Agile Project Management Part One
By Tony Riches
All organizations must cope with continual change while still delivering the best products and services. This is nothing new and managers have become skilled at juggling changing priorities. What is different is that customer expectations have changed. People expect shops to be open earlier and later, to get answers online 24 hours a day, seven days a week and appointments outside of normal working hours. At the same time there is huge pressure to reduce operating costs, staff numbers and to generally do more with less. Change will happen and needs to happen. Many traditional project management approaches are about attempting to limit change to “keep the project on track.” This is fundamentally the wrong approach. If something needs to change with a project, it should or else risk project failure and dissatisfied stakeholders. There is no simple solution, but the ideas that follow can help deliver change that is sustainable, affordable and valued by customers. This is Part One of a four-part series.
Why be Agile?
Individuals have to respond quickly to changing needs or they could waste scarce resources doing the wrong things. The need to develop the capability to anticipate changes is needed so individuals can develop strategies to realign products and services in time. This is what is meant by “agility,” which comes from the Latin root agere or “to do” and means the ability to move and change direction and position of the body (organization) quickly and effectively while under control.
Like the crew of a supertanker, individuals often cannot move quickly, but also cannot wait for opportunities or threats to come over the visible horizon. This means they have to supplement experience with early warning systems to see what is ahead as early as possible. Some of the information is unclear and needs analysis to turn it into information to support decisions about how best to respond. Like the supertanker crew, individuals may also be able to do something about what can be seen ahead. Individuals can move resources to where they are needed most, manage stakeholder expectations and even change the way services are delivered.
What is Agile Project Management?
Agile project management is a practical approach, which can help manage change consistently and effectively. It includes common sense ideas from a range of project management methods developed over many years, but recognizes that individuals have to be flexible, adaptable and agile. By working with stakeholders to understand what is needed, they can plan and make changes that enable them to adjust to new situations.
Agile project management is about lean thinking and making the best use of limited resources as well as effective coaching and mentoring to build successful, high performing teams.
The agile approach has its roots in computer software development, where requirements were changing too quickly for conventional methods to keep up. A new way of working called rapid application development (RAD) was created to cope with this and was gradually built into a set of techniques and management controls that can enable delivery twice as quickly for half the cost with fewer errors. Although it has technical foundations, most of the principles can easily be transferred to non-IT projects. They are also ideal for managing change where there is a shortage of project management capabilities and a multi-agency approach is needed. Agile is about continuous improvement with a focus on minimizing cost and avoidance of waste. As a result of that focus, stakeholders are involved in the early and continuous delivery of outcomes. Agile project management is not an alternative to formal methods such as PRINCE2 as they work well together.
Agile project management is:
- Evolutionary – Adapting to and anticipating internal and external events.
- Modular – With scalable components to meet the needs of stakeholders.
- Time Based – Dividing work into short “timeboxes” and parallel work cycles with good feedback loops and progress checks.
- Simple – As the project evolves it is assumed that lower cost solutions are the best unless a compelling argument can be made as to why a more costly solution should be attempted.
- About Expecting Change – Requirements will change over time and project stakeholders may change as the project progresses.
- Based on Rapid Feedback – The time between an action and the feedback is minimized by working closely with stakeholders to understand requirements, analyze them and develop an action plan that provides opportunities for feedback.
What Makes a Project Agile?
Lots of things are called projects, but as a rule projects should have an agreed start and end date, measurable benefits and a team led by a project manager. Projects can be of any size, from an office move to transforming an entire service or delivering a landmark building, but individuals can use the same steps, tools and techniques to make sure they are delivered on time and within budget. The features that make a project agile include:
- Satisfying stakeholders through early and continuous delivery of valued outcomes.
- Welcoming changing requirements.
- Project teams and stakeholders working closely together.
- Sharing information with the project team is face-to-face.
- Assuming that the simplest solution is the best.
- The project team reflecting on how to become more effective and adjusting accordingly at regular intervals.
An Iterative Approach
Agile is about agreeing to the most important outcomes with the business owner and delivering them as quickly as possible. If new requirements emerge the project can be taken in a radically new direction with less fuss than a traditional project. Lean thinking sets the goal of minimization of waste and limiting work in progress. Reducing the potential for wasted work applies at all stages of the project.
Next up: Part Two will explore self-directing teams and the project manager as coach.
Tony Riches is a chief officer at Cardiff Council and has over 20 years experience managing a wide range of projects and programs. These have included significant regeneration programs such as the creation of Cardiff Bay and the new retail center for the city to complex social projects such as developing multi-agency approaches to reducing child poverty. A PRINCE2 practitioner, he was involved in the development of the methodology and is a keen advocate of innovative agile project management approaches. Contact Tony Riches at t.riches (at) cardiff.gov.uk.