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What Is Agile Project Management in Business?

3 min read

When working on a project, you can take a variety of approaches to complete it.  Project managers often turn to specific models when sketching out their plans for completion.

One of the most prominent and successful models over the last few decades has been an approach or framework known as agile project management.

The key defining aspect of an agile project is that work is delivered incrementally (often via short ‘sprints’ that usually last up to a couple of weeks) and regular customer feedback is incorporated into the development process.

More broadly, the use of a collection of short sprints with frequent deliverables and frequent stakeholder feedback leads to a more iterative, adaptive and yes – agile – approach to projects.

How did agile project management develop?

Agile project management really took hold in the United States in the software industry starting in the 1990s.  A key component driving the rise of agile was the coming of the internet, which put pressure on software development teams (and the companies that employed them) to delivery software more rapidly and to respond to customer feedback more rapidly.

Prior to the 1990s, an agile or ‘lean’ approach to projects was most prominently pioneered at the Japanese company Toyota, where it was used for efficient and high-quality production of their cars in manufacturing.

The ‘formal’ start of agile was in early 2001, when 17 software developers from a variety of companies met to write the ‘Agile Manifesto.’  The Agile Manifesto was only 68 words long and identified a cultural approach to software development that did not contain a lot of prescriptive specifics.

In the two decades since the manifesto was published, agile project management has moved beyond software to industries of all types.

What are the core values of agile project management?

The Agile Manifesto identified four core values:

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
4. Responding to change over following a plan.

It’s easier to understand the significance of these values when you look at them in contrast to the prevailing traditional approach to project management, which is often called the ‘waterfall’ approach.

In a (simplified version of) the traditional approach, a customer might come to a development company and deliver a two-hundred page ‘spec’ of the software product they want built.  Every single feature would be spelled out in detail and the software company would perhaps be given one year to develop the product.

The customer would come back in 12 months and see what the company had built.

The software company would then develop an elaborate 12-month project map, often with a complicated and intricate visual layout (these visuals, gave rise to the name ‘waterfall’).

The problems that arose from this approach were several.  First, with such long timelines, there weren’t regular opportunities for the client to confirm that the company was actually building what they wanted.  A misunderstanding of the spec document would go unnoticed.

And the delivery of such a large project with such a big spec would often lead to several smaller teams being in different ‘silos’ working on different aspects without all members understanding the full vision of the project.

And then, of course, a twelve-month timeline doesn’t allow for changes the customer might need in the product that might be driven by changing business conditions after six months.

So agile is a radically different approach. It values smaller teams where every member knows all aspects of the project.  It values keeping the customer in the loop, knowing the customers needs might evolve.  It values delivering the project in increments, so that at most you can waste a few weeks of work instead of several months of work.

What are the benefits of agile project management?

Agile has come to dominate software development and has spread to all industries, government and even the military.  So what are the key benefits driving this widespread adoption?

The first is just higher-quality products that serve the actual needs of customers better.  When customer feedback is regularly incorporated you have a much better chance of delivering a useful and valuable product.

The second is more empowered, engaged team members.  Working in a true agile environment means having the satisfaction of real goal-oriented teamwork and also having a say in how much work can reasonably be done in a given amount of time.  There is also more satisfaction from delivering products you’re confident are going to be successful.

Another benefit is stronger and happier collaboration between software development teams and their clients.  Agile should allow everyone to be aligned on shared goals and keep misunderstandings and disappointments to a minimum.

Agile is also more efficient.  People spend more time on doing actual work rather than developing long, intricate plans that might never actually be implemented.  This saves money and makes people happier.