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Agile’s Rising Influence in Project Management

Originally incubated in the world of software development, Agile has expanded outside the software sphere to include all areas of project management today.

With the widespread adoption of Agile, project management students should be prepared to learn and apply Agile principles.

What is Agile Methodology?

Agile project management, unlike other project management methodologies, uses rapid iterations to deliver work quickly, as opposed to delivering a single product at the end of a longer timeline. The Agile Manifesto, developed by 14 software development leaders in 2001, highlights four key values with this approach:

  • People and communication instead of practices and tools
  • Working software instead of exhaustive documentation
  • Customer partnership instead of contract negotiation
  • Flexibility instead of rigid planning

In Agile development, teams work in iterations, checking in and reviewing frequently for customer feedback, and then adapting plans to reflect the information gathered through those touchpoints for the next iteration.

One subset of Agile methodology, Scrum, is perhaps the most widely adopted process. Scrum operates with a process framework, which follows short development cycles (called sprints).

How Does Agile Apply to Project Management?

Agile can be applied to several functions, including marketing and advertising, finance, education and construction. CIO highlights several aspects of Agile that make it adaptable:

  • An iterative approach helps Agile projects to be delivered more responsively – and quickly.
  • Agile projects can also be adapted more quickly if customer sentiment changes mid-project. And, since customer expectations are increasingly higher, this often makes for a better final product.
  • Frequent check-ins and shorter timelines mean issues or defects are quickly caught and resolved. This improves customer satisfaction and decreases waste and related costs.

It’s also important to note that not every organization will easily adopt Agile. Two key considerations, according to CIO, are the potential impact to the end-user experience, given the emphasis on development, project team and customer, and the challenge to adopt this flexible approach in larger, traditional organizations.

To remain efficient, Agile projects operate with up to five different roles:

  • Product owner – A person that works with the customer and the project team to relay customer needs and manage organizational challenges that could pose roadblocks for the team.
  • Development team – The driving force behind the product, though the skill set will vary depending on what is being developed. For example, a software project may include programmers and testers on this team, while a marketing project may leverage designers and writers.
  • Scrum master – The person supporting the development team and the Agile process. The scrum master leads through support and organizational influence.
  • Stakeholders – This group includes any individual who has interest or involvement in the project’s outcomes. Often, this group spans departments and even organizations, but feedback and support from this group is critical for success.
  • Mentor – This person may be involved to support the Agile process for newer teams, and should act as a resource.

Its emphasis on adaptation, efficiency, and speed makes Agile different from traditional project management processes, as the Project Management Institute (PMI) defines them, in a few areas. PMI outlines almost 50 activities a traditional project manager would oversee, versus 10 activities for an Agile project manager.

A traditional project manager conducts 24 activities aimed at determining scope, streamlining objectives and defining actions to maintain those objectives. An Agile project manager integrates with teams outside the product development team and manages stakeholders. Agile project management shifts responsibility from the traditional PM to the project team, a result of both the improvement-focus and the value on process adaptation.

Learning Agile

To transition to an Agile approach, or to become a scrum master, students will want to master technical skills, develop an ability to think and work as a team, and adopt a mindset framed around short sprints of work. The transition of responsibility in Agile project management requires a different set of skills for project managers, who should not approach leadership as a dictator role, but instead must be equipped to motivate a group of professionals that spans disciplines, skill sets and organization levels.

Key soft skills for Agile team leaders:

  • Ability to motivate and mentor team members
  • Ability to foster an environment that allows individual talent to flourish
  • Communication, both to lead the team and update stakeholders, and to influence organizational leadership
  • Negotiation skills to balance and manage needs and demands from clients, organizational leaders and team members
  • Ability to think creatively across disciplines, and to pull the best ideas and skills from each team member
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration
  • Servant leadership, to humbly lead a team and resolve conflict

To adopt this vastly different mindset, Mountain Goat Software recommends an approach that blends classroom learning and hands-on mentorship. Ultimately, the work of the change is worth the rewards, an Agile approach often boosts productivity, quality, stakeholder satisfaction, job satisfaction and employee engagement, and reduces time-to-market.

These benefits, coupled with increased expectations for quicker development and accelerated change, ensure the Agile approach is likely not only to remain, but also to continue to influence project management approaches at a growing rate.

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