In modern-day working environments, Agile is becoming an increasingly popular project management methodology used to organize projects. Although it originated in the software development industry, it’s now used by teams working in a wide range of sectors on all sorts of projects.
Unlike other project management frameworks, Agile focuses on self-organizing teams breaking down projects into manageable cycles or iterations, which makes it better positioned than other frameworks to deal with changes, challenges, and fluctuating stakeholder demands.
In this guide, we’ll run through the key principles of Agile, the benefits it brings to teams that implement it during their projects, and Agile ways of working, such as scrums. All in all, we cover:
What Is the Agile Methodology?
Agile is an iterative approach to managing projects that involves breaking work down into small, dynamic phases, often (but not always) referred to as “sprints”.
The Agile methodology focuses on continuous improvement, collaboration between self-organizing teams, customer-stakeholder communication, and delivering the most value a team can, as quickly as possible.
Iterative approaches to developing software and other digital products can be traced back to the late 1950s and 1960s, when traditional, fixed ideas of how projects should be managed began to be challenged for the first time.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that many of the Agile frameworks we recognize today (such as Scrum) were born. The Agile Manifesto was finally published in 2001, bringing these a range of different ideas and methodologies under one, principled umbrella. Agile has four core values or “pillars”:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
These four pillars serve as a foundation for the 12 Agile principles for software development (and now all Agile working), which we’ll discuss in the following section.
The Key Principles of Agile
Along with Agile values mentioned above, The Agile Manifesto consists of 12 key principles that initially were designed to guide software development teams in completing work, but are now regularly applied to a variety of other industries, roles, and projects, especially in the tech sector.
“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software” the manifesto reads – this is the first and most important Agile principle. The other eleven principles are:
- Welcoming changing requirements with open arms
- Delivering working software quickly and frequently
- Collaboration between business people and developers
- Build projects around motivated individuals & trust them
- Face-to-face meetings are the best way to communicate
- The measure of success should always be working software
- Development should be sustainable and retain a constant pace
- Attention to “technical excellence” improves agility
- Simplicity – eliminating waste and maximizing “work not done”
- Self-organizing teams make the best products and work structures
- Reflecting on work and actioning feedback is vitally important
The key principles of Agile attempt to empower teams to work autonomously, think critically to improve their own processes, and trust high-performing individuals to make the right decisions.
Agile Methodology Benefits
Agile approaches to work have a myriad of key benefits, which is why so many teams are using them as a basis for managing projects. Due to these benefits, working in Agile environments will help your team develop essential project management skills, such as improved time management. The main advantages of implementing an Agile framework are:
Flexibility and responsiveness to change
Agile frameworks are designed to deliver lots of value very quickly. However, precisely how teams can add value quickly will change depending on everything from stakeholder feedback to external changes to the macro-economic environment – so the framework can't be rigid, and has to be adaptable.
This level of flexibility means that Agile teams are particularly good at responding to changes, especially in terms of project requirements. Sprints are short bursts of work, so if something changes while you’re completing one sprint, you can rectify or replace it in the next one.
Prioritization of customer-stakeholder engagement
In non-Agile projects, a project stakeholder may inform a team “I’d like X product to be delivered by this date” – and then have no further interaction with them until deadline day.
The issue with this is that if the stakeholder doesn’t provide enough detail from the outset, or the project team misunderstands the requirements set out for them, the product at the end isn’t going to satisfy the stakeholder – who may have spent significant money on the project. Their concerns, wants, and desires are isolated from the process beyond the initiation phase.
Agile teams challenge this by demanding stakeholder engagement at various stages of any given project, prioritizing and responding to their concerns in a way that non-agile teams don’t.
Ensuring the stakeholder is happy at every stage means that expectations are better managed and project limitations and successes are better understood by all those involved, not just those involved in the day-to-day work. When the final product is produced, no one is caught by surprise.
Better team morale
During long, complex projects that have singular deadlines far, far into the future, it’s easy for teams to become demotivated and lose sight of the goal they’re working towards.
Working in sprints and continually producing value – usually in the form of digital or physical products – tends to be motivating. The constant creation of new things is a tangible measure of progress that some long-term projects cannot provide.
Furthermore, the increased importance placed on feedback and the ability to action it quickly is more likely to make people feel like they’re being listened to than projects that press on and only review once the final deliverable is ready.
