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Understanding agile in project management

Why is this research important?

  • Ambiguity around ‘what is agile’.
  • Whilst agile is prevalent in project practice, little of this is grounded in evidence and theory, and there is a lack of credible academic research in contrast to other aspects of the project management domain.
  • How is agile being used, and how effective is it particularly outside of IT.
  • The limited available literature does not tend to explore the challenges and barriers encountered with implementing agile.

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How to cite this research
Baxter, D. (2022). Understanding agile in project management. Association for Project Management.

Intended audience

The study should be of interest to project professionals and organisations who want to further understand agile in project management, its usage and effectiveness. We also believe that the research will benefit academics, students, and anyone interested in agile project management.

How was the research undertaken?

The research was undertaken in three phases:

  1. A systematic literature review that identified 353 papers from major academic publications.
  2. 31 semi-structured interviews with senior and experienced project professionals from a broad range of business sectors.
  3. A survey phase featuring over 600 respondents.

What did we discover?

Agile usage

Agile is increasingly being adopted and applied across a large number of industries. Almost 70% of project professionals in our survey claim they will implement more agile in their projects in the future. Not surprisingly, software development and IT implementation remain the most common types of projects where agile is applied. Agile has also been significantly adopted in new product development, organisational changes, business operations, and new service development.

Agile competency

For many organisations, agile is relatively new. Among the organisations surveyed, only a small proportion have organisational agile project experience of more than five years. Neither organisational competency nor cultural readiness is fully developed yet, with only 15% of respondents claiming a high level of competency for their organisation and 20% having a high level of cultural readiness. However, most participants (68%) consider agile methods promising and aim to adopt agile in their future projects.

Seven key benefits of agile

  1. Enhance quality
  2. Enhance ability to manage priorities
  3. Shorten delivery time
  4. Improve customer satisfaction
  5. Reduce risk in changing environments
  6. Increase project visibility
  7. Improve team morale and productivity

Effectiveness and success of agile

Agile is overwhelming recognised as beneficial for successful project delivery and project team performance. Data gathered proves that agile methods positively affect project performance, and the adoption of agile methods provides significant improvements for project and project organisations.

Agile barriers and challenges

Adopting agile is not always straightforward and does not necessarily provide consistent benefits, regardless of how well it is applied. Implementing agile requires a series of changes to organisation structure and management at both project and organisation levels:

  • Lack of understanding from employees
  • Inconsistency across project teams and organisation
  • General organisation resistance to change
  • Unalignment with compliance guidelines/framework
  • Insufficient management inputs/participant


  1. Induction and training: These are essential to create a shared understanding of agile within project teams.
  2. Adopting a ‘Hybrid’ approach: Project managers can apply elements of agile with traditional approaches.
  3. Agile values and methods: These can be adopted on a routine basis at the project team level. Methods can be applied outside of current organisational governance systems.
  4. Contracting for agile: Contracts with external suppliers must fit with agile models.
  5. Implementing agile planning, reporting mechanisms, and governance systems may require reviewing and developing organisation structures, hierarchy, and HR systems.


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