and discipline in an iterative working style.
DSDM focuses on clear communication with stakeholders, regular value delivery, and completing a project on time and within budget.
The most widely used framework is Scrum. In the State of Agile survey, 66% of responders identified it as the framework they follow most closely. Another 15% stated that they use Scrum derivations like ScrumBan and Scrum/XP too.
So, let's take a closer look at the main principles of Scrum.
Sometimes, the terms Scrum and Agile are used interchangeably. But, these are two distinct concepts, in fact. Agile is a philosophy, or mindset, that defines an overall approach to managing projects. Scrum, in turn, is a framework for getting work done using Agile principles. It is structured around certain practices and well-defined roles.
Here is a brief overview of Scrum’s concepts.
A fundamental component of the Scrum framework is a cross-functional self-managing team. It consists of one Product Owner, one Scrum master, and several professionals who have different skill sets working together. For example, a team might include developers, testers, designers and UX specialists.
Product Owners are responsible for maximizing the value of a final product. They focus on the customer’s requirements, communicate business goals to the team, and prioritize the work that needs to be done.
A Scrum Master ensures that Scrum guidelines are followed in a project. They guide a team, optimize work processes, and facilitate regular meetings.
Sprints are short, repeatable phases, typically one to four weeks long, during which a team works towards completing a certain task. Sprint planning, daily scrums, sprint review, and sprint retrospective meetings happen within each sprint.
Product and Sprint Backlogs
A product backlog is a dynamic list of tasks the team needs to complete to deliver the final product. A Product Owner reviews and re-prioritizes this list frequently to ensure it is up-to-date, and corresponds to changing requirements. A sprint backlog, in turn, outlines only the tasks that need to be done in a particular sprint.
So, where do project managers fit in, in this environment of self-organizing teams, Product Owners, and Scrum Masters? What are their roles and responsibilities within Agile projects?
A Project Manager’s Duties When Working On An Agile Project
- Some experts say that a traditional project manager’s role is about tracking the team’s performance and ensuring detailed planning. Agile teams, however, are supposed to plan, manage, and track progress on their own. So, why would they need a project manager?
- Others disagree and point out that Agile projects still need somebody to be in charge of budget management, risk identification and to oversee the allocation of resources. And therefore, they need a project manager.
The truth usually lies somewhere in between.
An Agile project manager's role evolves depending on the nature of a project and the organization's structure. Instead of controlling team members, Agile project managers work alongside them. They focus on high-level planning, clearing potential roadblocks, communicating with stakeholders and budget reporting.
Project managers are irreplaceable in Agile projects where there is a necessity for detailed scope analysis, constant risk identification and collaboration between multiple teams.
However, if a project is not too complex, small businesses can benefit more from assigning a project manager’s responsibilities to one of the existing team members. This role is usually referred to as a project specialist.
Creating a protector project manager position is another good solution. This professional usually takes care of reporting and communicating details with stakeholders, so the team does not face any outside distractions and can focus on their critical tasks.
Key Skills of An Agile Project Manager
No matter what words are used in a job title, anyone who manages and coordinates Agile projects should possess a particular skill set to succeed in this role. These skills include:
The Agile approach emphasizes collaboration, so the ability to communicate effectively is essential for all team members, including project managers.
Agile project managers should master the skill of organizing work processes and prioritizing tasks.
Removing any potential roadblocks before they appear is one of a project manager’s responsibilities on Agile projects. That is why risk management abilities are a must.
In a fast-changing Agile environment, project managers must be able to adapt quickly, re-prioritize, and adjust their workflows as needed.
As for hard skills, a deep understanding of Agile principles, knowledge of Agile frameworks like Scrum or Kanban, and experience with tracking tools like Trello or JIRA are among the most important ones.
Recommended Resources for Agile Project Managers
- The AgileAlliance website has an extensive section with articles, videos, and presentations on the topic.
- The Project Management Institute provides publications and guidelines on various approaches to project management, including Agile.
- ScrumAlliance offers numerous articles and case studies for learning the Scrum framework.
- On the LeadingAgile website you can find articles, podcasts and videos on different aspects of Agile project management.
- Scrum.org has an excellent selection of articles and videos on Scrum-related topics.
Courses Related to Agile Project Management
Online learning programs are another excellent option for studying Agile project management. There are many courses of different lengths and for different budgets, so you can find one that suits you best.
Certification and training
Earning relevant certificates can help to advance someone's career in Agile project management. The following list includes both broad certifications that demonstrate a deep understanding of Agile principles, and certifications focusing specifically on the Scrum framework.
- PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP). This certificate, provided by the Project Management Institute, demonstrates that an individual knows the essential principles of Agile across different frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, Lean, Extreme Programming (XP), and Test-Driven Development (TDD).
- Certified Scrum Master (CSM) by ScrumAlliance is a globally recognized certification that proves that the holder has a deep understanding of the Scrum approach, and has the ability to apply this framework in practice.
- The International Association of Project Managers offers three levels of certification for Agile project managers: Certified Junior Agile Project Manager (IAPM), Certified Agile Project Manager (IAPM), and Certified Senior Agile Project Manager (IAPM).
- ICP Certified Professional is a certification provided by the International Consortium for Agile. It is methodology-neutral and demonstrates an understanding of Agile’s foundations, values and principles.
- Industry-recognized Professional Scrum Master I certificate by Scrum.org validates an individual’s expertise in the Scrum framework and its application.
Possessing these certificates gives project managers an advantage in employers' eyes, increases their chances to be promoted and typically leads to higher salaries.
Although some say that project managers are not necessarily required for Agile projects, there are many organizations that disagree, because they still need these professionals when working on large and complex projects.
In these cases, the role of the project manager is not to control team members, but to coordinate everyone's efforts, to communicate with stakeholders, and to ensure a smoother workflow as the project goes through its lifecycle.
Agile project managers are important for organizations handling multiple projects at once, and for those who are working on a complex project that requires the collaboration of many teams.