When completing large projects, sometimes it's hard to spot risks or dangers developing – and if they aren’t caught early, they’re going to snowball into even bigger problems.
The iterative approach tends to ensure problems are spotted earlier, as does the constant collaboration between stakeholders and developers/team members that occurs in Agile projects. What's more, the feedback loops created in Agile working environments and the way it prioritizes reflection means that issues that are identified can be resolved quickly.
Mechanisms for rectifying problems are built into the Agile framework in a way they aren’t in some traditional project management frameworks.
Empowers and motivates individuals
One of the key things that sets Agile approaches to project management apart from traditional approaches is how much they empower the teams to self-organize and individuals to be autonomous, putting their skills to good use.
In some traditional projects, some team members’ roles are simply to carry out orders from above, or complete work defined by a strict brief – which can sometimes cause talented team members’ skills to go to waste. Although there are some projects where this is needed – especially if there’s a lot of administrative work to get through – it can mean you don’t utilize the full potential and creativity of your team.
Agile frameworks demand more than this from team members – you have to be prepared to test your ideas, be self-critical, and action feedback, and come up with more efficient ways to do things. Not all project frameworks allow for this, and it's one of the key reasons why Agile has been adopted by companies outside of the software development space.
Agile Methodology Drawbacks
While many teams find implementing an Agile approach useful, it isn't without its drawbacks. Here are three to consider:
Lack of documentation
The nature of Agile working means that many tasks are completed “just in time”, with the goal being the delivery of working software and customer satisfaction. This can sometimes mean that documentation and reporting are less thorough than what is produced by teams using other project management methodologies or approaches.
Agile teams often produce the bare minimum documentation needed to meet company or regulatory standards and maintain project stability. Agile is by no means anti-documentation, however, but there’s not the same pressure to document and track things that a non-agile team experiences.
Scope creep is a common project killer – it’s a term that refers to the constant and often uncontrollable widening of a project’s scope, which inflates budgets and burns out workers.
Agile teams – which have no fixed initial requirements and constantly deal with changing stakeholder requirements – are particularly vulnerable to scope creep, especially if there are no robust change procedures in place or the team is inexperienced with Agile ways of working.
Stakeholders may request new features or products at any point, and these might take varying amounts of time and demand different (and unspecified) resources to complete.
Agile doesn’t work for all projects
In recent years, Agile has been used in an increasingly broad range of industries, sectors, and projects, with teams outside of the software development world realizing that they can also apply it to their working environment, too. However, Agile simply can’t be applied to every project, and in some cases, will even be detrimental.
For example, teams working on projects with clearly defined requirements and single deliverables will probably fare better with a waterfall approach, which is an umbrella term for more fixed, linear methods of managing projects.
A good example is a music festival – the production team's work is all for a single, annual event, which lasts for just a few days. Everything has to be ready for this one deadline – and specific tasks, such as booking performers, won’t be able to be completed in sprints like updates for a mobile app can be.
The Most Popular Agile Frameworks
As we’ve alluded to, although many of the Agile frameworks discussed in this section are now placed under the umbrella of “Agile” approaches to project management, many of them pre-date the publishing of the Agile Manifesto in 2001.
Scrum is an Agile framework that is most famous for the way it breaks down work into sprints. The name originates from a rugby scrum – a small, unified group of tightly-packed players – all with different roles – that work together to gain possession of the ball.
Scrum teams usually have a scrum master, who is effectively a project coordinator – they’re tasked with organizing the team (or the scrum) and ensuring everyone knows what they should be working on and when. The product owner, on the other hand, ensures that the work being carried out aligns with the goals for the product.
The key principles of scrum include empirical process control, self-organization, time-boxing (for sprints), value-based prioritization, iterative development, and collaboration.
The Kanban method is a scheduling device that was developed by an industrial engineer at Toyota in the 20th century, and designed to improve efficiency. It has since gained widespread popularity across the tech and software industry.
A Kanban board – which is a staple of most project management software programs – usually has four or five columns. One contains a backlog of work yet to be assigned, one contains “Work in Progress” and another contains “completed” work.
Because Kanban is one of the most widely applicable Agile frameworks, it’s often combined with other Agile working practices to create new, hybrid approaches. One recent example is “Scrumban”, which combines elements of both Kanban and Scrum.
