Agile: a marketing buzzword or the Holy Grail of project management?

During the last decade, the tech industry witnessed many success stories that involved the Agile project management methodology. The web is full of tales showing companies dramatically improving the performance of their IT development projects with Agile.

The rise of Agile is a fact. The methodology is today used across many industries, ranging from corporations and media to tech, or even government.

Here’s everything you need to know about Agile project management before you consider bringing it to your software development projects.

What is Agile?

Agile development is basically a method for managing IT development teams and projects.

It promotes an iterative approach where different phases of the project – like design or testing – are performed at the same time, in parallel.

In Agile frameworks (there are more than one!), tasks are broken into smaller elements called planning cycles.

Solutions and requirements are always evolving since they’re based on the project’s priorities.

Key principles of Agile

The word Agile emerged in the Agile manifesto written in 2001 by people who were frustrated with the traditional waterfall approach to managing software development projects.

The manifesto delineated the core principles of Agile project management which later developed into a list of key values that unite all Agile methods and make Agile different from other approaches.

Among the key principles of Agile are:

  • An empowered team

  • Active involvement of users

  • Requirements captured at a high level

  • Requirements evolve over a fixed timescale

  • The team develops small, incremental releases…

  • And constantly iterates them

  • Each feature needs to be completed for the team to move on

  • The team focuses on frequent delivery of products

  • The 80/20 rule is a must

Agile methodologies you need to know

Agile can be divided into three popular methods: DSDM, Scrum, and XP. All these methodologies are consistent with the key principles of Agile.

Often considered the original Agile development method, DSDM realizes all its key principles. You’ll see this methodology applied to projects developed mostly on the UK market.

Scrum is the most popular and widely adopted Agile development method. It concentrates on efficient management of tasks in a team-based development environment. It’s simple to implement and helps to solve critical management issues that IT development teams suffer from.

XP is an acronym for Extreme Programming. This Agile methodology focuses on the software engineering process itself. It addresses the analysis, development and testing with Agile-based approaches that boost product quality.

Scrum and XP are complementary because they focus on different aspects of software development projects and are founded on similar Agile concepts.

Pros and Cons of Agile

PROS

CONS

IT’S MORE FLEXIBLE

Agile accommodates frequent changes. Requirements are always evolving so teams can easily apply changes within the short planning cycles that are in fact characteristic for Agile.

PLANNING CAN BE TRICKY

Agile can be quite challenging for managers who like to plan a specific target delivery date. Moreover, cycle planning requires the time and effort from product resources, and not every manager will be prepared to handle this.

IT FOSTERS COLLABORATION

Team interaction is key in Agile. It requires every member of the team to be involved in the process. Agile promotes structured communication through pre-determined channels to allow easy progress tracking. All in all, Agile is geared at boosting team collaboration.

EXTERNAL SAKEHOLDERS MIGHT BE RELUCTANT

Agile is pretty unique, so sometimes it encounters resistance. Education and training are two good approaches to facilitate external stakeholder buy-in, but that’s just more work for the team and managers.

IT ENCOURAGES INVOLVEMENT FROM STAKEHOLDERS

Active involvement extends to key stakeholders as well. This way a product built with Agile methodology is accurate and its development is well-prioritized.

Agile teams continuously present the delivered parts of the product to stakeholders, encouraging them to become an active part of the development process.

TEAMS NEED TO BE SKILLED

Agile core teams are small, so they need to be highly skilled, preferably across different areas. For such a team to work, every member needs to be up-skilled on the Agile framework chosen by the manager.

IT REQUIRES LESS DOCUMENTATION

Agile values working software over documentation. But that doesn’t mean that you can chuck your documentation out of the window and forget about it.

Agile reduces the requirement documentation by evaluating it as any other feature. Distributing knowledge about the product is more important for external communication.

IT’S INTENSE

Agile development is intense for developers. Every feature needs to be completed in 100% within each iteration, and iterations usually come one after the other in a continuous stream.

As you can imagine, that can be demanding. But smart managers are able to find a suitable pace for the team to alleviate the negative impact of Agile’s intensity.

IT BOOSTS IMPROVEMENT OVER ITERATIONS

Agile guarantees continuous improvement thanks to the short planning cycles. Every planing cycle helps the team to learn a lesson and implement it in the next iterations.

IT’S ACTUALLY ENJOYABLE

All the involvement and collaboration make Agile a truly enjoyable way of building software. Teams don’t get large specs, but discuss requirements at workshops. Agile teams say goodbye to long status reports, project plans, or change management committees.

They’re empowered to make decisions on their own, as long as these bring about a product that fits the vision of all stakeholders.

That’s why many developers consider Agile a far more rewarding approach. And with that type of motivation comes high performance, creativity, and drive to innovation.

Is Agile like a magic bullet?

Agile project management can be exciting and highly effective, but it’s not a universal solution to all software development projects. In fact, some projects suit agile more than others.

Agile software projects require a slightly different variant of project management. The focus is on the manager’s communication and coordination skills. It’s definitely less about control and planning ahead. And that’s not every manager’s cup of tea.

Teams which use Agile benefit from the collaboration and visibility that builds a more rewarding experience, motivating them to create amazing software.

Agile isn’t the Holy Grail of software project management. But it offers approaches that can take any development project to the next level.

The trick is to get acquainted with the techniques from traditional waterfall and Agile. Pick those which work best for a specific project, and create a custom mix for managing your development team.

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