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Agile Project Management: The Fundamentals

By: Dr. Michael Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM

Agile Project Management Journey: An Overview

Greetings, fellow project managers! Today, we embark on a journey to understand the fundamentals of Agile Project Management Methodology. As an experienced project manager specializing in using an Agile approach to project management, the aim is to keep projects within scope and budget, and I can appreciate the daunting task of understanding the essentials of the Agile Project Management Framework and how it relates to Scrum, the various positions associated with the method, Kanban, and more. So to help provide a bit of clarity, I thought I would help connect the dots.

Agile versus Scrum: Understanding the Nuance

An Agile project management approach is flexible and collaborative and a philosophy commonly adopted in software development. The methodology emphasizes responding to changes efficiently and self-organizing teams and tasks into prioritized backlogs based on user feedback. Agile project management focuses on regularly allocating time for each project phase.

Scrum, on the other hand, is a specific Agile framework that is supportive of adaptive software development. It breaks development projects into small, manageable builds known as sprints, each with a defined function that is developed and tested. The Scrum Master ensures the team adheres to the methodology and addresses any issues to guarantee the project’s success.

Agile is a broader methodology, while Scrum is a specific framework within Agile, with roles and ceremonies. Agile is like a philosophy, and Scrum is like a recipe within that philosophy, often used in software development.

The critical difference between the two is that while an Agile approach is a broad philosophy about delivering software, Scrum is a precise methodology that teams follow to realize Agile principles. This means Scrum always adheres to Agile principles, but not all Agile implementations are Scrum. Scrum tends to be more rigid, with a set schedule, while Agile projects accommodate a broader range of team structures and project designs.

As an example of an Agile project, I remember one particular instance; my agile software development team and I had to create several new products within a portfolio. The customer didn’t have a complete idea of what he wanted or how to get there. He only knew that he required authoritative information and wanted it in near-real time. To compound the challenge, he wanted the ability to manipulate the data to tease out answers to specific questions that would arise, even though he did not know what those questions would be until an unknown scenario occurred. So the team and I needed a flexible framework to adapt to the dynamic environment. Based on the Agile Project Management methodology’s flexibility and its iterative approach by nature, my team and I had the latitude to move quickly and continuously provide value to the changing priorities.

Embracing Agile Project Management Frameworks

Scrum: Where the Game Begins

"Smiling woman with long hair pointing to a whiteboard with colorful sticky notes, UI sketches, and flowcharts, in a bright, airy office."

Scrum is a lightweight, adaptive, and agile framework used to manage and control complex work, especially in software development, but applicable across various industries. Originating from an analogy by Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) comparing high-performing, cross-functional teams to the ‘scrum’ formation in rugby, today’s Scrum framework encapsulates principles, practices, and roles for team collaboration and agile project management practices.

According to Schwaber & Sutherland (2020), Scrum assists “people, teams and organizations [to] generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems” (p. 1). Agile Alliance (n.d.) further elaborates that Scrum provides a means for teams to establish a hypothesis of how they think something works, try it out, reflect on the experience, and make appropriate adjustments. It leverages fundamental principles such as transparency, inspection, customer feedback, and adaptation.

In other words, with an agile approach to agile software development, Scrum offers a cross-functional team the flexibility to try new things, see how it works, and adjust the direction based on the findings to make progress and add value while developing complex projects. Moreover, Scrum is an excellent starting point for most Agile enthusiasts. 

Roles in Scrum:

Scrum Product Owner:

"Project manager with glasses gesturing towards sticky notes on a glass wall during a collaborative session with seated team members."

In an Agile approach to project management, a Scrum Product Owner plays a pivotal role, charged with maximizing the value of the product developed by the Agile team. As the Agile Business Consortium highlighted, a Product Owner should have a comprehensive understanding of the Scrum framework, encompassing its theory, practices, roles, rules, and values. Moreover, they should know how these components interact with the Scrum team and other stakeholders.

How it does it, according to Scrum Alliance and Agile Business Consortium, emphasizes that the Product Owner is responsible for creating a value-driven product backlog, prioritizing it, and breaking down more prominent themes and epics into manageable, actionable user stories. They also facilitate the rapid application development and adoption of the Scrum framework to optimize products and solutions in short development cycles.

According to Scrum Alliance, the Product Owner not only determines the team’s future work but also juggles the needs of multiple stakeholders. They are equipped with crucial skills and tools for their role, which involves creating a product vision, understanding customers’ needs, and, thus, bringing the most valuable product to the market.

In short, a Product Owner is responsible for working with various project stakeholders together, understanding the work that still needs to be performed, and prioritizing it to meet customer needs and to create value.

Scrum Master:

"Focused Project Manager writing on a clear board with strategy notes, symbolizing thoughtful planning in project management."

