Is Agile Project Management a Good Idea?

The idea of agile project management might strike you as wishful thinking at first. It’s like the notion of limiting yourself to just one more episode of your favorite show on Netflix. It sounds like a smart idea. It would be great if you could pull it off. But in reality, it probably can’t be done.

This is because most professionals, including most project managers themselves, have been trained to think of project management as essentially the opposite of the agile approach. Consider, for example, those traditional project managers…

  • Delineate everything required to complete an initiative down to the last detail — the tasks, the deadlines, etc.
  • Develop their plans using longer time horizons, and try to stick as closely as possible to those plans throughout the duration.
  • Choose project management tools based on how well those tools allow for tracking progress, but not based on how easily the plan itself can be updated to reflect new realities.

Every Project Serves a Strategy

What this means is that even a conscientious project manager, who skillfully and successfully executes all of the roles described above, is still missing a fundamental component of the job: Strategy.

An important benefit of the agile methodology used by product managers and developers is that it encourages frequent reviewing and retooling of current plans based on new information that the team is continually gathering and analyzing.

In other words, the agile methodology lets a product team adjust its priorities and plans whenever doing so makes strategic sense. These teams do not get stuck in an outdated plan simply because they have committed to seeing it through.

So, the question is: Why on earth wouldn’t a project manager also want to take this approach?

Shouldn’t every project undertaken at an organization, not merely the development of its products, benefit from being overseen from a strategic vantage point? Shouldn’t a project manager, just like a product manager, always want to keep one eye on the big strategic picture — and be able to adjust her or his plans accordingly when doing so will likely improve the project’s chances for success?

(And in case you are wondering, although they are often used interchangeably, project management and product management are entirely different roles and should be treated as such. We describe in detail here the distinction between project management and product management.)

How Does Agile Project Management Work?

Even at an organization whose culture is to treat its project managers as tactical detail managers, people responsible only for making sure the tasks get done and the boxes get checked, there is an opportunity to implement agile project management.

In fact, doing so might be simpler than you think, because it doesn’t require a big company discussion or a restructuring of your organization’s current processes. If you’re a project manager and want to try the agile project management methodology, arguably all you will need are a willingness to change your own approach and perhaps the introduction of one new tool.

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To try agile project management on an initiative at your company, you could implement something like this simple three-step process:

1. Break your long-term plans into shorter-timeframe “project sprints.”

Traditional project management would have you draft one monster-sized plan for assigning and tracking all of your initiative’s tasks and milestones, using a project management tool such as Microsoft Project. This plan might include hundreds of details and run many months or even a year into the future.

The problem is, that plan would probably be at least somewhat outdated the day you publish it to your organization. Worse still, with each passing day, the plan would become even more obsolete based on personnel changes, budgetary adjustments, changing company priorities, and other realities.

With agile project management, you can more strategically prepare for these changing realities by breaking the plan down into smaller, shorter sprints — just as agile product managers do.

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Say you’re overseeing your company’s event calendar for the year. Rather than developing a single, gargantuan year-long project management plan that included all of the details required to pull off your participation at all of the year’s events, you’d instead develop an “event sprint” — may be focused only on the first tradeshow where your company is set to exhibit.

Because you are focused entirely on a near-term project, the people involved will be more likely to give it their attention and effort, and you won’t waste time discussing ideas and plans for tradeshows many months away.

Moreover, because you haven’t set in stone a detailed plan for all future events, you have the flexibility to review the results of this tradeshow and apply your learnings from it — what worked, what didn’t — to the next short-term event sprint you develop.

2. Study and analyze the results of those shorter-timeframe sprints — not merely whether they were completed on time but whether they were successful.

Here again, you will be breaking with traditional project management principles, which would have you focused primarily (or even entirely) on whether or not your team members finished the tasks assigned to them by their deadlines.

As an agile project manager, by contrast, you will take one eye off of the plan’s details and look to see how the results of that plan played out for the company.

Did the project as you executed it work as well as it could have? What planning approaches can you change to improve the outcome next time?

Because you are breaking your project into sprints, each new sprint has the opportunity to benefit from your learnings. In other words, you are now applying strategic reasoning to the details you draft, adjusting those details based on new realities and what they suggest about your ability to meet your project’s strategic goals.

This is true agile project management.

3. Complement your sprint plan with a project roadmap

Finally, because you are now approaching your project more strategically, you will want to add a strategic tool to your toolbox — a project roadmap.

Yes, roadmaps are traditionally associated with product development. But when you consider an agile roadmap’s true purpose — to concisely document and communicate the strategic goals behind an initiative — you can understand why roadmaps are used for all sorts of projects.

Smart project management still requires using a tool to track and update the project details as well as to enable fast and convenient communication among your team. Purpose-built project management tools, like JIRA and Pivotal Tracker, will still form the cornerstone of your team’s task management and give you a clear view of their day-to-day progress.

But your new agile project management approach also calls for a more strategic level view of the plan — a project roadmap, ideally one you can build using an intuitive, purpose-built roadmap tool.

Agile Roadmap Template by ProductPlanYour project roadmap will give you an opportunity to capture and articulate your strategic thinking for designing and executing the plan in the specific way you’ve decided to do so.

This will prove to be a valuable document throughout the process in that it will give you a quick way to check in periodically to make sure you are still on track with your strategic goals, and it will help you communicate to your team why they are doing what you’re asking them to do.

If you execute this part of the agile project management approach correctly, the process of using two tools — one for tracking the details, the other for communicating the high-level strategy — will be smooth and simple. Indeed, the best purpose-built roadmap tools integrate seamlessly with your project management software.

Agile Project Management is Smart Project Management

There is a well-known military saying: “All plans are great until the first shot is fired.”
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As a project manager, you have likely been trained to think in terms of creating and executing long, highly detailed, and largely fixed project plans. But in today’s fast-changing business environment, these static, long-term plans lose strategic value quickly after they are drafted.

With that in mind, your instinct to try the agile project management approach is a smart one. We hope you will follow the simple three-step process outlined here and give this new approach a try. If you do, please let us know how it works for you and your team.