agile project management

Though the differences between traditional waterfall/sequential and agile project management are significant, the transition can be smooth with the right mindset. Foundational skills and knowledge that apply to traditional project management are more important for successful agile project management than Scrum-based agile skills that are typically viewed as essential for “Agile Methodology.” Scrum methods can be useful for the tactics of agile project management, while traditional methods are valuable for the strategic planning needed for project success.

Core Agile Project Management Skills

It’s easy to fall into the trap that Scrum is the core of agile project management because of Scrum’s popularity for software development. Ironically, the concept of a Project Manager doesn’t even exist in Scrum, but the reality is that the vast majority of software projects can benefit from agile project management ability. The same is true for all types of projects because of the general need for agility.

The challenge is finding the right balance of agility and sufficient project planning. Managing timelines, budgets, dependencies and tradeoffs are essential for most projects, and traditional project management skills are needed. The right balance involves determining the level of up-front planning that’s good enough to get started with the mindset of iterative planning refinement as the team learns. A mindset shift from comprehensive up-front planning with a belief that the plan is achievable (it rarely is, hence agile’s rising popularity) to acknowledging uncertainty and that there is much to learn is difficult for many managers new to an agile way-of-working.

Initial planning for an agile project management approach should be comprehensive in terms of capturing what can’t “slip through the cracks” before the project is completed, having just enough detail to get started with the right focus. An initial agile plan should have:

  • A target end date and milestone goals that the team believes are achievable
  • Identification of major dependencies involved in achieving the milestones
  • Initial project budget and resource needs
  • An understanding of major risks to mitigate
  • Key innovation needed for project success
  • Priorities for initial focus
  • Alignment with leadership stakeholders on all of the above

As described, all are traditional project management activities. The major difference in initial planning between an agile project management approach and traditional project management is that an agile approach has no detailed Gantt Chart nor detailed work breakdown structure. For agile planning the initial schedule and work breakdown is very high-level, and should be viewed as a framework for iterative refinement. If your management can’t support that, they aren’t ready for an agile way-of-working.

Iterations? Sprints? Rapid Learning Cycles?

Terminology is an enemy that creates much confusion about “Agile.” Regarding iterations, the Agile Manifesto implies a cadence of iterative cycles but has no mention of “sprints,” “iterations,” or “cycles.” Scrum methodology popularized “sprints” to the degree that many people assume agile project management must include sprints.

The SAFe framework introduced much more terminology with a dogmatic approach that is viewed by many as anti-agile. Regarding iterative cycles, SAFe describes “sprints” and “iterations” as interchangeable terms for a short cycle within a larger cycle called a “PI” which was for many years the acronym for “Program Increment” but recently changed to “Planning Interval.” Conceptually all fine, but only relevant to SAFe practitioners and creates confusion for those looking at SAFe for agile project management guidance.

Other common terms for iterations include “rapid learning cycles,” “rapid cycles” and “iterative cycles.” Most agile frameworks other than Kanban describe iterations in some way, and iterative planning is really needed in an agile approach for managing to a timeline. Call your iterations whatever you want as long as your primary iterative planning is strategic and cross-disciplined. Aligning your cross-disciplined team and stakeholders on a cadence that’s short enough for predictable outcomes yet long enough for meaningful progress is one of the most important aspects of successful agile project management.

Intelligent Tradeoffs – The Key Agile Project Management Advantage

A common practice in traditional project management is to prioritize schedule, cost and scope as part of initial planning. Often this is a one-time exercise with little value and priorities might only be re-visited in a crisis.

Perhaps the most important benefit from an agile project management approach is to leverage learning and new information gained from cross-disciplined iterations for making timely tradeoff decisions on a cadence. Here’s roughly how it should work:

  1. Led by the project manager, the cross-disciplined iteration is planned with discipline leaders, ensuring the iteration supports end goals and upcoming milestones. Timeline and milestones might be updated based on the outcome of the previous iteration.
  2. Facilitated by the project manager, the team and management align regarding the iteration goals, which are typically a combination of learning, execution and risk-reduction objectives.
  3. Team executes the iteration plan.
  4. Team demonstrates visible progress to stakeholders and gets input for next iteration(s).
  5. Management stakeholders make timely scope/schedule/cost/resource tradeoff decisions based on the iteration outcome. The decision could be to kill the project or put on hold (the benefits of phase-gate are built into an agile project management approach).
  6. Repeat until project completion.

Doing this consistently as an organization is the essence of agile project management success. Timely tradeoff decisions enable focus with the right priorities based on current information. For example, if the top priority becomes schedule the team knows that iteration planning must focus on accelerating. If resources/spending are either increased or decreased, team priority must include optimizing available resources. Changes related to scope must have clarity about current priorities (scope priorities are always essential for agile project management, and especially critical when there’s a major change).

Agile Project Management Benefits

Ultimately, every organization can benefit from faster, more efficient projects with better outcomes. That should be the overall agile project management goal with clarity about what “faster” and “better” means. However, each project is different in terms of priorities and making intelligent tradeoff decisions on a cadence as described earlier is how to optimize each unique project.

A near-term benefit to strive for is iteration predicatibilty. Achievable objectives and strong team commitment should result in a high percentage of completion. Doing this consistently is a great first measure of agile team success and should result in a high degree of stakeholder satisfaction.

If customers can be involved in iteration outcomes and contribute feedback, that should lead to delivering end results they’ll love. Customer engagement in this way truly leverages the power of an agile way-of-working.

Team satisfaction is another potential benefit. A well-crafted survey to determine the current state can be used again periodically to gauge if satisfaction is increasing. Also, incorporating actions from retrospectives into ongoing iteration planning to improve the way-of-working will address issues that can increase team morale.

Other benefits to strive for that can be achieved through agile project management practices are greater innovation, increased efficiency, fewer defects, and a culture of continuous improvement.

Agile Project Management Roles

First, with a competent Agile Project Manager, there is no need for a “Scrum Master” role. The project manager is the methodology expert who should coach discipline leads as needed. Discipline leads, therefore, become the methodology experts on their subteams.

The only other key agile role needed is a Product Owner, or multiple Product Owners for more complex projects. The Product Owner sets priorities for the team from the perspective of customer and business needs. The Agile Project Manager facilitates successful execution aligned with those priorities.

On more complex projects, there might be a Product Owner who mainly interacts with customers and stakeholders and communicates their needs to one or more Technical Product Owners who prioritize technical details for the team (or multiple subteams).

Roles shouldn’t be more complicated than that in the spirit of simplicity as an agile principle.

Key Agile Project Management Skills

The main skill needed for successful agile project management is facilitation. Because of the ongoing collaborative nature of an agile way-of-working, facilitating great collaboration and communication is the main project management responsibility.

Strategic planning is another key skill. Ideally over time, the team becomes more and more self-managing which should allow sufficient time for the project manager to be strategically focused. With time for strategic planning, the project manager can look further ahead in the overall iteration plan and facilitate strategic planning with the Product Owner.

One more key ability needed for agile project managers is agile risk mitigation. It only differs from traditional risk mitigation if risks aren’t already mitigated in a prioritized systematic way.


Agile project management involves relentless prioritization of all work, always focused on delivering the greatest business value. Success requires management and teams to shift their mindset to iterative planning refinement driven by that relentless prioritization. When behavioral change needed to support agile success isn’t happening quickly, a structured change management approach might be needed.

About the Author

Gary Hinkle is founder and principal consultant at Auxilium, a company dedicated since 2002 to helping product development organizations develop leaders, improve ways-of-working, build stronger cultures, and increase overall product development performance. You can contact Gary directly here.

Related Posts