If you work in tech or any industry where things change fast, you probably are familiar with agile project management. The model has been favored by software engineers for its efficacy and flexibility, and it’s beginning to catch on in agencies and startups. Agile methods are baked into productivity tech, from Trello to Airtable to Redbooth, and can improve any large body of work, from ad campaigns to app design.
It’s easy to set up an agile project management system. Agile practices are simple and adaptable to your team and company goals.
Read on to learn how you can implement agile project management methods in your team.
Agile project management basics: project as product
In agile project management, every task output is a product you’re selling to stakeholders. Team and work structures are designed around creating things that are directly useful to the customer or client.
To think about this more clearly, we’ve modified one of the 12 principles outlined in the original Agile Manifesto:
Working products are the primary measure of progress.
When you work in an agile way, tasks become independent products with independent value that can be packaged and shipped quickly, then iterated on later. Rather than focus on a single, unwieldy release, the project breaks down into several smaller launches with shorter production cycles known as sprints. With this schedule, you’re less likely to come up empty-handed at the final deadline.
Agile vs. Waterfall
Agile’s constant release style marks a departure from traditional project management. Most PM strategies rely on waterfall, aka a hierarchy of sequential tasks that ends with a big product launch.
With its emphasis on planning and order, waterfall is straightforward and linear. Agile is much more fluid and collaborative with quick production cycles and lots of feedback and iteration.
Waterfall works well when all tasks are predetermined, roles don’t change, and the client or stakeholder expects a highly specific result. For instance, it might make sense for a contractor to use waterfall when renovating someone’s home. A marketing agency might use agile to help a client work through a brand redesign.
Teams within the same company may use agile and waterfall, or the same team might employ different methods for different projects. It all depends on the project goals and the project manager.
If you do decide to adopt agile techniques, prepare to think like a fast-moving product developer. Here are three basic methods you can use to build an agile project strategy:
- Assemble an agile team by giving team members more autonomy and building collaborative processes into the workflow.
- Create a flexible workflow board for visualizing and moving tasks through production cycles.
- Cut down work periods through sprints, daily standups, and reviews.
Each of these elements sets your team up for success with agile. Let’s look at how teams, boards, and time contribute to productive teams and happy clients.
Assemble an agile team that runs on collaboration
An agile team is self-organizing. When you work in agile, you should aim to strike a balance between structured roles and self-direction to create a collaborative atmosphere that enables everyone to do their best work.
Borrowing from Scrum methodology, an agile team has three main roles:
- Product Owner: An executive or key stakeholder who leads the project with vision
- Scrum Master: The player-coach most akin to a project manager who oversees operations and guards the process
- Team Member: The primary contributor who creates products
We liken these roles to the captain, first mate, and crew of a ship, but in more relaxed uniforms. No one person or product dominates, and every person on the team contributes to and is held accountable for the team’s success.
The Product Owner prioritizes the task list, works with the Scrum Master to monitor success on micro and macro levels, and gives feedback on products.
The Scrum Master moves tasks along the project management board, checks in with team members during daily standups, fosters team development, and communicates progress to the product owner.
Team members work independently and together to create inventive solutions to stakeholder problems, report their progress to the Scrum Master and Product Owner, and incorporate feedback into each iteration.
Agile teams rely on lots of casual in-person meetings to keep everyone in sync. The essential agile meetings are:
- Daily Standup: Daily meetings where the team syncs up on progress and what everyone’s working on
- Reviews and retrospectives: Meetings at the end of a sprint and the end of a project where the team reviews what went well and what can be improved
Initially, this may seem like a lot of contact. To keep things short and focused, record the main takeaways of these meetings in your project management tool. Over time, you can parse out what’s useful and what’s not, then modify as needed.
Get organized with a Kanban or Scrum board
When you’re working on several different “products” in quick succession, you need a way to get organized. Project managers working in agile use a board with “sticky notes” to represent work tasks. These notes are moved down a pipeline from left to right until the product is complete.
The two most popular methods of agile, Kanban and Scrum, rely on boards that look like this:
The different stages can be defined in the following ways:
- Backlog: The complete list of tasks, created and prioritized by the product owner
- To-Do: The list of tasks that must be completed by the end of the current work period
- In Progress: Tasks that team members are working on
- In Revision: Tasks that have been peer- or manager-reviewed and are being modified according to feedback
- Done: Completed tasks
This simple way of managing tasks measures progress and gives the team context for the next tasks within the scope of the project. It also helps managers check project health.
You can see right away whether a project is working as intended. To ensure a smooth workflow, the columns should be fairly balanced. Everyone can monitor the project board and take responsibility for their parts. If there are too many items in the “To-do” column, then the Scrum Master may need to check in to see what’s holding team members back from getting started. If several tasks are waiting in the “In revision” column, then the product owner may need to work on communicating feedback more clearly and quickly.
The Scrum Master is the protector of the process and the keeper of the project board. Without an up-to-date board, team communication can fall apart. Conversely, the board is shorthand for team-wide communication. Changes to the project board indicate to all when goals have been met or targets have shifted. With an accurate project board, everyone stays on the same page.
Stay on top of time management with sprints and standups
Working in agile means shorter deadlines and more individual responsibility for time management. To hold people accountable, there are three ways your agile team can stay on track with time:
- Sprints: Short production timelines
- Daily standups: Meetings to plan the day’s work
- Reviews: Feedback sessions held at critical junctures
Sprints are lightning-fast production cycles. Unlike a Gantt chart for waterfall projects, you don’t see time laid out on a Scrum board. That’s because the work periods are so short. Sprints typically last two weeks. This is a great way to ensure accurate deadlines. When you don’t plan too far ahead, your team won’t suffer from unrealistic or inaccurate projections.
If someone is way off target for delivery, their progress as reported in daily standups will reflect that. A daily standup is a short (15-minute) meeting where managers and team members discuss daily progress. It can be conducted as a 1:1 or in a group. It can even be conducted in a Slack channel.
Slackbot Standup Alice asks each team member what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and what obstacles are standing in their way. It then reports the results to the team channel.
This kind of report can work especially well for a dispersed or remote team. When standups are conducted in person, on the other hand, it’s easier for managers to gauge which workers need extra guidance and to offer an opportunity for team members working on similar tasks to connect.
Reviews are frequent feedback sessions that occur throughout the sprint. Once a team member has made a first pass at a task, they can place it in the “revision” column of the project board, where a manager or peer can see it and offer suggestions for improvement. These sessions can be scheduled as meetings so that team members have a concrete date to have a draft or iteration ready for review.
The quick cadence of sprints is balanced by the support of standups and reviews. With proper feedback and accountability, quality assurance is built into the agile management process.
How to know if agile is right for you
Every team can benefit from learning how to be a bit more agile. That being said, agile techniques may not be right for a particular team, project, or client.
Agile project management requires coordination and universal buy-in. Try implementing elements of agile before overhauling all of your processes. Start with a daily standup or experiment with shorter task spans.
The right tool is the one that makes work easier for everyone. In Redbooth, you can switch your task lists between Gantt and Kanban boards to see which visual tool works better for you. Survey your team to see which view they prefer. Most importantly, consider the outcomes. When agile elevates everyone’s work, you know you’ve found the right fit.