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Agile Project Management Part Four

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 Four of a four-part series. Part One explored what agile project management is and what makes a project agile. Part Two explored self-directing teams and the project manager as coach. Part Three explored first steps in delivering an agile project.

Understanding Risks and Resolving Issues

After the analysis of risks, issues often happen too late to sort out with any preventative actions and sometimes get overlooked completely. The agile approach is not about short cuts or taking the easy way out, therefore, it is useful to set up an initial risk analysis workshop with a mix of specialists and stakeholders to agree to the main risks and estimate the probability of them happening and the impact. Risk management is about making the most of opportunities and making the right decisions. This may be achieved through transferring risks, controlling risks or living with risks. Risk management is not just about insurance because over 80 percent of risks are not insurable. The aim is to identify the most severe risks and plan to minimize the risks. Throughout the project continue to focus on the main risks facing the project and keep tending to the early warning signs as risks can and do change over time. Some risks arise because of the nature of what is going on and others are risks common to any project, but most project risks are under an individual’s direct influence such as the skills of the project team, the timetable and decision making arrangements.

Important changes need to be backed up by a good understanding of the risks. These must be logged and plans must be made to mitigate them. This could include contingency plans and budgets, staff cover or accepting the risk. The agile approach is to keep it simple and agree on which risks need to get the most attention and why, using a redgray and green color coding system based on a 4 x 4 matrix as follows:

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  • Red: Risks must get regular attention and have to be addressed.
  • Gray: Risks need to be watched to make sure they do not turn red.
  • Blue: Risks are OK to accept, but worth reviewing every couple months.

Issues are closely related to risks, but are usually hard to predict and need to be dealt with promptly. Risks are things that are yet to happen, therefore, an issue is something that has already happened.

Be Responsive to Opportunities

As well as responding to risks the early warning scanning that forms part of the agile approach is also looking out for opportunities. Depending on the scale of the project it can be useful to set up an opportunity log to make sure that every idea and possibility is looked at with responsibility allocated for follow up.

Step 2 – Delivering a Project

Agile projects are about embracing change and making it easier. The challenge is to avoid slipping into conventional project management and keep scanning the environment for opportunities, adapting accordingly.

Early Delivery and Project Quality Assurance

The project team needs a reliable way of balancing the three variables of time, cost and quality to make sure that whatever is produced meets the needs of stakeholders and leads to the desired outcomes and benefits. The agile approach to this is to make the stakeholders responsible for quality assurance of the outcomes by fully engaging them in the “plan-do-check-act” cycle. Agile projects work well when the stakeholders are intimately involved with quality assurance. The main role, however, is to provide feedback. They should be as involved as possible in the “doing” and checking that it is right. The early delivery of tangibles is what makes the project real for the stakeholders and this will enhance understanding of what it is really offering.

This is when useful discussion of the project logic begins. It is important that stakeholders say “no that is not right” and when new stakeholders (who until then have not even noticed the project exists) emerge and want to join in the argument. The purpose of early delivery is about putting the project on test in its environment. It is important that these early deliveries embody the essence of what the project is about. They demonstrate the logic and only then can it be challenged.

Tracking Costs

A clear approach to understanding costs is at the heart of agile project management. Costing decisions are based on estimates made at every iteration and are an important part of why it is able to adapt. With agile methods the business owner makes continual and regular decisions up front about priorities based on regular cost / time comparisons and may decide to re-prioritize work based on those estimated costs (which are usually in terms of time needed). Tracking by project managers is still needed, but it is more about ensuring that there are enough resources to keep the project on track within the desired time or for a given resource, about providing a realistic end date for a given scope. The business owner can add more resources, reduce or increase scope or accept later delivery. The real cost (or time) emerges quickly. Within a few iterations the true cost(s) of work and the end date for a given scope in the project as a whole can be forecasted early. As a result, there should be no surprises and if things start to go off the rails, the situation should become obvious quickly and corrective action taken. As both the cost and the benefit can change as more information is discovered or as external circumstances change, an agile project is able to adapt to deliver the maximum value for a known cost at any time. Agile methods are about minimizing the cost of change and making it as transparent and as easy as possible. It is rare for a change to be without penalty, but at least those penalties are clear and the decision is presented to the business owner to make. Short iterations mean that if changes are needed that mean work is wasted, the waste is limited.

Supporting the Team

Sometimes the best people to lead change are not those who have spent years in the concerned specialist areas. Agility is about moving resources quickly to where they are needed most, therefore, this needs to be the basis for deciding who does what. Encourage people to work outside comfort zones, show understanding if they find it to be a steep learning curve and let them know they are trusted by delegating authority as well as responsibility. Some team members will adjust well, however, others may need coaching to help build confidence in relating to past experiences and the new project work. Others will benefit from specialized mentoring where the aim is to build capability through skills transfer.

Step 3 – Closing a Project

Projects obviously need to be closed once they are completed, therefore, everyone understands how the new changes will be managed and who is responsible. It is sometimes necessary to suspend projects for funding or resource reasons, due to lack of policy or for political reasons or to get legal or procurement advice before proceeding. It is important to close them in a way that enables them to be restarted easily at a later date. The good thing about agile projects is that they aim to produce real business value at each iteration and they start generating real value earlier. If they need to be suspended then any losses are usually restricted to what was delivered at that point and they will have a smaller impact than a similar suspension would have on a conventional project.

Lessons Learned

It is also important to learn from what worked well and what did not. At the end of each phase or step the project team should ask:

  • What worked well?
  • What caused difficulties?
  • How good were the estimates?
  • Did it really add value?
  • Can it show measurable benefits?
  • Is it progressing toward success?
  • What should be done differently next time?

Housekeeping

Project closure is also about making sure that project objectives were met and that anything that has been produced or delivered was handed over and accepted by the stakeholders. Any issues and risks should be closed or any follow up actions should be raised. A project closure report (including any lessons learned) can form the basis for communicating the closure of the project to all stakeholders and interested parties.

Closing the Loop

Every project has the potential to help teams run future projects more effectively. The outcome of the lessons learned analysis needs to be fed into future projects, therefore, the approach can continue to adapt and develop. Through a constant cycle of learning and adaptation, the agile approach can produce real value for stakeholders and enable the organization to do so more effectively.

Further Information

This overview of how an individual can use agile project management to deliver successful change is only a starting point. The method is adaptive and continually evolving with experience on different projects.

About the Author:

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@cardiff.gov.uk.