What is Agile project management?

By this point, almost everyone’s heard of Agile. But do you know what it actually means?

Agile is an increasingly popular methodology for planning and delivering business projects, with a big focus on flexibility and iteration.

In this guide, we’ll explain the core Agile principles, how it’s different from other ways to manage projects, like Waterfall and Scrum, and how you can use it in your own work.

To begin, we’ll take a look at the most important principles derived from the Agile manifesto.

Iterative work

As the name suggests, Agile is quick.

In a ‘normal’, non-Agile project, once you get a contract, you deliver the finished work to the client all at once. If it takes you six months, they’re getting nothing at all for half a year.

If it turns out they want something different, or you didn’t understand the brief correctly, that’s a lot of money, time and goodwill down the drain.

Agile’s approach is to have something presentable as quickly as possible, rather than waiting until you’re ‘done’.

It might still take six months to build the product, but getting the client a demo every month makes it much easier to steer things in the right direction.

Agile project management workflow
The Agile project management workflow

If you’re making software, this often means releasing demo builds or continual updates. For print media, it might be a draft of the overall piece that gets more detail over time. 

Of course, things rarely go that nicely. What happens when it all goes wrong?

Course correction

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

That quote is paraphrased from Field Marshal Helmuth von Melkte, a famous Prussian Field Marshal in the late-1800s. He’s credited as the architect of Germany’s Wars of Unification, so he was no amateur when it came to meticulous, large-scale planning.

However detailed your project plan is, things are going to change. The only question is how well you adapt to those changes. 

A traditional project style like Waterfall (covered later) is more closed-off and resistant to change. This inevitably leads to tension when the original plan fails. Either time or money goes over budget, and many projects simply crash into a wall. 

Because of its quick turnaround, Agile makes curveballs easy to deal with. Less time is invested upfront in things that might change at any time.

This means Agile projects have a far higher chance to finish successfully than others.

Independence

Nobody likes a boss breathing down their neck.

That’s why most Agile implementations don’t have a traditional manager, who tells you what to do and how to do it. If there is a project leader, their role is more like that of a coach.

The project leader is there to offer support and keep everyone on track. Their authority is about keeping things Agile, not managing cost, scope or risk, like a traditional manager would.

The team themselves decide how to achieve their goals, and this independence helps them work efficiently, without being slowed down with endless meetings and memos.

Why use Agile project management?

There are a lot of reasons to root for Agile.

A 2017 study showed that companies who used Agile vs waterfall or other traditional styles of project management were around 10% more productive and 10% more profitable.

Ten percent might not sound like a lot. But would you turn down a 10% pay raise? 

Besides number-crunching, Agile also makes your projects more transparent and predictable. In a traditional project, you and your client wouldn’t know how things would turn out until the day of the deadline. 

Agile, however, pushes for regular reviews and course-corrections with the client, meaning everybody knows the state of the project at all times.

This is of particular interest to tech companies. More so than other industries, the software world is constantly changing. New security vulnerabilities pop up every month, needing patches, and the frameworks you’re using can get updated or changed at any time. 

Add on shifting client requirements mean software projects often end up very different than the initial plan.

Of course, some things are doomed to fail, but Agile’s quick turnaround cycle means that if something just isn’t going to work, you find out in a few weeks, not months.

When not to use Agile

Despite what it sounds like, Agile isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems. It won’t magically extend a deadline or save you a million dollars.

Because Agile is centered around responding to change, it makes most sense in projects with a lot of uncertainty or instability. This is why it’s associated with startups.

But once a product is released and successful, it’s unlikely to change significantly from then on. And, of course, sometimes you do know everything upfront: a contract to build a bridge isn’t going to suddenly become one for a highway. Both of these would make it bad for Agile.

There’s also the ‘fail fast’ mentality to deal with. What is Agile project management, if not running through bad ideas quickly to get them out of the way?

Sometimes, however, you can’t afford to fail.

Think about that bridge—thousands of people might cross it every day. You’d better get it right the first time, unless you wanted very expensive lawsuits!

The bottom line is this: Agile’s not a magic spell. You can’t cast it to double your profits.

Like anything, it’s good in some situations and bad in others. You wouldn’t use a hammer to wash the dishes, so don’t use Agile for stable projects where failure isn’t an option.

Who uses Agile project management?

Agile is used throughout the business world—sometimes in surprising places.

Did you know, for example, that the American radio show NPR has used Agile for nearly a decade? After their public funding was cut, they used Agile principles to react to user feedback and lower their costs dramatically. 

