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Agile project management: the path to satisfied customers

What is agile project management? How does it work? And how can I use it meaningfully in my company. Read the key answers here.

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Agility is becoming an increasingly important competitive advantage for businesses. Working by agile principles creates a previously unknown focus on the customer. And more ideas can be developed quicker, because processes are made more flexible: managers hand over responsibility so that staff can decide for themselves. Read on to find out which kind of tasks agile project management is suitable for and how it improves products.

Businesses need agile project management

Agile work and methods have long been standard in the development of software. But agility is becoming increasingly important outside the industry too. Companies are recognising that they have to change the way they manage projects to remain competitive.

The Boston Consulting Group study entitled ‘Boosting Performance Through Organization Design’ shows this clearly: agile companies achieve up to five times higher profit margins and grow much faster. Over 40 percent of all agile companies post above-average results. Just 24 percent achieve below average. Rigid organisations trail behind. Agile companies also grow faster than their rivals.

New project management – responding quickly to change

Around 30 years ago, it became clear that the processes used to develop software were not meeting requirements. Project times were too long. Customers weren’t receiving results until the end of the development period. And, at the end of it, those results rarely met the expectations which had been expressed at the outset.

This was the fault of conventional project management, which offers few ways of controlling the process. The scope of services, deadlines and costs are fixed, and breaking off prematurely almost amounts to total failure. The people responsible prefer to postpone coordination and decision-making deadlines, and keep redefining the use of resources instead of adjusting the requirements laid down at the start of the project.

As a consequence, the plan controls the project. Achieving more flexibility and greater precision in planning and implementation requires different processes which focus on the way requirements are dealt with.

Comparison: conventional and agile project management

In conventional project management, projects are divided up into finite phases. Clear aims are defined at the outset. These aims stand at the end of each project phase, and have to be achieved. Only then can the next phase begin. If certain requirements change over the course of the project, they cannot be taken into account until the project is over.

That’s why agile project management makes use of ‘sprint backlogs’. These are plans for executing a sprint which the scrum team draws up. The backlogs list all the objectives which the forthcoming sprint is designed to achieve, and all the information required to achieve the sprint objective. One of the benefits of this for customers is that the work and the working processes can be continually improved. Conventional project management doesn’t allow this, and conventional project managers have had their day. The working processes it stipulates do not allow major adjustments.

On the basis of the backlogs, tasks are defined for the following sprints:

  • Continuous observation: Always make sure you achieve technical excellence and good design. This will improve agility.
  • Keep everything simple: Simplicity is the major component of all agile processes.
  • Get the teams to organise themselves: This form of collaboration achieves the best solutions.
  • Reflect and adjust: The team should regularly reflect on how it can become more effective. It then adjusts its behaviour.

What is agile project management suitable for?

Whenever you launch a project in which you only have a vague idea of its requirements at the beginning, you should change your previous project management style to agile. Use agile project management methods whenever there are constant changes in the process to which you must respond. Use agile teams that pursue a complex objective if, for example, the end product is not yet defined. And avoid conventional methods if customers are expecting results quickly.

What actually changes through agile project management?

Agile doesn’t mean there are no more planning phases. In the scrum, for example, the development of releases and sprints is defined so as to achieve the project’s or project development’s completion deadline. The aims and requirements of the stakeholders determine the requirements you actually have to meet there.

In agile project management, you also work in repeating steps. This approach allows the product to be continuously improved. You proceed in the smallest possible steps by communicating actively with everyone involved. When you improve things incrementally, the final status is not laid out at the start of the project. The project grows continuously and organically. This achieves an end product which convinces stakeholders because they have been included in its development.

Eight steps of an agile approach

The American software development Kent Beck teamed with other developers to publish its Agile Manifesto in 2001. They identified which ideas, principles and values would improve the process of developing software.

The most important thing they arrived at was to prioritise values. The foremost principles in the Manifesto make it very clear how this differs from working in conventional project teams: team members and the way they communicate with one another are more important than processes and tools. Responding to changes is more important than comprehensive documentation. And collaboration with customers is more important than following a plan.

infographic of the different steps to an agile approach

eight steps for an agile approach in companies

  • Satisfy the customer: The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements: Even if they come late in development, allow changing requirements. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  • Deliver often: Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  • Work together: Everyone involved in the project must work together daily.
  • Trust people and support them: Always bring motivated individuals into the project team. Give them the environment and support they need. And an environment they feel comfortable in. Trust them to get the job done.
  • Always communicate face to face: It’s the most efficient and effective method of conveying information within a development team.
  • Software has to work: That is the primary measure of progress.
  • Develop sustainably: Agile processes promote sustainable development. Everyone involved has to be able to keep up a constant pace and avoid interruptions in work.

The best known methods of agile project management

  1. Scrum: Scrum is based on the values laid down in the Agile Manifesto in 2001 and merely provides the framework for agile processes. This method does not describe an agile technique used in an actual process. Scrum only defines which three project roles have to be occupied, and nominates their responsibilities. The product owner carries the responsibility for the success of the team as a whole. The scrum master moderates team meetings, removes obstacles that may arise in the process and ensures that information flows smoothly between the product owner and team. The team is at the centre of the scrum process because it fulfils the requirements.

The separation between the framework and the techniques is there because it gives team members the greatest possible freedom in how they apply the methods. But the most important thing is that there is no project leader in scrum.

  1. Kanban: Put simply, Kanban is the visualised form of a to-do list. The various requirements are noted on post-it notes and stuck onto a pinboard called the Kanban Board. The notes appear as a single entry in one column on the board. Depending on progress, the notes then move along the board from one project stage to the next, for which the board has different columns. This makes it easier to visualise project processes and simplifies planning, monitoring and management. Unlike Scrum, project development in Kanban is not limited in time. The project team develops its own new requirements if it has enough free resources.

What to do when agile is not possible

Not every project is compatible with agile methods. This includes anything which has to be completed to a particular deadline. This applies specially to construction projects. Maintenance and service projects are also planned and implemented exclusively along conventional lines, allowing machine downtime to be reduced. And maybe conventional project management processes are so firmly established in your company that they could not be entirely abolished. In which case you can combine them: use hybrid project management, which means mixing conventional and agile. Perhaps you will achieve the transition to agile principles.

A success story


Understanding, then applying and succeeding

Railinc Corporation provides the North American freight rail industry with data and messaging services, and they switched to agile project management to increase their customer satisfaction considerably. But it took time. The first project which the company did using agile methods failed. It was the wrong project. There were not enough staff on the team, managers were inadequately involved and customers were not on board from the outset. This shows that agile management can only make projects successful if all of its principles are upheld, everyone is involved and the preparation is right. Railinc had the courage to stick with the method and now does everything the agile way.

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