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How to Get Started with Agile Planning as a Project Manager

by: John Coburn
How to Get Started with Agile Planning as a Project Manager

Interest in agile planning as a project management approach has been steadily increasing over the past twenty years. That’s not a vague statement or an empty assumption – it’s a demonstrable fact, proven through Google Trends data:

agile-on-the-rise-google-trends

So whether you’re a new project manager who wants to hit the ground running with agile planning or you’re an established manager who’s looking to branch out and add agile skills, this guide will give you a few tips and pointers from those who have “been there, done that.”

What is Agile Planning?

To be clear, “agile planning” and “agile project management” do not necessarily mean the same thing as agile software development (despite often being used interchangeably). 

Agile software development is a collection of iterative development methodologies based on the twelve principles and additional core values laid out in the original Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer 
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
  3. Deliver working software frequently
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily 
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information is face-to-face conversation
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility
  10. Simplicity is essential
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective

Over time, these principles have given rise to specific implementation and execution methodologies. According to Blueprint, the most popular of these include:

  • Agile Scrum Methodology
  • Lean Software Development
  • Kanban
  • Extreme Programming (XP)
  • Crystal
  • Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
  • Feature Driven Development (FDD)

Agile planning and agile project management involve applying these same principles of agility to the traditional project management process. As a result, having a working knowledge of these principles and methodologies – as well as how they differ from each other – may help facilitate your work with different organizations or on different projects within your company.

Is Agile Planning Better Than Traditional Project Management?

Despite growing interest in agile, it isn’t the right tool for all circumstances; some projects and some teams are simply more likely to benefit from a more traditional project management approach. As CIO contributing writer Moira Alexander notes in an article on the site, “[a]gile may not work as intended if a customer is not clear on goals, the project manager or team is inexperienced, or if they do not function well under significant pressure.”

Further, she explains, “Due to its less formal and more flexible processes, agile may not always be easily absorbed within larger more traditional organizations where there are significant amounts of rigidity or flexibility within processes, policies, or teams. It may also face problems being used with customers who similarly have rigid processes or operating methods.”

However, some evidence suggests that agile projects are more likely to meet their goals, more likely to be finished on time, and more likely to meet their budgets. PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: Capturing the Value of Project Management report, for instance, found the following differences in performance, based on organizational agility:

agile-vs-traditional-performance

Even if you anticipate primarily working in low organizational agility environments, having a working knowledge of agile planning best practices may prove valuable when it comes to overall performance. 

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

The Role of the Project Manager in an Agile Environment

If you come from a background in traditional project planning, one of the most striking differences you’ll encounter is that the project manager doesn’t usually plan or drive work for the team in an agile environment (though this can vary based on team dynamics and the adoption of specific methodologies).

As Jaya Panchavati, senior agile project manager at Sparta Systems, explains in an InformationWeek article, “When we shifted to agile at my organization, I was excited but concerned about where a project manager, like myself would fit into the picture. The primary roles in an agile environment – product owners, scrum masters and agile teams – don’t include a project manager, but I quickly learned the importance of my role.”

She continues, “With everyone focused on their own granular responsibilities, I, as a project manager, needed to have the bird’s-eye view of the project to ensure that the collaboration and communication was occurring at the appropriate levels to avoid potential project level issues that could impact the overall timeline of a project.”

Like Panchavati, your involvement in a project may shift to more oversight-oriented activities as you make the transition to an agile approach. If you’re new to project management, you may not experience such a disorienting shift, but you’ll still need to understand how the agile project planning process differs from traditional approaches.

Traditional vs Agile Project Plans

One of the biggest differences between agile and other project planning methodologies is the way project plans are organized. Traditional project plans, for instance, tend to be task-based, and tend to encompass the  entire project from start to finish. Consider the following traditional project planning process, provided by PMI:

  1. Determine the project objectives
  2. Collect the project requirements
  3. Define the project scope on a work level
  4. Identify dependencies between activities
  5. Estimate work effort and dependencies
  6. Prepare the overall schedule and project budget
  7. Receive approval
  8. Baseline the plan

In agile, given the discipline’s more iterative nature, project plans tend to be based more around features and releases. First, agile project planning generally involves a “pre-planning step,” which includes, “collecting and prioritizing business and technical requirements (the product backlog), team formation, and high-level time and cost estimation,” according to PMI.

Once this stage is complete, agile projects are driven by releases, each of which are intended to produce a tangible, incremental improvement to a working product. Release planning takes into consideration both the product’s existing backlog and potential iterations; individual releases may also encompass multiple updates to different product features.

agile-planning-flow-chart

Image Source: PMI

Release plans are supported in their execution by common agile practices such as sprint planning, daily meetings, sprint reviews, and retrospective. The specific way these and other project responsibilities are handled will depend, to some degree, on whether a defined agile project management methodology is being adopted.

Given that agile project plans typically encompass work in progress – rather than the entirety of the project – the amount of detail included can also be quite variable from one release to the next. This can be disconcerting to those who come from traditional project planning backgrounds, where accounting for every possible detail from the start is often considered a best practice.

But there’s a good reason for this variability. As Kent McDonald, writing for ProjectConnections, explains, “people are notoriously bad at foreseeing the future, even when conditions do not change at all. Given today’s chaotic business world, this approach often leaves plans outdated shortly after they are finished. It is completely reasonable to expect a team to be able to identify what they will be doing at a relatively detailed level for the next 2 to 4 weeks. Outside of that time frame, things become less clear because of changing business conditions, learning from the previous work, changes in the team, etc.” 

What exactly is included in a project plan depends – at least, in part – on the specific agile project management approach being used.

Scrum and Kanban Agile Project Management

Scrum and Kanban are – as of this writing – two of the best developed agile project management methodologies. Therefore, if you’re interested in pursuing an agile planning approach, familiarizing yourself with their differences will help you better understand how and when to deploy them (as well as what your role might look like within them).

The following chart from Atlassian offers a comparison between the two to help you get started:

scrum-versus-kanban

Planning for a Successful Agile Transition

If you’re joining a team that’s already up-and-running with agile, get started may be as simple as familiarizing yourself with the specific methodology being used (if any) and identifying your role and responsibilities.

If, on the other hand, you’re attempting to lead a transition from traditional to agile planning, there are a number of important cautions you’ll want to keep in mind. First, consider whether the team you’re resembles any of the use cases described by Alexander in her CIO article. If your team is large, formal, or inflexible, recognize that adopting agile planning may be more challenging. 

Even if your team appears to be an ideal candidate for agile planning, consider starting small – perhaps with a short exploratory project, rather than a major initiative. Easing your teammates into the approach slowly will allow you to find the process, tools, and workflows that best suit your organization and deliver the best results.

What You Can Do Now

  • Read up on the different agile project management methodologies – including Scrum, Kanban, and others – to familiarize yourself with their differences.
  • Evaluate your organization’s agile readiness. Do you see any red flags that will hinder agile adoption?
  • Identify a small project that can act as a testing ground for agile planning.

Just as agile is an iterative process, iterate your adoption of it. Test it in small ways and evaluate your results before deciding how to move forward.

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