One of the pivotal roles in Scrum is that of the Scrum Master. They are the coach and guide for the team, ensuring that everyone understands and adheres to the Scrum framework’s principles, values, and practices. All too often, people new to an Agile team believe that the Scrum Master is the “boss” or someone “in charge” of the team. On the contrary, the Scrum Master is a servant leader, leading from a position of influence rather than authority. As part of the Scrum framework, this position is for someone who is an expert at Scrum and can, therefore, coach others.

A Scrum Master, as described by both Scrum Alliance and Agile Alliance, plays a crucial role in managing software development projects and supporting the team’s continuous improvement. Their responsibilities include:

They are also tasked with clearing obstacles, fostering an effective working environment, managing team dynamics, ensuring a positive relationship between the team and the product owner, and shielding the team from external distractions. In essence, the Scrum Master’s role is to enable the team to work as effectively as possible within the Scrum framework. 

Developers:

"Individual at a high-tech workstation with multiple virtual interface screens, demonstrating a modern project management system."

Scrum Developers, or team members, form the backbone of the Scrum team. They have the autonomy to decide how to achieve the work outlined by the Product Owner. They are structured and empowered to plan and organize their work, adhering to a mutually agreed upon level of quality—the definition of done. Throughout the sprint, developers work collectively towards the sprint goal, inspecting and adapting their plan at least daily (Scrum Alliance, n.d.).

To fulfill their objectives, Scrum developers perform several tasks, including managing the sprint backlog, conducting daily scrums for inspection and adaptation, and contributing to the sprint goal. A successful development team exhibits desirable qualities such as self-organization, cross-functionality, and a one-team mentality. They can transform product backlog into potentially releasable functionality. Collectively, they possess all the necessary skills to create a product increment. Scrum assigns no specific titles to development team members, and accountability is shared by the team as a whole, regardless of the individual’s particular skills or areas of focus (Scrum Alliance, n.d.).

Scrum Values:

The Scrum framework is an Agile approach to project management designed to address complex adaptive problems while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value. Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, the originators of Scrum, provide a guide that is continuously updated to reflect the evolving nature of Scrum. Scrum is characterized by its intentional incompleteness – it is simple to understand but challenging to master (Scrum Alliance, n.d.).

The underlying theory of Scrum relies heavily on the values that guide it, as Scrum is designed to be used by people whose diverse beliefs and values influence their behavior. There are five key Scrum values: commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect. These values form the heart of Scrum and are essential for the framework to work in practice (Scrum Alliance, n.d.). It values individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan (Agile Alliance, n.d.).

Embracing Agile Project Management Frameworks

"Project manager in a bright orange blazer interacting with a digital interface showcasing 'Agile' methodology concepts and tools."

The Kanban Method in the Agile framework was inspired by the Lean manufacturing principles used in the Toyota Production System in Japan. As a bit of background, Lean manufacturing aims to maximize customer value while minimizing waste, thereby creating more value with fewer resources. Toyota’s system used visual cards – Kanbans – to signal steps in the production process, optimizing the flow of work and reducing waste.

Translating this concept to knowledge-based work environments, the Kanban Method enables organizations to visualize their work, limit work in progress (WIP), and drive evolutionary change starting with their existing workflows. Kanban operates on a continuous flow of tasks, which reflects its Lean origins in ensuring efficient and steady work progression.

When compared to Scrum, both aim to reduce waste and enhance efficiency through the iterative development of work systems and process flows. They also adopt pull systems, where team members must complete specific tasks before initiating new ones. However, their application differs significantly. Scrum prescribes predefined roles for team members and strictly adheres to timeboxed sprints for measuring project deliverables, which offers limited flexibility for changes. In contrast, Kanban, grounded in its Lean origins, fosters equal collaboration among team members and provides greater adaptability throughout a project’s lifecycle. This flexibility allows for efficient and responsive management of varying workflows and tasks, reinforcing its Lean commitment to minimizing waste and maximizing value.

A Kanban board is an exceptionally useful to that provides transparency through its visual representation and affords agile project management teams to work together efficiently. This tool allows teams to stay organized and move quickly through their workflow by utilizing a system of cards and columns (see the image above this section). Kanban boards are also highly customizable and allow users to specify the exact details for each task or project. By creating a clear definition of tasks, members of an agile team can easily determine which steps must be completed, what their priorities are, and who is responsible for them. This ensures that every member of the team is aware of their role in accomplishing the project’s goals.

Initiating the Agile Adventure

The first step in any Agile journey is to identify your project’s purpose and define its scope. Gather your team, stakeholders, and end-users for a project kickoff meeting. In this meeting, we set the stage for success by aligning everyone’s expectations and outlining the benefits of the agile project’s goals. From there, we will map out the project’s timeline and scope, breaking it down into smaller tasks. Once these key pieces are in place, an agile development team can move forward with confidence.

