Project management in an agile environment

Brief overview

Projects are rarely carried out as originally planned. Companies are increasingly relying on agility and flexibility in project management - and no longer just in the IT sector! However, the agile approach alone does not ensure that the project will be successfully completed.

Agile project management refers to procedures in which the project team has high tolerances with regard to quality, scope, time, and costs, and there is a very high level of participation by the client in the creation of the work. Characteristic for agile project management is the focus on the work to be delivered and the acceptance by the users. With us, you will learn about the agile world of project management and, above all, how to distinguish it from classic PM methods and how to use it as needed, up to and including its use as a hybrid PM method.

What has changed?

Agile project management refers to a new way of thinking in project management and is understood as the opposite of planning-oriented, traditional project management.

    • The motivation for using agile approaches in project management comes from a number of framework conditions that make conventional project planning appear too sluggish and rigid:
    • The very high speed of innovation forces correspondingly fast product cycles.
      Customers and the market are no longer able to define their own requirements, but only reacted to the presentation of new technical possibilities and products.
    • The creation of projects is seen as a highly innovative, creative process that does not allow any forecasting of effort and duration. This leads to the rejection of traditional project management for projects. 

What is the core issue?

The adjective "agile" expresses the fact that management and control of projects and processes are very dynamic and flexible in order to be able to quickly implement change requests, especially with regard to the scope of services.

In this context, "agile" is the successor term to "light" or "lightweight" and emphasizes the positive aspects of low planning and management intensity in favor of rapid implementation, high adaptability and great personal responsibility.

You will learn and apply various agile methods in the context of project management to make your projects more agile. There are agile methods for all project tasks, such as the Planning Poker for effort estimation. Together we will guide you through the most important agile methods for project management in an agile environment. You will learn about the processes, what challenges you may face, and what tools are available to meet those very challenges with confidence.

You will learn the special approaches, methods and techniques of agile project management. You will be able to assess the differences in agile project management and work with agile techniques. You will be able to use the essential tools in practice and assess their impact on the project and the environment. In addition, you will learn to integrate agile techniques into a classically oriented project management. 

In project management, the classical and agile worlds are often seemingly at odds with each other. There is often talk of a paradigm shift, which is supposed to explain the distance between the two camps. However, both sides offer advantages that, depending on the situation, can bring great benefits to projects when used correctly (hybrid project management).

Classical project management tries to specify all requirements precisely at the beginning of the project and to document them in a specification sheet that is as complete as possible. Classic project management trusts that the detailed documentation of the requirement will lead to the achievement of the project goals and thus to the satisfaction of the client.
A typical feature of classic approaches is extensively standardized procedures. Very concretely and in detail, such standards describe phases, milestones, roles, tasks, results and more, i.e. a lot of time and energy is invested in preparation and planning. The merits of this approach were considered undisputed for many years. More and more generally applicable or even situation-specific standards were defined.

Standardization in the literal sense means unification. In classic project management, process models are usually standardized. This means that project management methods and artifacts are combined to form standardized project processes. Such standardized process models are also referred to as project management systems.
Regardless of the level at which a standard is created, in an official body, in a specific industry, or in a company, the same goals are always sought. Goals that typically bring certain benefits:

  1. Common understanding among all stakeholders
  2. Improvement of internal and external cooperation
  3. Interchangeability of project participants
  4. Comparability of projects and their work status
  5. Improved management of portfolios and programs

The comparability of projects and their work status means that different projects can be compared with each other at different points in the sense of a benchmark. The aim here is to be able to compare and thus control several projects from a higher-level management perspective, e.g. within the framework of a PMO (project management office). The achievement of this goal is supported to a high degree by the application of a standardized procedure. A corresponding model offers individual milestones that can be compared and, ideally, also measurement parameters. It is not only the comparability of projects that is improved by standardized procedures. Standards also ensure improved management of portfolios and programs. Standardized projects are much easier to optimize in terms of program management. Standardized classic procedures are therefore also suitable for very large projects. For comprehensive project portfolio management, it is also important that all projects in the portfolio can be measured to a high degree and are therefore comparable. These are prerequisites that are ideally provided by a standardized process model.

Agile project management relies on iterative refinement of requirements through intensive and regular communication. Based on the Agile Manifesto, a principle of agile project management corresponds to: "Collaboration (and communication) with the customer is more important than the originally formulated performance specifications". In Scrum, for example, the documentation of requirements takes place in so-called user stories.

In the agile world, extensive and above all detailed standardization is often dispensed with. The substitute here is the project culture and the approach of constantly wanting to improve. It is essentially based on self-organized teams and the complete integration of the customer into the project. The team, including the customer, is moving more and more into the center. Powerful, now undisputed advantages also result from this approach, which leads to a steady spread of agile methods. This does not mean that there are no standardizations. However, they relate more to team interaction. Scrum, for example, defines the meeting culture of the project, among other things. Basically, agile processes and procedures are described as a framework, but they live from the concrete design by the respective team.

The agile approach is primarily about values, transparency, communication and cooperation and not about processes or tools. This does not mean that business project success is not just as much a focus in the agile world. It is just that intangible assets also move more into focus than classic controlling key figures.
Other key points are reacting quickly and flexibly to changes in the project, which is ensured by a flexible framework, flat hierarchies and a high degree of communication and personal responsibility in the project team.
A close and cooperative relationship with the customer through all project phases is a lived goal in order to achieve the best possible customer satisfaction.
An agile environment is characterized by flat hierarchies, i.e., organizational structures in which those of higher rank make few interventions in the decisions of those of lower rank (see Lateral Leadership). This organizational structure relies increasingly on the promotion of personal initiative and responsibility, which each team member must apply to his or her own actions.

In agile project management, one tested and executable result is delivered per project section, such as the sprint in Scrum. Within a section, the phases of requirement, design, development and test are run through. At the end of each stage, the exact ratio of achieved results and required resources can be measured and displayed. In addition to objective project controlling, this early measurability of completion ensures customer satisfaction and trust. In addition, reviews are a fixed component at the end of each project phase. They bring with them increased planning reliability in the ongoing project. The reason for this is an improved level of knowledge and a resulting dynamic plan adjustment.

Hybrid project management tries to combine the advantages of both process models. While agile project management gives the team members the optimal framework when creating the scope of services, traditional project management maps the requirements of top management.
By combining an agile approach at the operational level and a traditional approach at the planning level, Hybrid Project Management attempts to combine the advantages of both management systems away from dogma and towards pragmatism. The task of the project manager and the team is to ensure the smooth connection between both levels.

Rough planning is done at the beginning to give the client a statement about the end of the project and the budget. In the implementation phase, agile work is carried out in order to be flexible in the event of changes or lessons learned in close communication with the customer/client and to achieve an optimal result under the given conditions.

Learn more about these advanced topics:

Portfolio management and agile strategy