Introduction to Agile Project Management, Part 1

ART02x - image - EDThe Brief

You’re in charge of delivering your company’s latest and greatest initiative that’s going to change the face of “Widgets International” forever. It’s a software project that’ll engage and enthrall your customers, make your colleague’s lives easier, and make the company millions in revenue. There’s a great deal of anticipation, fervour, excitement, and expectation. You need to get it done as quickly as possible, so your business can start to reap the benefits. The future success of the company depends on you. All eyes are on you. You cannot fail.

At first, you’re thinking to yourself “awesome, I’m up for the challenge. Let’s get this thing done!” You pause for a moment, step back, and think to yourself “okay, so how do we do this?” You start to talk to your colleagues and peers. You spend time searching for best practice software development and project management techniques, but the options and approaches are countless. There are acronyms and methodologies aplenty. Notable ones rise to the top. Doubt creeps in. Which one should we use? How can I guarantee success? What if I make the wrong decisions?

When it comes to managing software projects, there’s a heady mix of options supported by a myriad of opinions. Voices from the corners of the room whisper “try doing it this way,” others shout “this is the only way to do it,” and the rest just whimper “don’t manage it at all, just get on with it.” In reality, all those voices speak some truth. But what’s important is working out what’s right for your needs, your team, your business, and your customers.

Setting the Scene

There was a time when software project management sat squarely in one of three camps. There were the heavy frameworks that let you make decisions on how you execute and deliver, while offering a structure to maintain control and governance. There were prescriptive sequential methodologies like waterfall that forced you to plan lengthy projects, understand and commit to all your requirements, design and sign off complex systems, write lots of code, and then test (all before your customer gets to see it for the first time). And finally, the less prescriptive but iterative software development life cycles (SDLC) that encourage rapid prototyping or larger systems to be designed, built, and delivered in incremental steps, each building on top of the other.

Agile software development and Agile project management were born out of the inadequacies of the waterfall and the benefits of the iterative approaches to software delivery. They can trace their roots to the 1950’s, thought leadership in the 70’s, maturity in the 90’s, and adoption through the 00’s. In 2001, a group of practitioners and experts created the agile manifesto, aimed at defining 4 values and 12 guiding principles that seek to embody the spirit of Agile software development and to encourage its evolution. And it has definitely evolved.

Now, simply calling something Agile isn’t particularly helpful. The word, even in a software context, means different things to different people or organizations. There are many facets, definitions, implementations, and interpretations. Each body that embraces Agile tends to try to give it its own definition.

Simply calling something Agile isn’t particularly helpful.

Suffice to say that Agile software development and project management are a group of related behaviours, frameworks, techniques, and concepts that fundamentally favor the delivery of the right working software as early and as frequently as realistically possible.

I mentioned earlier that Agile, as applied to software development or project management, are different things. In a nutshell, Agile software development takes care of developing great software in a business as usual (BAU) or project context. Agile project management, on the other hand, takes care of the governance and control required to deliver complex projects including but not limited to software.

There are many Agile software development methods available, such as Scrum, Kanban, XP, and Lean Software Development. But just as the game of rugby is about more than the scrum, so is Agile. In isolation, these Agile paradigms do not address the full lifecycle of project management required in complex projects such as governance, resourcing, financial, explicit risk management, and many other important project management concepts. For these, you might want to consider PMI Agile or PRINCE2 Agile – think of it as “Governed Agility.”

Why Do We Need To Be Agile?

Long ago, we roamed the land to gather food and shelter to survive. They were simple needs, but pretty agile. Some time later, countries and economies grew and prospered on the back of the Industrial Revolution. This was the birth of management and control and the loss of agility. Now we’re in the Information Age or Revolution, where businesses employ knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are you, your partners, your colleagues, and peers that endeavor to create great solutions to customer, business, social, economic, and world problems. Knowledge workers apply analysis, knowledge, reasoning, understanding, expertise, and skills to often loosely defined and changing needs. These businesses and workers need methods and techniques that cannot be met by old Industrial Age processes and procedures. Agile supports interactions.

