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Limber up: Are Project Managers getting Agile?

It can be tough to keep up with buzzwords in the project management world: in recent years we have seen ‘scrum teams’ using ‘game theory’ tactics to play ‘zero sum games’. A phrase that has risen to prominence recently is Agile. Familiar to those working in IT, the term is growing in popularity in a number of other sectors as they become wise to the potential benefits of working in this way.

Adoption of an Agile approach to project management is certainly on the rise: a quarter of all projects in the UK now happen in an Agile way, according to research from Arras People. And it’s already having a positive impact: fashion retail chain Zara credited some of its success to an agile project management approach to its supply chain.  Could Agile be in a position to transform the way projects are approached?

What is Agile? 

As mentioned earlier, the Agile revolution actually began within a very different setting: software development. There is an Agile Manifesto, which was created in 2001 with the aim of creating a better way of developing and coding computer software. The summit of leading computer programmers got together to set out a better way of working, which valued:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Essentially, Agile represents a whole new way of working. Instead of having a rigid process and determined outcome, in an Agile world things are much more fluid. This is because people work in smaller, non-hierarchical teams; there is no rigid plan or path to stick to, and it is accepted that the end product you are working towards can often look very different to what was initially planned if a better way of achieving the strategic purpose of the product is found.

Now these principals are being adopted by businesses from both the private and public sector, and it could prove a good fit for project management too because it allows people to react and adapt to issues on the ground as they happen, finding new ways of working around problems, rather than being trapped in fixed boundaries.

Can I do it?

As interest in the Agile methodology continues to grow within the project management community, we have started thinking about what that means on a practical level. Here are five qualities a team needs in order to be capable of working in an Agile way:

  • Trust: You can rely on each other to produce high quality work.
  • Commitment: To each other, the project and the company. This means acting in good faith and shooting towards the desired project outcome.
  • Collaboration: If somebody asks, you can’t say no. Share information and spread knowledge across the team.
  • Cooperation: Because Agile involves working in close quarters and pairing with a colleague, it is critical that everybody plays nice.
  • Discipline: Although Agile can involve some erosion of hierarchies, team members must obey their own processes, charters, aims and decisions.

Businesses across an increasingly wide range of sectors are realising they can start working in an Agile way too. These five guidelines can act as a starting point for project managers to follow, but in its present form, attempts at Agile project management are just that: a starting point. Existing working practices will need to be flexible to incorporate this new approach, and rigid PPM platforms could prove a barrier to adoption for some.

Of course it is also important to remember that Agile will not be the right fit for everybody. For many teams an agile approach can come as a culture shock. As a way of working it needs to permeate the whole team so that adhering to the principles becomes second-nature. Many teams that intend to work on agile principles find themselves unable to function because they are still working using different thought processes.

It is dangerous to change the way you work just because it is en vogue; the UK Government encountered big problems with its £2billion Universal Credit project because it tried to use an Agile development method when that way of working did not suit the way it worked with suppliers.

The formal future

As a concept that is still emerging, Agile project management has not yet been properly formalised. The Arras People survey also revealed that while a quarter of projects claim to be run in an Agile way, just 8% of them involved somebody with Agile certification.

This means that at the moment, it’s only largely innovative firms, often smaller and fresher-faced ones, which are able to take advantage of Agile. Formalisation, certifications and processes will make it easier for adoption to take place across the board, even at the most process-driven, traditional organisations.

Author: Jean-Pierre Ullmo, VP EMEA Sales at Changepoint

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