If you clicked on this article, chances are you have already heard of agile project management too many times. PM’s (and often sponsors & team members) will rave about its perks, but sometimes it can be difficult to understand what all the fuss is about and why it’s considered so important.
In case you haven’t heard any of the details before (and unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years that is extremely unlikely), agile project management can be boiled down to a few key points from the original conception of agile, The Manifesto for Agile Software Development (although there are now multiple forms of agile, they all retain these core principles):
· Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
· Working software over comprehensive documentation
· Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
· Responding to change over following a plan
What all this means is that agile management focuses on a project’s ability to deliver incremental value over a series of rapid development cycles. This requires constantly engaging with the client and prioritising their feedback and requests over inflexible contracts and scope agreements, a focus on making the product viable over sticking to exact specifications, increasing communication across stakeholders. In short, being able to adapt within much shorter time frames than traditional project management models.
These dynamic practices allow the project team and the client to share a common vision and cooperate constantly – often leading to more value delivered with higher satisfaction, at least in software development. Many PM’s have started treating agile as the “Holy Grail” of project management across industries, a cure-all to inefficiencies caused by traditional projects. But like any management style this is never quite true.
The problem is agile development works great for software development, but that doesn’t mean it will keep working for your industry or project deliverable. Despite all the hype, PM’s need to consider the full impact of adopting agile management, whether it is making a positive difference to resource demands or increasing the overall quality of deliverables.
Regardless of your role in projects, it is important to know the pros and cons of using agile project management; in the last decade it has grown from its humble beginnings in software development with startling speed across industries.
To help make sense of the ongoing agile revolution, this article will take you through the major strengths and weaknesses of agile project management so you can gain a deeper understanding of how it might impact performance and challenge your PM’s who might be forcing an agile framework on poorly suited projects.
Agile Project Management Strengths
1. Constant improvement and quality assurance
In a traditional waterfall project, a PM will typically outline the goals with the client early in the planning phase and then check back in over the course of the project at key milestones to give them updates on progress and expectations. This may work for some projects, but it will always run a relatively higher risk of getting to the final meeting and presenting a product that doesn’t meet the client’s needs.
In contrast, agile models rely on a sprint cycle format where the team will try and complete certain tasks within a small time period (e.g., 1-2 weeks). In each of these sprint cycles there will be a chance to review the work completed and value added not only internally, within the team, but in a client review meeting too. This helps to keep the team on track and allows a PM to meet client change requests immediately instead of untangling long and complex project developments when they finally realise they have missed some or all of the client needs at milestone meetings.
2. More flexible to changing needs
By working in an agile model, a PM can adapt the project frequently through short sprint cycles. Whether it is due to external environmental shocks or a sudden change of needs by the client – working in an agile model, you can take the existing products that have been completed in previous sprint cycles and change direction at a right angles if it needs to be. If you are in a volatile situation, using an agile model will offer a huge advantage; you are not going to have the flexibility needed to adapt with a traditional model – or at least it will be vastly more costly.
3. Hands-on approach for customers
Because an agile model has so much more client interaction and review it will naturally end up with a higher level of coordination with the client throughout the project timeline. This helps a PM put the clients interests in front of their attempts to deliver the project as efficiently as possible and instead focus on delivering the absolute most valuable project. Under agile, client interests are clearly valued and easily acted upon as they are able to watch the project change and progress rapidly to fit their company’s needs.
4. Faster delivery times on initial value
Agile management is able to additionally deliver a minimum viable product (MVP) before the overall project completion. The MVP is the bare minimum to start implementing the goal of the project in practice. More can be added to an MVP after its rollout (in most cases) so agile will have an appeal to any PM who is trying to meet tight deadlines and/or set dates with limited room for error or high stakeholder pressure.
Agile projects often lack a defined end date. This happens because each short cycle aims to add on additional features and components of the envisioned final product. Using an MVP, agile projects can be more adaptable to high expectations on timelines and delivery.
5. Increased internal interactions
Most of the strengths we discussed so far have a direct impact on the client experience or input. However, agile methods also help a PM optimise the effectiveness of their team. By constantly reviewing and taking on new tasks an agile project creates continuous interactions among its team members internally.
Maintaining high levels of communication internally reduces the need for excessive procedures and administration to be installed. And most importantly, higher interactions mean each member of the team can participate in creative decision making and exercise their personal expertise. This dynamism increase the ability for all team members to take initiative and add value to the project – put simply, more bang for your buck.
Agile Project Management Weaknesses
1. Lack of long-term planning
The beauty of agile management (that you can react to change quickly and efficiently at most points in the project timeline) can also be considered one of its biggest problems. Because requirements and specification changes are so easily implemented in agile, projects tend to lack a clear final product vision. As a client continues to change their mind during the development process you may end up with an entirely different deliverable to your original conception. Despite the positive that change is so possible this also means that it can become very difficult to stay organised, especially since most of a PM’s communication with the client will be verbal and not documented as thoroughly as traditional methods.
2. No clear picture of costs upfront (difficult planning)
This problem probably goes hand in hand with lack of long-term planning. If you can’t have a vision of the final product how on earth are you going to expect a PM to accurately calculate resources required or hours worked. Although the final product is far more likely to be what was needed by the client, they run the risk of overrunning their original budget if margins are tight (but then again, how often does this happen in traditional projects anyway!).
This issue is similar to the lack of long-term planning. The lack of vision for a final product caused by Agile Management limits a PM’s ability to accurately calculate the necessary resources to achieve the desired deliverable. While the final product is more likely to fit clients needs under Agile Management, the risk of overrunning timelines and under budgeting increases. To run an agile project you need to be willing to dedicate more resources than expected if the final deliverable evolves throughout cycles.
3. Lack of cross professionally trained teams available
Generally, agile management involves a lot more delegation and independent work by your teams. They will need to make important decisions without the input of the PM to keep up with the fast pace of the project. As a result, you are going to need experience and expertise in all areas of the project. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw in agile management it means that it can become a lot harder to do it right, as appropriately skilled teams are harder to find.
4. Problems with workflow coordination
Because agile management is more dynamic than traditional waterfall methods, it can often lead to better results for the client. But if poorly executed, agile management can just increase risk and create dysfunction. Operating with several small and independent teams developing multiple components of the project at the same time takes expert coordination. Including the need to constantly interact with the client and managing communication as a PM becomes more and more difficult.
Managing complex and fast-moving communications means a PM needs to create a strong mobilisation plan or run the risk of the project falling apart down the lines as complexity increases. Check out our article on creating strong mobilisation for any project here!.
I will be the first one to say that this isn’t a comprehensive list of how to understand agile management as an option for your project. In fact, there isn’t really a perfect list; there are many different styles of agile management so there isn’t a be and end all of how agile management works unless you want to spend the next three years researching.
While it is definitely true that not every project will benefit from agile management (not much point in trying to build a skyscraper in two-week increments) it should be considered a vital skill today in any PM’s services.
If you want to learn more about how you could successfully improve project results with agile project management, reach out to our team at www.i2a.co.uk/contact for advice and support.