“Lean” development – which is now considered an Agile framework – is founded on two key principles: eliminating waste, and refining business processes.
Like other Agile frameworks, lean development (in the manufacturing industry or elsewhere) focuses on continuous improvement, reducing delays, and maximizing value delivery. Lean development also utilizes a Just in Time (JIT) approach – delivering goods exactly when they are needed – which lowers inventory and in turn, eliminates waste.
You may see Lean referred to as Lean-Agile – some people don’t consider it to be a true Agile framework, although it's underpinned by many of the same principles and was also a product of Toyota employees’ attempts to make their manufacturing processes more efficient.
Extreme Programming (XP)
Extreme Programming (XP) is an Agile software development methodology that prioritizes adaptability and collaboration in the context of technical programming. Fundamental tenets of the framework include simplicity in design, continuous feedback, and iterative development.
XP promotes practices such as test-driven development (TDD), pair programming, continuous integration, and regular releases to ensure high-quality software delivery while responding effectively to changing customer requirements.
When implemented correctly, the framework fosters a culture of respect, encourages developers to work in pairs to write code, and advocates for a sustainable work pace – much like other Agile frameworks.
Extreme programming isn’t only concerned with higher quality software deliverables, however – according to Agile Alliance, a core part of Extreme Programming is improving the quality of life experienced by software developers, which should lead to better work being produced in the long run.
Dynamic System Development Method (DSDM)
Like most other Agile frameworks The Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM) core principles center around delivering functional software increments within specified timeframes and budgets while ensuring that the end product meets user needs and aligns with business objectives.
However, it's a bit more rigorous, structured, and disciplined than other Agile approaches – which can perhaps best be seen in a brief comparison to Scrum. There are eight key principles, many of which are similar to the Agile Manifesto. However, a key difference is that a principle of DSDM is “demonstrating control” – which involves making plans and progress tracking ultra-visible.
Indeed, unlike this framework, DSDM is typically deployed for projects that have a clear scope and a pre-defined start and end date. It's oriented around projects, rather than products. Another big difference between DSDM and Scrum is that the responsibilities of the “product owner” role in a Scrum team are split between multiple different roles, such as a business sponsor, analyst, and business visionary.
What Is a Life Cycle in Agile?
The Agile life cycle has six different phases, representing each of the different stages a product goes through while it's being created.
- Concept: This involves defining the projects that your business or key stakeholders want you to work on, and then prioritizing the most important projects.
- Initiation: Once you’ve picked a project to work on, you can initiate it – again, this will involve communication with stakeholders to define requirements. In a big business, a project leader or scrum master will check employee capacities and select team members for the project at hand.
- Iteration: This phase is where most of the hard work happens, with teams creating products, revising their designs and continuously improving what they’re making.
- Release: This is the testing phase, where the software will go through quality assurance checks and bugs can be addressed.
- Production: Once your software is released to the world, you’ll have to monitor it, fix any issues that arise and ensure that it’s running well.
- Retirement: This phase is quite self-explanatory – once the software has served its purpose and you’ve either updated or replaced it, you can lay it to rest.
What Is a Sprint in Agile?
A sprint is a short, time-boxed phase of work (usually between one and four weeks long) within which teams complete a narrow range of tasks and duties that contribute towards an achievable goal o deliverable, such as an update for a mobile application.
As we've covered already in this article, sprints are usually used by scrum teams, and how long each phase is will typically differ depending on the different types of work they’re completing. Usually, a sprint backlog containing all the work set out for a single sprint is created.
Sprint retros are often held at the end of sprints to recap and reflect on the work that was completed, and feedback from these sessions can then be used to improve the next sprint taking place.
Verdict: Should You Use an Agile Framework?
If you think you’ll work better if your project is broken down into stages and your team is given more autonomy to take an iterative approach to their work, it might just be for you. What's more, the precepts of continuous improvement and communicating face-to-face communication can be applied to almost every team, regardless of the projects they're working on.
If you’re interested, why not embrace the Agile spirit and give the framework a little test, for a short period? Or, incorporate some aspects of an Agile framework (such as breaking your work down into sprints) and see how your team fares. There’s only one true way to truly find out!