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Five tips to make agile project management work without any pain

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It’s been 20 years since the term ‘agile’ first appeared as a set of principles for software development. It has since been widely adapted for use as a project management methodology by organisations looking to respond to the many mounting pressures of a rapidly changing world.  

Agile’s customer-first ethos makes it clear what to prioritise. And by employing agile staples like scrums, sprints and the minimum viable product, converts will relay how they’re failing fast, shipping products quickly, keeping up with the competition and keeping their clients or customers happy.  

But pinning agile down these days isn’t exactly easy. Not least because agile isn’t actually a clear methodology; it’s a set of principles that have evolved over time to mean a lot of different things to different people. And for all of agile’s magic-bullet appeal, it has been found to be flawed when misapplied.  

“Everyone talks about being agile, because the adjective is very attractive,” says David Macaree, PMO Group Leader at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Scientific Computing Department. “Nobody wants to be not nimble. But many people have tried to get on board the agile bandwagon and it’s been painful.” 

So here are five tips for getting agile to work within project management, without the pain.   

1. Make sure it’s right for you  

Work out why you want to use agile. Identify the problem you need to solve and apply it to that, rather than seeking to use it as a broad one-type-fits-all solution.  

That means ensuring everyone is talking about the same thing when they say agile; that you all know why you’re adopting it; and, crucially, that your organisation is ready to do so. 

“Several years ago, a couple of big banks were looking to move agility wider into their business,” says Adrian Pyne, consultant and author of Agile Beyond IT. “I told them their cultures were toxic to agility, because they were far too centralised and wouldn’t support collaboration or delegate sufficient authority down to agile projects. If you’re not prepared to make cultural changes, and all the changes in strategic and financial planning and processes, don’t waste your money. I talked myself out of some very nice consultancy fees as a result.”

2. Keep it small  

Agile can work brilliantly for small, iterative changes but, as you can read in the forthcoming autumn edition of Project journal, it doesn’t scale well. Once you exceed what Jeff Bezos calls the optimum ‘two pizza team’ – a group that can be fed properly with two pizzas – agile communication and coordination becomes too complex. People start talking about mixing scrums together or running cumbersome ‘scrums of scrums’. Tools and methodologies are being developed to tackle the problem. But try keeping agile to defined tasks and teams within the larger organisation.

3. Remember it’s a tool, not a replacement  

Agile’s just-in-time nature may help you cut costs and keep your clients and customers happy, but other departments still need to understand what money and resources the team will need six months down the line. 

“Companies spend fortunes on agile systems, but they’re not able to implement them because the way agile wants to work and the way an organisation wants to work tend to be quite different,” says Macaree.  

“Organisations want to know what it is you’re going to develop, when that’s going to happen, and how much it’s going to cost. The project manager’s pulling their hair out, because small-scale agile teams just don’t work that way. It’s almost against their manifesto.” 

4. Go easy on the fundamentalism  

Agile can come with a great deal of ceremony and an almost evangelical, cult-like air, and that can be very intoxicating. Or it can be off-putting – especially when any attempt to mix agile with other elements is dismissed by purists as anti-agile.

5. Mix it up 

If you’re prepared to acknowledge agile is not sacred, it frees you to look at your problems realistically and tweak agile methods with other processes and personnel.  

“Agile can be complicated,” Matt Peat, global lead in governance and enablement at Google, told the APM Corporate Advisory Group in May. “We opted for agile-lite.” 

Meanwhile, agile PMO is a form of agile-waterfall integration that decentralises control and planning and makes budgeting and resource allocation agile, while adding a system of checks and balances to the workflow to keep things on track.   

“Organisations think in waterfall terms; that’s the way it is,” says Macaree. “Agile PMOs can act as a bridge between agile teams and the broader organisation and provide the expertise to be able to think in terms of overall strategy and roadmap.” 

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