Virtually no software project can confidently set out at the beginning and know all that it needs in order to deliver valuable working software without change. Change presents both opportunities and risks to the success of a project. Unmanaged opportunities can mean the difference between a great company and an awesome company. Unmanaged risk spells disaster and ruin. Agile manages change.

Adopting Agile allows you to be responsive to changing or new requirements. It empowers development teams to be the experts and make decisions supported by an engaged, trusting, and informed business. It enables you to deliver to customers what they really want. Ultimately, it puts you and your organization in control of delivering high quality valuable software that delivers on customer needs and expectations whilst extracting a return on your investment dollars as early as possible. Agile creates value.

There is a cost to adopting Agile. It doesn’t come for free. Transforming to an Agile approach for software delivery can be a hard path to follow. However, if you internalize the Agile philosophy, tread carefully, engage the right team with the right attitude, break things down, make it achievable and realistic and respond to feedback, you will reap rewards. Agile emphasizes collaboration.

The following lists some benefits you can expect:

  • Speed to market
  • Earlier revenue generation
  • Regular delivery of real value
  • Protection for your investment
  • Data, data, data
  • Better product quality
  • Manageable expectations
  • Greater customer satisfaction
  • Higher performing teams
  • Improved visibility on progress
  • Predictability, transparency, and confidence
  • Manageable risk

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill may never have actually said this, but I think it’s a pretty good summation of Agile. We know Agile is the best foot forward for most projects. It encourages you to strive for success, but we always iterate and keep building on it. Agile will encourage you to fail, but fail early and move on. Having the courage to continue and to build the right solution based on insight informed by your customer is what brings the reward.

The thing to keep in mind is you can tailor Agile to your needs. Use the method and governance that is right for your business. Wherever you start, be true to the content, context, and spirit of the method you use – keep it vanilla. If you’re just starting out – Learn. If you’ve been doing it for a while – Understand. If you’re becoming awesome – Apply. Finally, if your business and your projects are complex and interdependent – Govern. Over time, you and your teams will figure out what works best for your business.

Feasibility

So now you’re thinking “okay, I get it. How do I start? Where do I start?” Well, with all good things, we start at the beginning. And with Agile, it’s by asking yourself “What business value do I want to deliver?” After all, that’s why we undertake projects, to generate business value. In order to establish if the project is worth undertaking to derive the business value, you need to understand whether it is feasible.

Vision

Is your project projected to increase revenue, enter a new market, acquire more customers, improve customer perception, or make life easier for a given problem you’ve identified? With this in mind, you can state your “Vision.”

  • Your vision may come from different sources – your own bold startup to fix a common problem, business management strategy, your CEO’s pet project, a specific product team, or even your customer’s needs.
  • Try to take a step back from your own shoes and “see” what the future looks like with your new product or service in the hands of your customers.
  • Engage your stakeholders – the CEO, product guy, and customers. Workshop it, don’t attempt this in isolation. Challenge assumptions and validate arguments.
  • Write it down, keep it short. Focus on the business value.
  • Refine it until you all agree the vision resonates with everybody and meets a common interpretation that states where you’re heading.
  • Your vision, if valid, rarely changes. How you get there most certainly will.

People don’t buy what you do, or how you do it. They buy the “why” you do it. This is what creates the emotional connection between your business and your customers. The vision will help illustrate this.

Is it Feasible?

Feasibility comes in at least a couple of shades. Typically, you’ll want to understand if your vision of a brighter future for your business and customers is both technically feasible and that it’s feasible for your business to make happen.

  • If your vision is to make travel to anywhere across the world in under an hour, you may have a problem with the technical feasibility. Since science, physics, and technology haven’t quite caught up with that dream yet, your technical solution may not be viable in anything other than theory. In addition, if your solution was new, this would go well beyond the idea of aMinimal Viable Product (MVP).
  • To test the technical feasibility of your product, consider either exploring it further in a Discovery prototype project or by running aspike in the early stages of the project. You’ll know which method to use by thinking about the scale or complexity of the solution you have in mind.

