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What is Agile in Project Management?

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
 and 
  —  
October 28, 2022

If you work in the software development sphere, you’ve almost certainly heard the term “agile” thrown around your office. Agile has been the go-to methodology for software development and innovation since the early 2000s, and there are plenty of stories to prove that it works. Agile is spreading beyond the tech world and becoming standard practice across several industries.

But what is Agile methodology, and how can it help you with project management?

What is agile project management?

The Agile concept originated from “The Agile Manifesto,” a 68-word credo created by 17 software engineers (called the “Snowbird 17”) in 2001. The authors behind the manifesto were frustrated by the software development industry, particularly its long lead times between releases, excessive documentation, and failure to consider the customer’s needs. Their publication made shockwaves through the industry, resulting in many developers abandoning the old development practices (known as “Waterfall”) and adopting this new system.

The simplest definition of Agile is: “a project management approach that enables software developers (and other professionals) to respond to customer feedback and release new iterations more quickly.” The Agile process breaks down a project into small, manageable increments led by a collaborative and self-organizing team.

The best way to understand Agile is to look at the values and principles outlined by those original developers.

The agile values

The best way to understand Agile is to look at the values and principles outlined by those original developers.

People over processes and tools

When the Snowbird 17 were developing Agile, the software development industry was hyper-focused on processes. The belief seemed that the right tools and techniques would lead to successful software, no matter who was doing the work. The Snowbird 17 rejected this concept, suggesting that the right team was essential for success.

Project managers can implement this value into their work by considering their team before starting a new project. The right combination of personalities, talents, and experience can significantly impact your success.

Working prototypes over excessive documentation

We can all agree that documentation is essential. Every project needs clear documentation to keep track of changes, manage timelines and workflows, and everything else that goes into successful deliverables. However, working in Agile means making the deliverables the top priority.

This methodology prioritizes promptly providing the customer with finished software (or other projects) and documenting the project development to suit those timelines. Streamlining documentation is crucial and gives team members only the information they need to complete their project phase.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

This value speaks to the adaptive nature of Agile. Agile project managers nurture a feedback loop between the development team and the customer. This customer collaboration enables the team to adjust their project plan throughout the development process and improves their chances of achieving customer satisfaction.

Responding to change by following a plan

In the early 2000s, updating software was considered an excess expense. Therefore, development teams had to create detailed plans before writing a single line of code — and they were expected to stick to the plan.

Of course, anyone who works in project management knows that isn’t always possible. Projects run into backlogs, bottlenecks, and countless other issues that can veer the team off the original roadmap.

Agile practices encourage teams to embrace the uncertainty of project development by assessing the project after each phase and adjusting priorities as necessary. This adaptive process ensures that the development team always addresses customer needs first and foremost.

The 12 principles of agile

In addition to the Agile values we discussed, the Snowbird 17 also developed 12 Agile principles. These principles help guide Agile teams as they move through each development cycle in their project.

The Agile principles are as follows:

1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through the early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

Agile project managers know that a happy customer receives regular deliverables rather than making clients wait extended periods between software releases, project updates, or other deliverables.

2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.

Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. There is time for feedback and changes baked into the Agile framework, so development teams can more easily accommodate changing priorities and meet their client’s business needs.

3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for a shorter timescale.

“Working software” is the top priority in Agile software development. Agile developers work in iterations rather than creating a one-time finished product. Creating a product (or meeting project goals) satisfies the customer, and the Agile approach still allows for changes down the road.

4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

It is essential that project managers, teams, and clients align their goals and priorities. Therefore, the feedback look (Agile value 3) is crucial during development.

5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to do the job.

Agile value 1 emphasizes the need for talented team members. This principle pushes this notion further, asserting that the right team will accomplish its goals without micromanagement. Project managers must give their teams the support they need to engage with their work.

6. A face-to-face conversation is the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team.

We’ll admit this principle is a product of its time. The early 2000s were not equipped for remote work the way we are today, and now it’s much easier to practice Agile with a hybrid or remote team. However, this principle highlights the need for regular team communication, and we fully agree.

7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.

In many cases, your client doesn’t care about your team’s metrics or goals—they just want the product in their hands. The Agile approach keeps this in mind and prioritizes deliverables, which help satisfy your clients.

8. Agile processes promote sustainable development.

The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. Meeting regular delivery goals requires consistency. This is why Agile asks teams to set an achievable, repeatable timeline for their work.

