Agile project management - the what and the why
Firstly a brief overview of what agile project management is and how it differs from more traditional project management approaches.
There are several methodologies that can be used to manage an agile project; two of the best known being Scrum and Lean. An agile project's defining characteristic is that it produces and delivers work in short bursts (or sprints) of anything up to a few weeks. These are repeated to refine the working deliverable until it meets the client's requirements.
Where traditional project management will establish a detailed plan and detailed requirements at the start then attempt to follow the plan, agile starts work with a rough idea of what is required and by delivering something in a short period of time, clarifies the requirements as the project progresses. These frequent iterative processes are a core characteristic of an agile project and, because of this way of working, collaborative relationships are established between stakeholders and the team members delivering the work.
Scope has to be adaptable where no detailed requirements exist initially, but agile still has processes to ensure that, at each stage, the work to be done is defined and in-line with client needs.
The role of project manager tends to be quite different on agile projects (and is often known as the Scrum Master or Project Facilitator); it is the team member who deals with problems and handles interruptions to allow the other team members to concentrate on producing the work.
So agile projects need documentation, reviews and processes just as traditional projects do to meet requirements, manage costs and schedules, deliver benefits and avoid scope creep; agile simply does not place as much emphasis on highly detailed documentation and does not expect to fully understand the requirements before work can begin. Instead it emphasises the importance of delivering a working product as something tangible for the client that can then be refined until it fulfils the client's needs. The key measure of project progress is this series of working deliverables.
There is clearly a risk to starting work on a project before the extent of that work is fully known but this risk is mitigated by the speedy delivery of a working product, albeit one that is unlikely to be perfect at first.
Why is agile project management necessary?
Agile project management has its disadvantages such as less easy identification of project risks and poor management of resources, and many project teams don't understand how to use agile project management effectively. However, with the fast pace of business change in the 21st century many projects need to be sure they will deliver something that meets client needs at the end of the project and not expend wasted effort refining requirements that will be out of date by the time the end-product is delivered.
Even in business environments that do not change rapidly it can be difficult to fully articulate requirements without seeing a tangible product first so there is still the risk of delivering something that doesn't quite meet the client's needs. That is why agile is becoming increasingly necessary for many different types of projects.
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Many people think of agile as a toolset. But in the words of the chairman of the Agile Business Consortium, Steve Messenger: “Agile is more about mindset and behaviours than method and tools.”