Agile Project Management vs. Managing Agile Projects

Serious business or herding cats?

There’s a lot of controversy about agile transformation right now, particularly in the realm of project and portfolio management. While agile projects are nothing new, organizations are still struggling with the unpredictability agile brings, and how to seamlessly integrate agile projects into their operations without creating a whole new workstream to maintain them.

Although it may seem like herding cats, it’s safe to say that agile is no longer a trend — it’s a permanent fixture in business operations and one that needs to be seriously considered by anyone seeking ways to optimize processes. Agile as a methodology is gaining adoption with great success – and has gone from the go-to method for product management and delivery to a widely accepted practice for all types of projects (not just product-related projects). What does it mean to manage your projects with agile methodologies? Moreover, how does your project management office (PMO) manage these agile projects once you’ve taken the leap? There is a big impact to taking on agile projects with your PMO, but it is important to distinguish the practice of agile project management from simply managing agile projects.

Agile Project Management

Agile project management is modeled after a methodology best known by software developers who wanted to deliver products to market faster while also innovating during development and production. The method ensured that every software product that went to market met rapidly shifting customer expectations and delivered authentic value.

When applied to project management, being “agile” means breaking a given project into short bursts or sprints of activity while continuously adapting on the fly — also to ensure that the final product or deliverable meets or exceeds expectations of the customer, or in this case the stakeholders. Rather than creating a complex, inflexible, long-range plan with a series of set milestones and a fixed process, agile projects are completed iteratively, allowing project managers continuous opportunities to gather data, track progress and improve and refine deliverables.

There are lots of benefits to applying agile project management methods. For example, instead of getting to the end of a long project only to find numerous flaws in the end result that require a whole new set of deliverables, agile’s continuous feedback, and testing during sprints mean that deliverables can be improved or changed without causing chaos in the project management office (PMO) or breaking promises to customers/stakeholders. That makes your projects are more effective and your customers are happier — a huge win on both counts.

Managing Agile Projects

When we talk about managing agile projects, it can be a little intimidating for PMO leaders who aren’t familiar with the process. After all, the changing deliverables and short-term planning can appear to make the job more difficult and much more like herding cats! But managing agile projects doesn’t have to mean that you can’t set expectations and gather data about the project – because you absolutely can. Most PMOs even find that by consolidating their agile project data into a single portfolio can help keep agile projects in line – and get all the same benefits of portfolio management from centralized management.

Adding agile projects to a portfolio doesn’t have to complicate the portfolio manager’s job, either. If anything, managing agile projects can make their job even easier. As a recent digital business article from Gartner notes: “Program and portfolio management leaders are under constant pressure to transform their project management office into an entity that can respond faster to business requirements and deliver more value.” Since agile projects are geared to be completed faster with better results, it stands to reason that having them in the portfolio will improve a PMO’s metrics and give them more accurate data to feedback to the business. Additionally, agile projects can be housed in the portfolio alongside traditional waterfall projects, and by doing that, you have a better understanding of actual resource requirements, status updates, and accurate budget information. You also can make planning for agile projects much easier – since you know what you are working with. Mixed-methodology portfolios can have accurate forecasting, especially if you have historical data to work from. That way you can see how taxing your agile and exploratory projects are, and the impact they have on the rest of the portfolio.

Doing it All

Just because you are managing agile projects, doesn’t mean you are practicing agile project management – but it can. If you are responsible for managing agile projects, you can hold them to the same standards and ensure they are delivering toward the goals set out. You can also use agile project management principles across all projects and end up with an adaptive program that delivers results. Here are 3 key things to keep in mind when adopting agile into your project management processes:

  1. Manage projects as a product. Agile project management was adapted from product management and tends to work better for projects that require more feedback and have an inherently less defined outcome. But less structure doesn’t mean any structure – there should still be expectations and consistent feedback to ensure things are on track.
  2. The multi-methodologies or hybrid approach might be best. Think of agile as a spectrum and include as much of it that makes sense. Just because your projects are agile doesn’t mean they don’t require oversight or maintenance – much the opposite.
  3. Focus on continuous improvement. Part of agile principles includes continuous improvement and maintenance and that’s just what agile projects should have. Keep in mind there is a lifecycle to projects and just because they hit their intended goals doesn’t mean there isn’t more value to be gained.

As you incorporate agile projects into your workflows and even take on agile project management, keep in mind the goal you are after and ultimately which you are doing – agile project management or managing agile projects. This will help you define the outcome and ensure you are delivering what is expected.

Lindsey Marymont

Lindsey Marymont is Director of U.S. Marketing for KeyedIn, a Minneapolis-based company that helps organizations simplify business processes, improve performance and drive results through its innovative SaaS-based project management solutions. At KeyedIn, she is focused on driving consumer demand and building a cohesive marketing team that is collaborative and successful. Prior to joining KeyedIn, she served as Manager for North Americas of Commercial Marketing for Planview, and as Marketing Manager for Innotas by Planview.