In the past few years, agile management has evolved from a tool used by software companies to develop their products to a global management style flexible across industries, companies, and teams. More managers than ever are testing agile management as a system for better production and efficiency. However, the stereotype of software developers or quirky startup kids tends to linger, even though agile management expanded beyond those roles years ago.
Here’s why almost any company can use agile business processes to improve their workflow, or at least test some of its best practices for increased efficiency.
Why Are More Companies Trying Agile Management?
It seems like agile project management has exploded recently, replacing the outdated waterfall model, particularly in B2B companies. The simple answer to why this is lies in the method’s flexibility. Companies can make changes midway and avoid a pile of problems at the end of the project. In a recent article, the team at Flatworld Solutions explains why agile development is replacing the waterfall model:
“All the project development phases such as designing, development, testing, etc. are completed once in the Waterfall model,” they write. “While as part of the Agile methodology, they follow an iterative development approach.”
Think about the actual process of going down a waterfall. Once you start falling, it’s nearly impossible to stop or go back. Agile development is more like walking down a flight of stairs, where you can take a step back as needed.
Changes are Easier Because of Increased Client Feedback
The team at Optimus Information explains that agile development involves the client more. Instead of setting client approval and feedback as an end-process, the client approves features throughout the development and creation.
The agile development process leads to happier clients in two ways:
Changes are easier, as opposed to traditional development where large chunks of the system would have to be removed or changed in order to alter one small element.
Customer satisfaction increases drastically because the client approves the work as it’s done, not just at the end.
By the time the client sees the finished product, they’ve already approved several iterations of the same thing, so design features don’t come as a surprise to them.
Scope Creep is Reduced
Along with multiple deliverables getting approved by the client, agile project management operates in sprints. Instead of running a marathon to complete a whole project, teams complete a short sprint to finish one deliverable that gets approved by the client. These all come together to form a final project.
“The beauty of working the Agile way is that every two to four weeks the customer gets working [deliverables] — a feat that’s nearly impossible with Waterfall,” Greg Sypolt writes at Sauce Labs.
The number of projects that are delivered on time tends to increase, as scope creep can never extend more than a week or two. With traditional projects, a PM might have to map out months or years of work. With agile management, they just have to map out a few weeks.
Management Becomes Lateral as Teams Increase Autonomy
Belinda Waldock writes that agile management actually helps make work more circular, reducing the need for top-down management. Instead of a vice president or senior manager balancing multiple projects, different project leaders take responsibility and different employees work for each other.
Companies that are more lateral or already seek the input of lower-level employees are likely to experience success with agile management.
In an article for CIO, Moira Alexander admits that one of the drawbacks of agile project management is implementing it within large companies. Established firms that have been using traditional methodologies might stumble on the more flexible processes inherent in agile processes.
Fortunately, Alexander writes, it’s possible to run a hybrid version of agile development as long as PMs are running due diligence to make sure the model is sustainable in the company. The benefits to the team, as well as overall flexibility in work, make agile one of the top management choices for modern offices.
How Does Agile Development Work?
The first thing you need to know about agile development is that it operates in sprints (two to four week deliverable periods) and scrums. These are short meetings for reviewing and assigning work to employees. During scrum meetings, employees are assigned user stories (or tasks), that they complete and send to the client at the end of a sprint.
“Scrum can be used for any sort of complex project, the caveat is that it works best when there’s a concrete product being produced,” David Matthew, certified scrum master, says. “If you work in marketing and need to write copy for a project, it could definitely be beneficial for your team.”
User Stories Answer Who, What and Why
Each of the sprints associated with development tells a user story. For example, a company developing an app for a client would create the following user stories:
Users can find nearby stores based on their location.
Users can check whether items sold on the app are available in the store.
Users need to check store hours so they don’t arrive after it closes.
Adrien Joly explains that user stories answer who, what and why. The client decides which user stories are the most important and provide the most value for customers. In the example above, the client might prioritize a “store hours,” page over inventory and a store locator tab. Each of these user stories are unique and independent of each other, which helps with priorities and approval.
The Scrum Master Leads Meetings and Sprints
“I often compare the Scrum Master role to that of an orchestra conductor,” Mike Cohn, founder of Mountain Goat Software, writes. “Both must provide real-time guidance and leadership to a talented collection of individuals who come together to create something that no one of them could create alone.”
