Since the early 2000s, the Agile methodology has become a staple project management approach for many technology organizations. Most software development teams today practice Agile in some form, and elements of it have made their way into many work environments. The word itself has even become more popular, as thought leaders today talk about the need to be more “agile” across the world of business. But what does it actually mean to use an Agile project management approach in your business?
The Agile methodology is a project management process which breaks up projects into smaller tasks and stages. This bite-sizing of work allows agile teams to incorporate stakeholder feedback, re-evaluate work and take an iterative approach at every point of the process. One of the most common approaches to Agile involves chunking up work into short phases of development, known as sprints. This allows the team to work quickly and then re-evaluate that work with managers and stakeholders regularly in sprint planning and daily scrums. Upon review, the project team and stakeholders can then continue their current track or change plans for their upcoming sprints. Compared to traditional project management approaches, Agile prioritizes speed, flexibility, teamwork and stakeholder needs.
The idea behind Agile emerged in the early 2000s from a group of software developers who established four main Agile principles:
These values, enshrined in the Agile Manifesto launched in 2001, shaped the Agile project management approach and transformed the software development industry.
Up until that point, Waterfall was considered the preferred approach in tackling software development projects. While ground-breaking when it first appeared in the 1970s, Waterfall had become burdensome by the 2000s. Crucially, it involved heavy amounts of documentation and decisive planning before a project could even begin. Once work actually began, those plans were strictly followed by separate, often siloed teams, making it difficult to adapt to issues or changes in needs. By comparison, teams using Agile development methods could begin work faster, adapt to issues as they arose and plan directly with their customers and stakeholders.
Compared to Waterfall, the benefits of Agile were obvious to technology companies in the 2000s. The advantages of Agile software development extend beyond just the world of programming as many other industries now incorporate Agile in their workflows. So, what has made Agile so attractive to so many project managers and business leaders?
At its core, the Agile methodology is about being able to respond to changes in goals, environment or process issues. With an Agile framework, the ability to evaluate your current work, timelines and project needs are built into the approach. If a stakeholder wants to change the scope or direction of a project, scrums and sprint planning provide opportunities for the team to change course. If a team member discovers an issue with a current task or part of a project, the schedule can be adapted to tackle the issue quickly. Rather than your project teams producing something that no longer meets customer needs, Agile allows you to quickly change course.
With this level of flexibility, Agile is also able to stay aligned with the ever changing demands and needs of clients and customers. With any project, the goals and scope outlined at the beginning between your team and your stakeholders rarely stays the same. Perhaps extra work and needs have arisen with your client that they hadn’t foreseen, or the demands of the end consumer have changed over time. Whatever the reason for your stakeholder’s change of plans, Agile allows you to be more responsive to those changes so you can deliver quickly and avoid backlog. This ensures that deliverables meet the evolving expectations of your clients, no matter how far they travel from the project start.
Of course, the Agile methodology wouldn’t have the name if it wasn’t agile by nature. By bite-sizing your teams’ tasks and giving them shorter, defined work periods, Agile lets your team focus and work faster. At a basic level, this means that products can get to market or to clients faster. But this speed alongside the ability to adapt is the core combo that makes Agile compelling to businesses of all varieties. When problems arise, your team can change tack and deal with them quickly. There’s no time spent going back to original plans or documents: you raise the issue in a scrum, schedule for it, and then solve it. In this way, Agile helps teams to stay focused on individual tasks and complete them on time.
Agile isn’t a foolproof solution, however. As with any project management approach, there are things that it excels at and things that need to be taken into consideration when using it. Just as Waterfall, there are drawbacks and challenges to using Agile that can get in the way of work if not managed appropriately.
With the ability to quickly adapt to issues and changes to process, it’s important to watch your overall project and scope. Agile allows you to change plans and work fast but moving between tasks quickly can blind you to how much progress is being made overall. Even if your team is working efficiently, you may overshoot on budget or time if the list of tasks created by sprint planning grows unchecked. Agile teams and project managers need to stay on top of their project’s scope and roadmap to ensure the amount of work they are taking on doesn’t balloon out of control.
It’s not just scope that can slip away from a team using an Agile process. When teams use sprint planning, they’re able to be flexible in their schedules and priorities based on current needs. However, once team members start to move around and tackle new tasks or support on problems, the schedule needs to flex to accommodate that. If you’re keeping to a strict schedule, you need to ensure that sprint planning is still staying within that timeframe.
Also, while self-organizing teams may be jumping between various tasks based on need, they will also eventually need to come back to their assigned tasks. At this point, it’s on Agile project managers to know where the team is on all tasks and to ensure that nothing is left behind. Otherwise, work that was thought to be done may be forgotten over the course of numerous rapid-pace sprints.
In the Agile approach, the prioritization of teamwork and rapid response naturally means that communication is paramount. Team members need to be able to communicate their current progress, whether any issues have arisen and if they need help with ease. This communication needs to happen regularly between all members of the team, and it needs to feed directly into your planning. It’s essential to stay aligned with stakeholders, as you’re only able to change your plans if you know what your stakeholders want.
If you’re interested in adopting the Agile project management methodology for your team, there are many tried-and-tested strategies and practices—sprints and scrums being some of the most common. Of course, using the right project management software and tools can also make or break an Agile planning approach. Here are some of the most important processes and methods to establishing and following an Agile methodology:
In order to know what work needs to be done in the next sprint, you need to know what’s already been completed. As such, your team need to be masters of keeping track of their progress. Backlog refinement, or backlog grooming, is a technique commonly used by Agile teams. It centers around providing teams with transparency, prioritizing backlog items and ensuring that the items topping the list are ready for delivery. Scrum teams will often use planning walls or Kanban boards to keep track of things, but many opt for a task management software. Dropbox allows for the integration of task management software, such as Trello, keeping your team synced up on processes across apps in real-time.
Proper communication is the cornerstone of any Agile project management framework. So, giving your team the means and opportunities to communicate at regular intervals is paramount. While sprints are typically run in 2-3 weeks bursts, many scrum masters host daily “stand-ups” with their teams to keep on top of progress day-to-day. While your specific communication cadence is up to you and your team, using tools can help you facilitate those conversations. Dropbox Spaces allow you to store all of your content in one organized place while effectively coordinating your team. By assigning to-dos or leaving comments you can provide your colleagues with the context and direction needed to stay in sync. Integrations with real-time chat and videoconferencing apps like Slack and Zoom can also help you host team meetings and planning sessions. You can share files and begin conversations directly from Dropbox, reducing the time spent switching between tabs and context-switching. This is especially useful for communicating with remote teams—or with team members whose desks are just too far away.
With Agile, it can be tempting to just jump straight from one task to the next, ticking them off as you go. It’s important however to make space for reviews and sprint retrospectives in Agile processes to prevent cases of team tunnel vision. Building time for review at the end of each sprint allows for team members to re-evaluate their own work and prioritize.
Post-mortem style sprint reviews should also be used to examine how your planning has affected a project over its life cycle. For these, keeping track and having proper records of your work is essential. Dropbox has built-in version control features that can help you review your team’s files at every stage of development at these times. It can also be used during stand-ups to see an individual team member’s progress or roll-back changes that may not have been approved.
The Agile methodology has been transformative for many businesses and managers in terms of the way they work and the success they see. It has been a driving force in software development processes since the 2000s, and elements of it have permeated across the world of work. Whether you’re considering sitting down for a team scrum tomorrow morning or just sticking to emails, it seems that the Agile methodology is here to stay.