The Benefits of an Agile Approach to Project Management

Learning by Doing

Patrick Mayfield
Consider the Agile Approach. Patrick Mayfield

Elizabeth says: Today I'm delighted to be giving the floor (the screen?) to someone I have known and been inspired by for a long time. Patrick Mayfield, a non-executive Director of Pearce Mayfield, is going to share his expertise and talk about the benefits of an Agile approach to project management and explains why he believes this mindset is more relevant in the current climate. Patrick, over to you!

The more traditional “Waterfall" approach to project management, which all the major project frameworks such as PRINCE2®, APM BoK and PMBoK® came from, works well in more stable contexts. There is a clear case that the world we operate in since PRINCE2® was launched in 1996 is now far more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (which you’ll see abbreviated as VUCA. Waterfall approaches that encourage thorough big design at the beginning are still relevant where we can be confident of requirements before work begins that these will not need to change significantly during the life of the project. 

However, such are the volatility of operational drivers that bear upon businesses that often the customer simply must adapt. The urgency of these drivers will not allow them to wait until the end of the project. So this might require frequent changes throughout a project. With a waterfall process, this probably means expensive re-working of the plan and wasted effort.

This leads to our belief that taking the Agile approach of frequent small deliveries coupled with a more continuous conversation with the customer allows much greater flexibility and delivers results, and therefore benefits, much more quickly.

The beauty of Agile is that customers can decide what they want to achieve as they see what the suppliers can achieve.

Its approach is one of ‘learning by doing,’ allowing teams to reflect on their experiences as they go along and adapt accordingly. 

The success of Agile comes down to a number of key elements. The 3 main factors in the success of Agile are set out below.

Success Factor #1: A Self-Organizing Team

To start with, you need a self-organizing team. By moving away from silo working, team members are encouraged to use their overlapping skills and work together, which in turn gives them much greater empowerment and satisfaction.

Success Factor #2: Time-Boxing and Requirements Management

Then there's 'timeboxing,' where the emphasis is on fixing the time and cost elements of a project but also allowing the plan to evolve so requirements can be prioritized, with crucial input from a customer representative, as work progresses. The Agile contract between customer and supplier is radically different to the expectations of Waterfall; requirements are flexible, within agreed parameters, but time and cost are not.

It’s always tempting to put too many priorities into the 'must haves' section of the requirements. Agile practice will usually keep these to around 40% of the total effort. Scope creep is one of the 7 things that can derail your project, so this must be managed effectively.

Similarly, Agile teams will also ensure there is only a finite number of tasks in the 'doing' category – work currently being carried out right now – to help reduce the complexity of projects at any one time.

Success Factor #3:  People Engagement

People engagement is a critical part of Agile working and is successful because all the different stakeholders within a teamwork closer together and are empowered to have more say in both what they do and the order of the work. This is recognized as being much more motivational than the classic 'command and control' approaches which tend to be common among management. 

Agile Is Not What You Think

Of course, not everyone is ready to embrace Agile and one of the common misconceptions is that there is some sort of overall unifying Agile methodology.

That rather misses the point.

 There is no one right way of organizing and managing an Agile project, and that’s what makes it so attractive to some, and threatening to others.

Read next: What is Kanban?

Some try to adopt Agile techniques while at the same time continuing with a waterfall perspective, but as you might expect, this is unlikely to deliver success – it is the Agile way of working that makes the techniques work, rather than the other way round.

Lastly, there are those who think Agile is only relevant to software development, but that’s simply not true – it can equally be used on a variety of non-software examples, such as renovating a large building, improving business processes or improving job aids for customer-facing personnel. 

Common Barriers to Agile Working

One of the main reasons why Agile won’t work is if an organization operates a culture of micromanagement and entrenched silos of working that won’t allow collaborative behaviors.

Other issues are likely to include weak team leadership or trying to implement it in organizations where the nature of the work is such that working releases is inconceivable in small iterations. 

Why Agile Is Here to Stay

Agile has made such significant inroads that it cannot be dismissed as a fad and should be understood by all managers who are involved in innovation and development. To ignore it now is to miss an opportunity that can deliver quick results and achieve cost savings.

Apple, Amazon, GE Healthcare and Salesforce.com are among those organizations that are already using Agile, having recognized that it is better suited to the complexities of 21st Century organizations.

And above all, Agile knows how to get the best out of knowledge workers and ensure they stay motivated. Here are 5 ways to motivate your team whether you work in an Agile environment or not.

Faced with those conclusions – why wouldn’t you want to be more Agile?

Read more about Patrick in his bio here.