A listener survey, for example, showed that people wanted more shows that ‘sounded like them’: light, fun, conversational. This resulted in a greater emphasis on live shows, like Ask Me Another, which are also far cheaper and easier to produce than pre-recorded content. 

You can find similar examples anywhere from finance to museums. (Yes, really.)

The methodology is most popular, of course, as Agile software development. That’s not too surprising—the original Agile manifesto was written by software programmers. 

One example of this is Amazon. Their famous ‘two-pizza rule’ kept tech teams small enough to only need two pizzas during meetings. This simple guideline promoted tight, independent groups that worked quickly and without unnecessary oversight.

OK, but what about an actual product made by an Agile team? Something you use daily, perhaps? Enter Spotify, one of the world’s most popular music streaming services.

Spotify works extensively with Agile principles, going so far as to hire experts with Agile certifications from outside the company.

The speed and efficiency of Agile project management lets them compete against much bigger companies with skin in the music streaming game, like Google and Apple. As senior Agile advisor Jeff Sutherland pointed out, Apple’s iTunes ended up copying product features from Spotify, most of which were made possible by effective Agile software development. 

Today, Spotify is worth about $21 billion, and it’s widely recognised as being the saviour of the music industry.

In other words? Agile helped David beat Goliath. Then David became Goliath.

Spotify’s growth since 2011 (Source: Statista)

Agile and other methodologies

Hearing about the wonders of Agile is one thing. But it’s hard to judge something by itself—it’s more useful to compare it with other things trying to achieve the same goals.

To that end, let’s compare Agile to two of the other big names in project management: Waterfall, which came before it, and Scrum, which came from it.

Agile vs Waterfall

Waterfall project management has been the default methodology since 1970, with its roots in  the traditional way to run a project, and has been the default. 

Agile vs Waterfall project management

You meet with clients, set goals, and plow on ahead for a few months. Once it’s done, you ship it off to the client, hope they like it, and dust off your hands.

If only life was that simple!

Clients—or your boss’s boss—change their mind, and they do it often. If, halfway through a project, you learned that you needed to add localization for ten more languages, could you?

Waterfall projects aren’t made to handle that kind of sudden change.

Agile is.

Of course, in the Agile vs waterfall war, it’s not an either-or. A project can be on either end of the spectrum, and some are best in the middle. Taking a few principles from the Agile manifesto is perfectly fine, and definitely more common than going all-in, all the time.

Agile vs Scrum

First, a disclaimer – Scrum is actually a method of Agile project management. But it works differently enough that it’s worth talking about.

The Agile Scrum methodology is based on ‘sprints’.

These are set periods of time, usually a week or two, where a team has a repeating list of roles, meetings and assignments. Every sprint is the same length, and by the end of each one, you aim to have a workable version of the product in your hands.

Combining Agile and Scrum tries to get you the best of both worlds. You get the flexibility and quick turnaround of Agile, plus a strict release schedule that stops team members from getting too independent. Order and freedom—combined at last.

There are downsides, naturally.

Scrums often don’t have a final deadline, just one sprint after the other. This easily leads to ‘feature creep’, where a product has dozens of bells and whistles nobody asked for. It takes a good manager to recognize feature creep and nip it in the bud.

However, Scrum is one of the most popular methods of Agile project management. In a late-2019 survey by B2B software comparison site Capterra, 37% of the 300+ respondents used Scrum over other forms like Kanban, Lean and Scrumban.

Distribution of Agile Methods from 2019 Capterra survey (source)

How to learn Agile project management

When you learn about Agile, it’s tempting to go all-in. But don’t make that frantic phonecall to your boss just yet – Agile is a big topic, you likely still have a lot left to learn. 

The easiest way to start learning, of course, is with an online project management course.

With a course like this one from FutureLearn, you can learn more about how the Agile and scrum methodologies work. You won’t get a certification at the end, but it’s a useful primer for people who want to learn more about it.

You can then take things a step further by working towards an Agile project manager certification. 

Agile certifications boost your credibility and show you know what you’re talking about. Hard proof like that is a good way to boost your salary and open doors to new jobs. (Remember how Spotify hired outsiders, because they had the right certifications?)

Particularly valuable is the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) course from Pluralsight. In this certification-prep course, you’ll learn the basics of the industry-standard PRINCE2® management method, and how to adapt it to an Agile environment.

Conclusion

You now know what Agile project management is, when to use it and how it’s different from other methods, like waterfall and scrum.

Making your projects Agile can get you increased flexibility, profits and productivity – and all it takes is reorganizing your teams!

If you’re interested in learning more about project management, we’ve curated the best online project management courses for you to choose from.

Many people think Agile project management is the future of business. You might end up one of them!