Agile Project Planning: Setting the Course

"Team member presenting a strategic approach on sticky notes to engaged colleagues in a brainstorming session."

Agile planning is like charting a flight plan for an aviation adventure. You need a destination (project objectives), a map (product backlog), and an airplane (your agile software development process and team) ready to weather any storm. It is all about setting the project goals and objectives, creating a roadmap to success, and ensuring you have the right resources in place. The aim is to allow teams to focus on delivering value early and frequently. Here are the critical elements of agile project planning:

1. Defining Project Objectives: Clear project objectives and goals and maintain the momentum as the project progresses, serving as the guiding light for all activities.

2. Detailing the Product Backlog: The product backlog, broken down into user stories that represent customer needs, serves as the roadmap for the project. Each user story guides the team’s progress, helping to outline specific tasks, features, and requirements.

3. Regular Review of User Stories: User stories need to be reviewed regularly to ensure alignment with the product vision. Each story should be revised as needed based on feedback from team members and customers, ensuring progress toward the desired outcome and collective understanding.

4. Identifying Improvement Opportunities: The product backlog and user stories can highlight areas requiring additional training or knowledge, thereby helping plan for future development.

5. Encouraging Collaboration: User stories provide an excellent tool for promoting collaboration. The method of constant feedback and input ensures that everyone on the team works together to achieve the best possible product.

6. Establishing Resource Availability: Agile teams need resources that can be swiftly allocated. Having readily available resources, such as developers, designers, and product owners, can speed up the project’s pace.

7. Monitoring Agile Metrics: Tracking agile metrics like velocity, throughput time, and lead time offers insights into the project’s progress and pinpoints areas needing improvement.

Estimating Effort and Velocity: Maintaining Steady Progress

"Two professionals reviewing data and charts on a document, with focus on collaborative analysis and decision-making in project management."

Estimating effort and velocity for agile project teams is a critical skill for any project manager, akin to gauging conditions for a complex task. It involves working with your team to estimate how much they can complete in each Sprint (velocity) and using that to set realistic expectations for your stakeholders.

In general, velocity is determined by the output of previous Sprints. If your team can generate and sustain a high velocity, you can be confident that work will be completed within an appropriate timeframe.

Also, it’s important to note that no two projects are identical—even if they have similar goals or deadlines. Estimating effort essentially involves examining the project’s scope and forecasting the required time for completion. Different teams may need different amounts of effort, depending on their experience or skillset.

Managing Agile Projects within Budget and Scope

"Defocused background with upward trend lines on a graph, symbolizing positive project progress and data analysis results."

Keeping projects on track is an art that I’ve honed through hands-on experience and a fair share of learning moments. An Agile mindset calls for a unique approach, especially when it comes to budget and scope. Here are some nuggets of wisdom I’ve picked up along my journey:

Your stakeholders are key players. Regularly updating them on project progress and actively seeking their input helps align everyone’s understanding and minimizes the chance of any misunderstandings.

To keep your project within budget and scope, you need to lay out clear objectives from the get-go and deconstruct them into manageable tasks. This not only simplifies tracking expenditure but also makes it easier to adapt to any curveballs thrown your way. Regular progress reviews and timely plan adjustments as the project unfolds are also crucial.

Don’t underestimate the value of team feedback. Engage them at every stage of the project and tap into their experience and expertise whenever you can. This proactive approach ensures timely changes, thus sidestepping expensive delays.

Controlling Project Scope: Avoiding Scope Creep

"Professional focusing on selecting a specific block from a set of wooden blocks symbolizing the recruitment process in project management."

Scope creep can unexpectedly pull your project away from its planned path, similar to an unforeseen obstacle disrupting your journey. However, Agile principles equip you to firmly control your scope.

As a project manager utilizing Agile and Scrum, it’s crucial to identify the project’s scope, which entails what the project aims to achieve. This includes delineating necessary features and deliverables for the project’s completion. A well-articulated scope ensures that all aspects related to the project have been considered and included.

Furthermore, Agile and Scrum necessitate transparency from all involved parties: users, stakeholders, and project teams. This open communication allows everyone to stay updated on the project’s progress and helps avert scope creep. Scope creep happens when new requirements and tasks are added to a project without correspondingly adjusting timelines or budgets. Having transparency at every project stage helps tackle this issue by enabling stakeholders to easily spot if new project requirements are being added.

Lastly, Agile and Scrum prioritize continuous improvement. By conducting reviews and retrospectives, teams can pinpoint areas where they can enhance their process to become more efficient in the future. This feedback loop often leads to Agile and Scrum-managed projects reaching completion faster compared to projects managed with traditional methods.