9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

While much of Agile for business focuses on project development and management, it is also important to remember that the work should exhibit excellence, whether you’re designing software or doing any other project.

10. Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.

Agile’s iterative approach allows developers to focus on meeting their primary goals and delivering the work on time. Small changes or updates can always be a part of the next iteration.

11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Similar to principle 5, this principle asserts that teams are most effective when they take ownership of a project. Allowing teams to self-organize gives them power over the project, leading to more diligent work.

12. The team regularly reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

This final principle reflects how vital continuous improvement is in Agile. Not only are Agile teams constantly improving their deliverables with each iteration, but they’re constantly learning how to improve themselves.

Traditional project management vs. agile project management

There are many positive aspects of Agile project management. The focus on customer satisfaction, communication, and regular improvement makes Agile very attractive to project managers — but how does it compare to the old Waterfall method? Let’s compare:

Waterfall

  • Start with a specific target
  • Rigid planning process
  • One development cycle
  • Test once development is complete
  • Minimal client involvement

Agile

  • Start with an overall vision
  • Adaptable planning and evolution
  • Multiple development cycles
  • Test throughout the process
  • Consistent client involvement

There are some cases in which Waterfall is the ideal project management approach. Small, simple projects are better suited to Waterfall, as well as projects from clients who don’t want to offer feedback. But if your project is more extensive, complex, and has changing priorities throughout development, Agile is the best way to manage things.

Benefits of agile project management

Agile management yields several benefits, which is why it’s become so popular in the IT industry and beyond. The top benefits of agile project management include more adaptability, greater customer satisfaction, and more efficient teams.

More adaptability

When you have the freedom to adapt your project as you go, you can more closely align with your customer’s priorities and deliver products that meet their needs.

Greater customer satisfaction

Agile not only helps you align with your client’s needs, but it streamlines the time between planning and delivery. This makes your client much happier and improves your business’s reputation.

More efficient teams

Agile’s focus on people over processes and continuous improvement makes team development a priority. This method helps your team become stronger and more efficient with every deliverable.

The six phases of agile project management

1. Planning

Like most project management methods, Agile starts with planning. However, this phase doesn’t require an overly-detailed roadmap through the project. It only needs three things:

  • A project vision statement that outlines the scope, milestones, and deliverables.
  • A rough timeline for each deliverable.
  • A backlog of items you want to change in later iterations.

2. Designing

The initial design phase in software development is when developers create a user interface and build the software’s architecture. For other projects, this is the period in which project managers build their teams, let them organize, and begin delegating tasks.

3. Developing

This is the meat of Agile project management: the period of development and adaptation. During this time, managers should communicate regularly with the client and adjust priorities or change the roadmap and timelines as necessary.

4. Testing

The testing phase is when the client gets their first deliverables. This is a time to ensure that the team is on the right track and meeting the customer’s needs. If they are, they can move on to the following deliverables. If not, it’s time to adapt and redo steps three and four.

5. Deploying

To your customer, this is the final step of your project development. Your team should have met all their requirements and submitted their deliverables, leaving your client happy with the outcome.

6. Reviewing

As we discussed in Agile principle 12, there is always room to review and improve. Therefore, the final step for an agile team is to debrief after completing a project and find ways to become more efficient or successful with the next job.

Types of agile methodologies

Agile is an umbrella term for several more specific management approaches. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but scrum, kanban, and Lean are the most popular.

Scrum

Scrum is an agile methodology for work that small teams take on. The leader (or Scrum Master) sets clear objectives for each day’s work, and the team works to “sprint” and complete their goals during the day.

Kanban

Kanban is ideal for teams with lots of visual learners. This approach monitors workflows using tasks written on cards on a board, each phase represented by a different column. As team members work, they move the cards across the board to represent the task’s stage.

Related: Scrum vs Kanban Board: Which to use?

Lean Development

As the name suggests, Lean development aims to be as lean as possible throughout the project. They eliminate all non-essential activities, shorten the development life cycle, and focus on big-picture changes rather than the details.

The bottom line

Whichever Agile approach you use, remember that the goal is the same: to provide the maximum value to your customers. 

Ask questions to determine your client’s needs, stick to the big picture before you zero in on small changes, and always be ready to adapt and evolve!

Looking for a framework to start with common agile ceremonies? MURAL’s Agile templates help you easily run retrospectives, sprint reviews, and more!

About the author

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.