Welcome to this new series on Agile Project Management (APM), which will shine light on some of the benefits of APM and why it has been praised so highly in the project management community. We will also take a look at the phases and methods that bring APM to life as we progress through the series. Part I will focus on the core values of APM and introductory background information. First off, we’ll start with a quick definition of how we define agility in an APM context.

According to Jim Highsmith, “Agility is the ability to both create and respond to change in order to profit in a turbulent business environment…the ability to balance both flexibility and stability.”

Agile Project Management is a style of project management that focuses on the continuous improvement of the products and processes within a project. It also takes into consideration scope flexibility, team input and the delivering of essential quality products. In other words, an iterative (section-by-section) approach is implemented whereby project managers are able to ascertain the feasibility of a feature, before committing excessive time, money and resources to a project. Various methodologies and software used to implement APM include Scrum, Extreme Programming, and Lean, and will be discussed in part three of the series.

Before the spread of APM methods a more common approach was the ‘Waterfall’ methodology, named so because before a project manager would move onto the next project stage, he or she would have to complete a prior process. An article written in 1970 by computer scientist Winston Royce listed the phases of waterfall and despite not intending for each step to be taken inflexibly, this was very much what people did. The phases are as follows: –

  1. Requirements
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Integration
  5. Testing
  6. Deployment

Nowadays, projects that do not succeed commonly suffer from scope bloat or creep, which is the introduction of unnecessary product features in a project. Thus, APM provides a more cooperative approach between the phases facilitated by transparency, frequent inspection and adaptation that will help to reduce this occurrence. Transparency ensures that every individual working on the project is aware of what is going on and how the project is progressing. In addition, those heavily involved in the development of the project should be responsible for the frequent inspection of the project to make sure that any occurring problems can be minimized as quickly as possible, and the project be adapted if need be.

To illustrate the differences between APM and the waterfall methodology I have included a diagram below illustrating the differences between both in linear form. As can be seen from the diagram, the agile process involves testing product features using initial requirements before releasing a demo version, and collecting feedback before moving onto the next stage. In addition, the potential risk in terms of cost and time tend to accumulate the further along a project progresses. A traditional waterfall project is less able to deal with these risks, as the process is not iterative in nature.

Figure1: Source (Agile Project Management for Dummies)

Now that we have outlined what APM does and how it has managed to distance itself from previously used management processes, we will now look at the core values of agile management, which are derived from the much-famed ‘Agile Project Manifesto.’ The manifesto was put together by a group of software developers who agreed on common principles that must be present for a project to succeed and be described as agile, and can be found here. These have been streamlined into four core values: –

  1. Flexibility and response to change

    Due to the uncertainties inherent in many projects, project managers must balance planning and adapting, and because not all projects are full-proof plans, many projects are exploratory in style and are therefore characterized by a process that emphasizes envisioning. With envisioning comes more need for a safeguarding process that will offer capacity for failure and recovery. Another factor influencing project management is the cost of iteration, hence the cost of experimenting. With higher costs comes higher expectation to succeed that could lead to management ignoring potential pitfalls in a desperate attempt to save face. Thus APM, with the help of applicable software, reduces the cost of the iteration process enabling an adaptive style of development in which plans and designs develop concurrently with the actual product. With so many project variables likely to change within the span of a few months, it therefore becomes clear why flexibility and response to change become an important factor in APM.

  2. Working Products

    Working products refer to the continuous attention paid to the development of a product that requires constant feedback in order to achieve the most from a project. Innovation is what drives companies forward and therefore project managers that implement processes that support innovation processes are likely to reap higher monetary rewards. Many companies have innovative initiatives but few are willing to actually commit and create the processes that directly support innovative initiatives. Instead, many firms adopt a linear development approach with little feedback. They have good ideas but they refuse to go out and test them in the real world. Point being, creating innovative products are all about implementing effective simulations and not simply following comprehensive documentation requirements. It’s important to note that agile product innovation does not preclude the need for documentation requirements. Documents enhance knowledge transfer, preserve historical information, and assist in product enhancement. They are vital, just not as a substitute for working products. Documentation becomes a barricade to progress when its excessive use by project managers and developers begins to replace interaction with customers who help validate the quality of a product. This is because the transfer of knowledge and feedback has been stifled. When the customer sits down with the product manager and they write a requirements document that gets sent to a development group, then the document officially becomes a substitute for interaction.

  3. Customer CollaborationNow that we’ve outlined the importance of flexibility and working innovative products, we now turn our attention to the value placed on customer collaboration in APM. When developing a product for a customer, the customer should always reign supreme, as the goal of any project should be to deliver value to the customer. In highly uncertain new product development efforts, the customer-developer relationship must be collaborative, not one marked by adversarial contract disputes. We can define a customer as the individual or group who will use the created product to create business value or use the product. When project managers fail to focus on this aspect, projects can often end up becoming muddled especially if focus is placed on other stakeholders. The customer defines value by defining product requirements or features and the business objectives that help in quantifying value (costs and schedules). Value arises from implementing these features within an objective framework that meet the requirements and constraints as the life of the project evolves. Tomorrow’s rewards are a function of how quickly and cost effectively a product can be adjusted to requirements and constraints that arise in the future. Project managers should therefore note that delivery of products today and the adaptation of those products for tomorrow are paramount to the success of a project.
  4. Individuals Finally, we take a look at the importance of individuals to the success of APM. Ultimately, it is the combination of unique and talented individuals that will be the enabling factors of success in any given project. Agile processes and methodologies provide guidance and efficiency but without the people who have the right technical and behavioural skills, implementation is likely to be ineffective. In the 1990s businesses went through an infatuation with process much to the detriment of quality of staff. Process became more important than people, yet no process can make up for a mediocre skill force. In other words, good processes should support and adapt to the team, not dictate it. Agile is a social movement that is committed to creating the right environment for adaptation and interaction that is critical to deliver successful projects for innovative products.

Quick Round Up…

Much of agile project management is founded on the premise of flexibility not often seriously considered before its arrival. Not just the flexibility of a project and its requirements with regards to feedback, but also the flexibility of a skilled workforce that welcomes adaptability. It offers a better alternative to the more traditional waterfall project management, and has the significant advantage of saving time and resources with better returns. It is guided by a set of principles initially set out by the agile manifesto that form the core of any projects deemed to be agile in nature.

The next part of the series will focus on the phases of agile project management that are key to its success. I hope you have enjoyed this introductory piece, and I look forward to exposing more of the processes of agile as the series continues.