Scaling Agile: Readying for Greater Projects

As your projects and teams expand, you may need to scale Agile methodologies. The key is to maintain alignment and ensure that the Agile principles that guided your smaller projects persist. 

Start by effectively communicating objectives across teams and assigning roles and responsibilities accordingly. Set project milestones and ensure everyone is aware of them so your team can stay on track. Additionally, break down large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks to avoid overwhelming your team with the project’s scale.

Agile and Scrum methodologies encourage adaptation throughout a project’s lifecycle, provided the process is closely monitored. This approach offers flexibility for teams to experiment with different approaches and innovate solutions to challenging problems. By fostering a continuous improvement mindset, your team will be better equipped to take on larger projects in the future.

Remember, this scaling should occur in a controlled manner. Establish a structured action plan by identifying patterns and trends in the data, then ascertain that your team shares the same vision. Always leave room for experimentation and maintain an open mind to new ideas and approaches.

Unlocking the Potential of Agile and Scrum

Agile and Scrum provide project managers with the structure, guidance, and communication channels to lead projects to success. Utilizing these tools, teams can stay aligned with their objectives while staying flexible in the face of change.

Agile and Scrum empower teams to accomplish their goals more efficiently and effectively. They provide the framework for successful project execution, helping projects reach their maximum potential. With this in mind, don’t let scope creep or any other obstacle impede success; use Agile principles and Scrum methodologies to navigate your projects efficiently and unlock their true potential.

The best way to ensure successful project completion is to remain agile in every sense. As the environment and context continuously change, managers must be willing to adjust their approach accordingly. Take advantage of Agile and Scrum tools and strategies, design transparent communication channels, stay organized, and above all else, foster a culture of collaboration.

Agile and Scrum provide the foundations to take projects to the next level. With proper planning and guidance, these powerful tools can help manage time, resources, and teams more efficiently while avoiding scope creep. Agile methodology offers a comprehensive framework for managing projects from start to finish; use it to unlock the full potential of each project you manage.

Good luck! May your projects soar to success!

FAQs

What is Agile?

Agile is a flexible and collaborative agile project management approach and philosophy commonly adopted in software development.

What is Scrum?

Scrum is a methodology that breaks development projects into small, manageable builds known as sprints, each with a defined function that is developed and tested.

What is Kanban?

Kanban Method enables organizations to visualize their work, limit work in progress (WIP), and drive evolutionary change starting with their existing workflows and operate on a continuous flow of tasks.

What is a Kanban board?

Kanban board is a tool that provides transparency through its visual representation. It allows teams to stay organized and move quickly through their workflow by using a system of cards and columns that are highly customizable and allow users to provide tasks on a project. Developers can easily determine which steps must be completed, what their priorities are, and who is responsible for them.

What are the key roles within a Scrum project?

The Key roles are Product OwnerScrum Master, and Developers.

What is Daily Stand-up?

Daily Stand-ups are short meetings among the development team to ensure it stays well-connected, addresses any challenges, and ensures everyone is moving towards the right objectives. Typically, the Daily Stand-up is no more than 15 minutes.

References:

Agile Alliance. (n.d.). Scrum. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://www.agilealliance.org/glossary/scrum

Agile Alliance. (2019). Product ownership explained. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://www.agilealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/product-ownership-explained.pdf

Agile Alliance. (n.d.). The Agile Manifesto. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://www.agilealliance.org/agile101/the-agile-manifesto/

Agile Business Consortium. (n.d.). Scrum product owner. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://agilebusinessproducts.org/products/scrum/product-owner.html

Scrum Alliance. (n.d.). Certified scrum product owner. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://www.scrumalliance.org/get-certified/product-owner-track/certified-scrum-product-owner

Scrum Alliance. (n.d.). Scrum team. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://resources.scrumalliance.org/Article/scrum-team

Scrum Alliance. (n.d.). Scrum theory and values. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://www.scrumalliance.org/learn-about-scrum/scrum-elearning-series/scrum-theory-and-values#:~:text=Main%20takeaway%3A%20The%20five%20Scrum,a%20Scrum%20Alliance®%20member

Schwaber, K., & Sutherland, J. (2020). The Scrum Guide: The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game. Retrieved August 2, 2023, from https://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html

Takeuchi, H., & Nonaka, I. (1986). The New New Product Development Game. Harvard Business Review, 64(1), 137-146.

About the author: Dr. Michael J. Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM, founder of ROSEMET, is a combat-wounded warrior and retired senior military officer turned esteemed academic and project management expert. Holding a doctorate from Creighton University and serving as an Assistant Professor at Western Carolina University, Dr. Shick’s dedication goes beyond credentials, as he commits to empowering individuals and organizations toward project excellence. With an extensive military, academic, and project leadership background, he epitomizes resilience, expertise, and steadfast devotion to fostering growth and success in others.

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