Easing Into Agile Project Management: How to Get Started

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Management

Northeastern’s Joe Griffin, Associate Vice President of Business Development and associate teaching professor in the Master of Science in Project Management program, explains what project managers should know to use the Agile method effectively. 

Easing into agile project management is a bit like easing back into a fitness program—there are a lot of options. For that fitness program, you need to decide on a gym, an approach, and a schedule. In order to get the most from it, you need to create a routine that will fit your life, not force you to re-organize it all at once. Getting into agile project management is very similar, hence, the importance of easing into it.

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What Is Agile Project Management?

It’s important to know what agile is. By agile, we mean more than simply bringing a measure of speed and deftness to the way you manage projects. At its core, agile can be seen first as a philosophy—one that is contained within four values and 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto.

Second, agile can be seen as a collection of specific “agile” methodologies—or rather, a set of practices that live out a philosophy. You may be familiar with terms such as “Scrum” or “Extreme Programming” (XP). Scrum is the most popular methodology in the marketplace; it’s quite common to see someone identify him or herself as a Certified Scrum Master (CSM).

Scrum and XP share similar traits, which come from the Agile Manifesto, including that they both:

  • Place a significant emphasis on the team and client regularly interacting
  • Create working software in an iterative fashion to allow users to test functionality as they program
  • Focus on seeking interactions with the customer and end users in a collaborative fashion to ensure the product meets the needs in reality
  • Stay committed to a more open and dynamic scope based on feedback from the customers and end users

Knowing When to Use Agile Project Management

You need to know when to use agile. Agile project management was conceived and matured within the context of software development projects. Yet, we see the language and principles of agile being applied to many more project types—although some project types don’t lend themselves to a “pure” agile approach.

Let’s look at an example: One of the principles of agile is to deliver working software in an iterative fashion. So, instead of coding all the features into a new software solution before you preview it with the client, you may code in 15 features and then preview it with the end users to get their feedback and make necessary changes. But one cannot build only 15 features of a house and then adjust, without extreme expense. So following Scrum when building a house just won’t work.

Of course, we are beginning to see agile applied to non-software project types. This is because the iterative and interactive nature of an agile methodology is appealing. In a more traditional approach to project management, one will set the scope of work for the entire project and attempt to maintain close adherence to it, protecting against scope creep. Adherence to scope is key, given that the scope is properly identified. Too often, the deliverables produced at the end of the project don’t fully achieve the business goals for the organization that commissioned the project. Therefore, the idea that if we take an agile approach, we can more easily modify and iterate on the scope of work to ensure stronger alignment to the desired business outcomes is appealing to organizations.

There are project types, however, where one can apply an agile philosophy, but not necessarily an agile methodology. For instance, in building a home, one can have an agile philosophy about working with the client to ensure that the end product is exactly what she wants, but one cannot strictly apply the scrum methodology to such a project. The key here is to make sure you distinguish between when you can apply an agile methodology and when you can follow an agile philosophy.

Agile Project Management Isn’t Always the Answer 

You need to know that agile is not the answer to all project types. We alluded to this previously, but it bears repeating. Agile is a wonderful philosophy that has produced a number of really effective and helpful methodologies. A strictly agile methodology won’t work for a number of project types that have a very strict scope and development requirements, so don’t assume that scrum will save your projects. It may, but it may not.

Learning Agile Takes Time

Finally, what is really important to know about easing into agile project management is that you can’t learn all you need and should know about agile from an article. You need to dedicate the time and attention necessary to not simply learning the terms and approaches, but also to learning how to apply the philosophy and methodologies in a mature, contextually relevant manner to your own project environment.

At a minimum, you want training, but you should seek out training that is experiential. By this, I mean training that allows you to apply the principles and methodologies in a way that simulates reality, so that when you propose and execute an agile project at work, you’re well prepared for success.

This is one reason why, here at Northeastern, we developed the Graduate Certificate in Agile Project Management, as well as Agile Project Management degree concentrations within our Master of Science in Project Management. We wanted to ensure that people were well prepared for success in planning and executing agile-oriented projects.

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