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Agile Project Management Part Two

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 Two of a four-part series. Part One explored what agile project management is and what makes a project agile.

Self-directing Teams

Agile project teams are small and self-direct (or manage themselves). Small is easy to achieve, however, self-directed is not as easy as project teams usually rely on the project manager to prepare plans, tell them what to do, track status and take corrective action. What is needed is an agile workforce staff with the ability (and willingness) to play any number of roles at any time. This requires managers with skills and the understanding of how to use matrix management and empowerment to get the best from staff that report elsewhere – even if they are in a different organization. It also needs open communication to support rapid sharing of knowledge, a good understanding of what resources are available and how they can be mobilized with short notice. The move toward flexible working also helps as this can allow staff to work from any location at the times that suit the needs of the organization.

An agile team takes responsibility for their own work to ensure that the best possible result is delivered with the resources available. Any commitments to outcomes and timescales are agreed to by their stakeholders and all members of the team have access to all the information needed to plan and manage their own work. Planning is done in informal workshops with specialists participating when their skills and experience are needed, but the team agrees to what is achievable, where the risks are and what can be done to make the project a success.

The features of an effective self-directing agile project team include:

  • Participative Leadership – Clear leadership role that is shared and enables different team members to take the lead according to task and builds shared norms and values, which create a sense of team identity.
  • Aligned on Purpose and Vision – Shared purpose with a shared vision with team goals that align with personal and organizational goals through an approach based on mutual trust and respect for ability.
  • Task Focused – Tasks are challenging, but there is individual accountability and ownership, an equality of workload and a focus on the quality of the outcomes.
  • Shared Responsibility – Shared decision making, with the rewards linked to team, rather than individual performance, good cooperation with clear authority and responsibility.
  • Innovative Problem Solving – Creative solutions enabled through freedom to express ideas and share opinions, through respect for unusual ideas and suggestions from people who are likely to be working outside their normal comfort zone.
  • Communicative – Open communication channels supported by a common language and terminology, great external communications and purposeful meetings.
  • Responsive – Flexible and adaptive outward focus on stakeholders and a willingness to take calculated risks while welcoming changing requirements.

The Project Manager as Coach and Facilitator

Self-directing teams need a coach to keep them on track, which is the responsibility of the project manager. It is important for the team to plan and manage their own work, but they also need to understand the bigger picture. The project manager as coach acts as the facilitator of the team’s planning and status meetings, encouraging and guiding them as well as making sure the team recognizes problems when they arise and agrees on how best to deal with them. Agile project managers must work hard to not fall into the easy role of acting as a go-between, separating the stakeholder or business owner from the team. Project managers are needed and are important, but they facilitate and never decide or manage. The agile approach needs project managers to keep the spotlight on the vision, inspiring the team and championing the project. They must develop a strong team-oriented approach with the emphasis on collaboration. This means establishing clear ownership of shared goals, dealing with anything that could prevent achieving those goals and introducing enablers (awareness, resources, information) to support achieving them. Agile projects provide an opportunity to make a difference, therefore, the project manager can help by getting the team to develop a vision of what success would look and feel like.

Stakeholder Focus

An agile team will do everything they can to maintain continuous (or at least regular) contact with their stakeholders as that is essential to deliver what the stakeholder needs. Stakeholders need guidance about what is expected of them in an agile project. Most importantly, they should make the cost decisions based on input from the team. They also have to prioritize what happens next. Ultimately, stakeholders decide whether something is done, or good enough. Agreeing to the responsibilities of stakeholders with them is critical. An Agile team does not rely on a requirements specification or even the project brief as they know that needs can quickly change. To make sure they deliver what the stakeholders really need, the team includes stakeholders in activities as often as possible. After each step in the project, the team will talk to stakeholders about what has been developed and actively seek feedback. An agile team will not carry on in the face of unachievable expectations or make important decisions themselves. They will present the facts of the project to their stakeholder(s) (and service managers and any other stakeholders who must be involved) and make the hard decisions together.


Collaboration takes on many forms in an agile team, each of them important to the team’s ability to be successful in achieving outcomes, through clear communication and minimizing stalling and waiting for approval or information. The first type of collaboration happens within the team, which ideally includes people with specialist skills for the project. This enables each team member to learn about what the others do and builds a healthier project environment as well as strengthening the team as each member becomes more knowledgeable and effective.

Cross-discipline collaboration also allows the team to explore and answer specialist questions and provides the foundation for adapting to what is learned by bringing about project success. Collaboration also includes working as closely as possible with service managers and other stakeholders in the project. Open communication and transparent disclosure of information allows for quick learning and more effective adaptation. It also builds trust, therefore, when inevitable problems arise they will be ready to work together on creating solutions. A good starting point for collaborative working is to identify common aims with shared priority outcomes and focus on how these could be delivered through joint working. Where there is a chance of initial resistance it is better to stress the benefits of staying agile rather than promoting the agile project management approach.

Anticipating Change

The agile approach is not a short cut or quick way of doing things. The emphasis is placed on specific things that are needed to make agile projects succeed such as accurately anticipating change. We all have skills and abilities in anticipating change, but it is important to make time to really listen to stakeholders. Looking at complaints can be a useful starting point, however, it is worthwhile setting up stakeholder focus groups to look at particular areas of the project and to improve understanding of what is possible with the resources available. Agile project teams make good use of existing networks by encouraging knowledge through sharing and collecting data on patterns of demand in as many different ways as possible. As well as helping to inform thinking about future needs. This can also help understand which communication channels are the most successful and which are not.

Next up: Discover steps on how to deliver an agile system.

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 (at)