Deciphering Agile Project Management

Author: Matt Muldoon

What are the differences between Agile and Kanban (and when should you use each)?

With so much hype around Agile, it can be confusing to decipher some of the jargon; Kanban, Scrum, SAFe - there’s a lot to keep up with! When looking from a project management standpoint, there’s a few keys to consider when selecting a methodology, and some cautions to be aware of. Let’s start with the difference:

Agile is style of project management that focuses on continuous evolution and improvement. Adapted from the product development methodology and based off the Agile Manifesto which prioritizes customer satisfaction, Agile methodology essentially gears toward small iterations that achieve a desired result. It is iterative in nature and projects are completed in smaller sections (unlike traditional waterfall) so they get continually better with each iteration. It is intended to embrace flexibility, so the focus is more on team collaboration and less on top down management. Within an Agile project, concise deliverables are assigned to resources within a short delivery time (often pre-defined “sprints” that occur weekly, monthly, etc.) before they are given another task to complete. You can see how this bodes well for project managers who like product developers, are interested in the satisfaction of their customers (stakeholders) and require frequent input and feedback to iterate and improve.

Kanban represents a delivery model where resources are presented a list of items to be completed at different stages/phases and users choose those items they can perform and complete before moving them to the next phase. This visual representation of work allows teams to easily see and prioritize a backlog of work, progress projects along to different phases and constantly evaluate work in progress. What is important to note here is Kanban is not an alternative to Agile, rather a framework to complete Agile work. Another common framework for Agile projects is Scrum, which is an alternative to Kanban.

Scrum (similar to Kanban) is a framework that provides a visual representation of Agile work. It is more structured than Kanban and uses visual elements (learn more about the origins of Scrum in this article) like physical boards or walls with sticky notes, or virtual boards (software programs) with tiles, etc. While Kanban and Scrum are similar in their emphasis on unstructured, collaborative nature, they differ in that Kanban doesn’t work on duration like Scrum sprints, but is measured in cycle times.

Now that we have some clarity around Agile project management and ways to deliver Agile projects, it becomes time to consider which method is better for you. When considering managing Agile projects, it’s important to understand some of the common pitfalls. We come across many project leaders trying to move to an Agile model and some of the challenges we have seen include:

1. Managing Agile projects vs. Agile project management. To be clear, managing Agile projects doesn’t make you “Agile.” You can still manage Agile projects in a traditional format by using an outcome-based measurement. Similarly, having an Agile team doesn’t make you Agile. Just because the team works collaboratively and in a sprint mode with iterations doesn’t mean you are practicing Agile project management.

2. Using Agile as an excuse not to plan. This includes viewing Agile projects from a portfolio level and accounting for exploratory projects. Keeping up to date information is key to success with Agile projects and you can easily run into the trap of over-allocating utility players if you don’t have a clear picture of what is going on and what is expected at any given time .

3. Adopting Agile project management without an Agile resource management strategy. While your project management strategy might be Agile, if you don’t have an Agile resource plan, you will have a hard time executing those projects. Understanding what resources are working on which projects, and how to reassign those quickly without losing momentum will go a lot further for your Agile projects.

Here is a quick resource agility assessment to consider when adopting a resource strategy.

In short, Agile project management can be an extremely effective project management methodology when used appropriately. Agile projects have proven to have better outcomes, decrease project abandonment and improve stakeholder success. It is important to have a strategy with your Agile projects and to tie that to execution at the project, program and portfolio level so you don’t lose sight of the strategic vision.

For more on how you can implement an Agile strategy with PPM, register for our forthcoming webinar Agile Portfolio Management - The Secret Sauce for Sustainable Business Growth