How to Manage an Agile Project the Right Way
We scramble out of bed, grab our coffees, hop onto trains, buses and honk our way through traffic just in time for the scrum master to give us the cue – inform the rest of the team what we’ve completed, what still needs to be done, and what obstacles lie ahead.
This is the morning stand up. A new workplace ritual and a major feature of the agile approach, born out of a need to manage products and projects in a way that fits our increasingly volatile and complex environment.
It began with the agile manifesto in 2001. Twelve principles laid out in multiple languages. Since then, agile has continued to evolve with the times. First, as a solution to run a single small team, then several teams, and now as a way to better manage whole projects and organisations.
And now the agile philosophy has spread to management teams beyond software to every sector imaginable from manufacturing and retail to human resources.
The agile gap
Numerous studies and surveys from consultant companies like Mckinsey have shown that there is a clear gap between aspiration and reality. In the Mckinsey Quarterly survey report of 2,500 business leaders, 75% of respondents cited agility as a top priority while less than 10% had actually completed an agility transformation. This gap has led firms to rush into agile without taking the time to acquire the right mindset or processes.
So we sat down with leaders from three prominent agile organisations to find out what it takes to manage an agile project the right way: John McKim, VP of Product & Technology at ACG, Joe Zhou, Engineering Lead at OpenAgent, and Matt Neville, Software Engineer, Paul Farrar, Senior Software Engineer, and Victor Suorov, Senior Software Engineer at Objective.
The advantages of agile
Agile is an approach to software development and management that delivers incremental upgrades. According to Farrar from Objective, doing this means “the customer receives value from each release rather than waiting for a long delivery lead time. Each release provides an opportunity to gather feedback which can alter the direction or requirements of further releases. This allows the agile team to focus on the most important features to satisfy the customer.”
McKim from ACG says, “agile encourages teams to be flexible and adapt to that change while maintaining a high level of transparency with stakeholders and the business”.
On the point of transparency, Zhou from OpenAgent adds, “The traditional (waterfall) method normally has a well-defined scope, so there is minimum stakeholder engagement during development”. Since Agile is so adaptive and requires sprints, it enables you to work closely with the stakeholders”.
What does it take to manage an agile project?
Everyone we spoke to agreed that the key to managing an agile project successfully starts with laying down solid foundations.
For Zhou, it’s about having a clear product vision as this will “assist in defining the schedule for delivering multiple features of the product”.
For the guys at Objective, it doesn’t matter what best practices you adopt if no one can understand it. Suorov says it’s more important that “every participant has a good understanding of the workflow and knows at any point in time what they need to do”.
Through Neville’s lens, it’s about having a clearly defined scope. “When the scope of work is vague, then the outcome is usually an express ticket to Mediocre-ville”, says Neville. His four ingredients to any project: “Be thorough. Be ambitious. Be precise. Always work with, and for, a purpose”.
There are many different approaches to Agile and Farrar believes it’s up to teams to experiment with processes and find what works for them. “Agile shouldn’t be restrictive or prescriptive, it can allow the team to self-manage, working in a way that best helps them deliver business value to the customer,” says Farrar.
The challenges of agile
For agile to be successful, Neville believes there needs to be full buy-in of the organisation to respect how the methodology functions. It needs routine planning and retrospectives, time to establish itself and commitment to team stand-ups.
McKim reminds us that agile is an approach, not a set of rules. The irony of the agile approach is that while it embraces flexibility, it’s easy for organisations to fall into the trap of following agile rituals dogmatically. McKim’s advice: “Treat agile practices as guidelines rather than rules and allow teams to adapt them for their unique requirements”.
Suorov likens a successful agile approach to a delicate balancing act between too much involvement and too little.
On the one hand, agile is often underestimated as Suorov explains: “Often when the business wants to work applying agile, it does not realise how much effort and involvement it needs to keep a project running smoothly. People think that if they just call the process ‘agile’, it will immediately bring them value without actually changing the approach”.
On the other hand, it can be easy for stakeholders to “change everything at any moment by increasing scope, shortening timelines, adding requirements, increasing team size or rebuilding architecture”. This poses another problem at the opposite end – “the project simply cannot keep up with all the changes and stall”.
What agile looks like in practice
According to Zhou, agile has allowed OpenAgent to “deliver products faster to the market and deliver tangible value to the business more frequently and efficiently”, according to Zhou.
His team implements 1-week sprints and Zhou believes “the fast delivery lifecycle surprisingly results in high-quality output because of the continuous rapid testing of the ‘backbone’. For example, “if there is an issue reported for a new feature deployed in the previous week, it gets immediately rectified and released in the current sprint. Therefore, on the completion of the agile project, the system has already gone through rigorous testing so that the end result is a quality piece of product”.
For Neville and Suorov, agile has opened up limitless opportunities for Objective:
- Spikes allow them to explore new technology for bespoke features.
- Retrospectives help them identify use-cases of existing features that they can export to the new technology.
- Agile allows them to experiment with new tools without wasting too much effort.
The agile approach has and will continue to evolve. Issuing upgrades every three weeks was once considered great progress. Today, organisations are issuing multiple upgrades every day and continually assessing what it takes to implement agile successfully.
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