Like an orchestra conductor, Cohn can focus on a particular team (or set of instruments) during certain parts, but also needs to keep an eye on the rest of the performers. He is constantly checking on the group as a whole and individuals who have specific tasks to bring the whole story together.
Teams Work Autonomously to Complete Their Sprints
Teams should still be able to work together without the scrum leader. In the same way individual members of an orchestra practice on their own and in smaller groups, your team can benefit from you taking a step back and letting them work.
Elise Veerman at Gaiku actually encourages leaders to miss a few sprint meetings and step back from daily scrums. This will give your team practice in working together and assigning or reporting on tasks while you’re gone.
Overall, agile project management is meant to give teams a clear idea of what is expected of them as individuals to complete a project. If this vocabulary hasn’t lost you yet, then you can handle agile project management.
How to Successfully Implement Agile Project Management
Once you understand how agile project management works, you can start to implement it into your business model. There are a few tips that every manager should know before they start holding scrums and scheduling sprints.
Start With the Most Basic Solutions and Then Add Complexity
Agile project management is about taking bite-sized chunks out of a project instead of eating the whole pie at once. You may have to rethink how you assign projects if you’re becoming increasingly agile.
“Business owners and designers usually jump to what the mature product could look like one day,” Ben Melbourne writes at ThoughtWorks. “They see the end-point once every feature idea has been built… It’s jumping ten steps ahead of yourself.”
Instead, Melbourne encourages teams to develop the most basic possible solution to meet the customer’s needs and then work on that solution to make it better. This thought process is harder, but better than getting ahead of yourself and overwhelmed with work.
Know the Roles of Your Team Members
Another great tip for successfully implementing agile production in your team is to clearly assign roles to each team member. Instead of splitting user stories across multiple people, give a few stories to each team member.
In an article for Atlassian, Kesha Thillainayagam explains that by knowing your team's strengths and weaknesses, you can find the best person for each task and ensure no one is overwhelmed with work.
She adds that this is the best time to identify stakeholders and influencers on your team who can help get additional resources and work with vendors for maximum impact.
Set Criteria for When You’re Done
One problem that tends to arise with agile project management is a floating idea for what teams mean when they’re “done.” Meaghan Kind, a senior project manager at Think Company, says that your team needs to develop explicit pass/fail criteria for whether a task or deliverable meets the client's needs at the time and if it’s acceptable to send.
Some companies solve this by investing in quality assurance teams that view any deliverable before it’s sent to the client. Even if they’re only getting a sample piece or a wireframe, the QA team will ensure it’s suitable to be seen and critiqued by the client.
Strategize Your Assignments and Backlog Reduction
As you finish your sprints, you may have to roll tasks over into the next sprint, creating a backlog. Your backlog can become your source of energy for your team to clear it, or a pain for team members who feel weighed down with extra tasks.
“One common source of team dysfunction starts with the person in charge of the backlog,” Kevin Brunner tells Yodiz. “If they aren’t sufficiently prepared for the sprint planning meeting or don’t trust the team to arrive at their own decisions, then the group behavior becomes one of avoidance rather than commitment, which defeats the purpose of going Agile.”
To solve backlog dread, Sandy Mamoli created a list of criteria you can review when choosing tasks to make sure you’re putting the best possible tasks on your team’s plates:
Are there tasks that don’t support the main sprint goal? (These might fill secondary goals or accomplish smaller tasks instead of one big task. However, these lesser-important tasks must be labeled as such.)
Is there anything your team really wants to do? This might include pet projects or items of personal high priority. Mamoli typically allows 20 percent of project time for this.
Are there high-risk items that need to be addressed? You may need to prioritize some user stories to lower risk or bottlenecks in the future.
By reviewing these criteria, scrum leaders can prioritize tasks fairly and in a way that meets the goals of all team members.
Collect Feedback From Your Team Members
One way to maintain sustainability as you implement agile project management in your company is to set aside time for feedback and adjustments to your internal system. The most effective departments are agile with their employees and let them offer feedback for what works and what doesn’t.
“There are so many things you can fine-tune, but you’ll have to determine which are the ones that can yield the best results at a given time frame with the current project and also future ones,” Vincent Sevilla writes.
By approaching agile development with an open mind instead of a heavy hand, your team is also more likely to embrace the new process.
Agile project management doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it seems. You can start with a small team or a few projects and adapt your style over time. Soon you will notice how your team has a better workflow and communication process, making it more resilient in times of stress.
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