March 24, 2020 • Henry Thedieck
A Beginner’s Guide to Agile Project Management and the Skills You Need to Succeed
Sprints, stand-ups, retrospectives. Scrum, Kanban, Lean and XP. Maybe you’ve heard these agile terms mentioned around your office, but you weren’t certain what they meant. Or your tech colleagues were debating which agile approach to product development is most efficient and you were unsure of the differences. Perhaps you’re just agile curious and decided it’s time to find out what all the talk is about. Well, you’ve come to the right place.
In today’s tech-driven world and workplace, keeping up with the latest technology will always be crucial. But equally important to success in today’s competitive tech industry is an understanding of the best methods and practices for applying technology in day-to-day operations. This is where agile comes in.
In this beginner’s guide, we’ll explore what agile really is, what agile methodologies and systems are popular today, and what skills you’ll need to succeed in an agile project management system.
What is Agile?
As its popularity has grown, agile has become something of a buzzword and, as a result, is often misused and misunderstood. First, agile can refer to either the project management methodology or the work environment of an organization. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on the agile methodology.
At its most basic, the agile methodology is a set of values and principles that provide an iterative approach to software development and project management. The 2001 Agile Manifesto, a formal list of four key values and 12 principles, laid out the ideas that continue to guide agile project management today. These include concepts such as valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools, focusing on working software over comprehensive documentation, engaging in collaboration with customers rather than contract negotiations, and responding to change over sticking to a plan.
As agile expert Mark Shead explains in his popular video on the topic, “Agile is a collection of beliefs that teams can use for making decisions about how to do the work of developing software.” In other words, the agile methodology gives people a common foundation for making decisions.
Initially created to improve the approach to software and web development projects, agile replaced a linear process known as the waterfall method. Under the old method, teams would move through a process of analysis, design, implementation, testing, and deployment without allowing for improvement or questions mid-process. This resulted in products that didn’t meet client needs due to a project management process that did not allow for course correction.
Today, agile has moved beyond software and web development, and many industries now use agile methods to build products and services thanks to the collaborative and efficient nature of the methodology.
Agile Methods and Practices
Now that we’ve explored what agile is, let’s look at why an organization would use agile project management and what methodologies and techniques are most common.
The Benefits of Agile
As a technology development process, agile allows teams to quickly identify issues, adjust to challenges or changes, and respond to them through short, iterative sessions. Over the years, as agile proved effective for technology and software development, companies began to consider how agile could be applied on a broader scale. With many organizations rethinking how they use technology, people, and processes, agile has proved a useful method for companies wanting to change how they operate.
According to the 13th Annual State of Agile report, the most common reasons cited for adopting agile, other than software delivery, include managing changing priorities, increasing productivity, and improving business and technology alignment. Similarly, as a result of agile adoption, survey respondents reported benefits including improved management of priorities, better business and IT alignment, greater project visibility, increased team morale, and more recently, project cost reduction.
Agile Methodologies and Commonly Used Techniques
While agile is a set of practices based on the agile values and principles, there are several popular frameworks that can be used to implement agile project management. Scrum is by far the most popular, but Kanban, Lean, Extreme Programming (XP) and hybrid models are also widespread. While all these methodologies have similar philosophies and characteristics, some of the processes and terminology vary from method to method.
Despite their differences, there are some common techniques and terms that are widely used in all agile systems. These include:
- Stand-ups – a daily progress meeting to keep teams engaged, motivated, and on track
- Sprints/ Iterations – A single development cycle, usually about 2-3 weeks
- Retrospectives/ Reviews – A review of work where the team discusses ways to improve the next iteration.
Agile Project Management Skills
As the agile methodology continues to mature and spread to new industries, certain project management skills will become increasingly important. In order to show your current or future employer you have what it takes to work with agile, consider developing these agile project management skills:
- Prioritization – Agile project managers must be able to focus on essential work and adjust to shifting needs without slowing down a project.
- Organization – You’ll need exceptional organization skills to keep up with short-term priorities in each iteration, as well as long-term goals across a complex project.
- Motivation – Can you keep a team motivated and supported throughout a project? Agile requires good coaching skills to keep teams on track and moving forward.
- Communication – A crucial skill in almost any role, an agile project manager must be adept at communicating regularly with their team and other project stakeholders to ensure project outcomes are realized.
Do you have what it takes to work with agile? Learn more about agile project management from Smart consultant and Agile Coach, Jake Whitlow.