“Some of the best knowledge my teams have gained in understanding technical feasibility have come from performing a spike. And often, it’s the simplest solution that wins out!”

  • The second shade of feasibility to consider is whether you, your team, or business has the skills and motivation to make it work. Using an example, if you’re great at baking cakes at home for your kids birthday, that’s sweet. But if you want to turn this into a business selling the finest cakes to the world, you need to understand if you can make it scale, handle the business as well as the production, manage distribution and fulfillment, and take care of customer service.
  • This type of vision might be achievable in the long run. But for now, possibly not. So scale it back, think small, take a small chunk that looks realistic and concentrate on delivering the best but smaller aspiration you can. If that manages to engage and delight your customers, gets them coming back for more and telling their friends, then scale it up from there using your customer feedback as your guide and compass.
  • Also, you need to know if your project is feasible in terms of budget and timeframe. Can your business afford to deliver this project ? Is the timeframe achievable? Time and money are two of the three constraints in an Agile project that are fixed. We aim to deliver within a given fixed time and within a given fixed budget.
  • The quality of a product refers to the end product that your customers use and the engineering practices your team uses to deliver great, robust, and reliable software. Quality is also something we don’t short change on. Quality criteria, on the other hand, can change. If you’re not setting out to build a Ferrari, the product may not have a high quality perception. If you’re not building space rockets, then the tolerances attained in production terms may be much higher. Set the appropriate tone and expectation early on.

So now that you’ve confirmed your dream is more than chocolate fancy, set about testing your assumptions, and proving to people that this endeavor is worth investing in.

Justification

Now depending on your circumstances, justification will come in different forms. Essentially, you want to prove that this project will satisfy customer success criteria, has a chance of success, will deliver value, and is affordable.

  • State your assumptions based on your customer need, then validate them. TheLean Startup gives great guidance on identifying and proving that your product is needed by your customers and will create value.
  • Write, test, and validate your business plan. Now this looks nothing like the ones your bank or Business and Finance major told you to produce. Don’t use them, they will be out of date before the ink is dry. Instead, check out theBusiness Model Canvas. This is essentially a short form business plan that keeps your focus on your value proposition, your customers, revenue, and costs. Use it to validate if you have a business that will work.

“I ignored this advice once and spent a long time writing a lengthy traditional 50 page business plan. It got me nowhere. All the assumptions I had made were unfounded, and all the projections I made couldn’t be validated. It was a painful and expensive experience that taught me to never do it again.”

  • If you’re in a mature business with portfolios of projects being delivered in a complex environment, then financial modeling may be necessary. If you must, do this only after you’ve proven the above.
  • Once you’ve built your MVP, there may be a case for creating a more traditional business plan. For example, if you have to go for funding or selection within your company’s portfolio of competing projects and resources. But this will be a business plan based on and informed by the tools used above. It will be lighter too.
  • In any case, use these tools as living, breathing artifacts. Use them as your guide and bellwether. They are never static. Refer to them and revise them as your project or business evolves.

Once you have your justification and all your stakeholders are onboard, you’ll be on fire.

The Feasibility phase is typically performed once in the life of your project. You may find you revisit the vision and feasibility of the project, especially if your data, customers, market or business indicate so. At the very least, they will be your guiding lights throughout.

Initiation

Awesome. The decision has been made, the project has the green light and you’re ready to build. Well, nearly. I know you’re thinking, “c’mon already, really? If we don’t do this now we never will. Let’s get this show on the road!” But consider this – Agile is nothing if not about delivering value early and often whilst delighting your customers along the way. Taking some time to figure out the best way to deliver your project is the best foundation for success.

Look for part two to be published soon where the author will take a deeper dive into the team, the project, and how to size and handle the project backlog.

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About Paul Barnes

Paul Barnes is the head of projects at Toptal.

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