You might be looking to adopt agile in your organization or wondering if AgilePM is the right course for you. But what is agile? What makes it different to more traditional project management methods? Read this article to discover what agile actually is and the differences between agile and waterfall development methods. You'll also discover what kind of agile project management certifications are available.
What is agile?
So, what is agile? The term ‘agile’ means a lot of different things to different people. Agile development methods originated in the software industry, not as project management methods, but as delivery methods. Wikipedia defines a delivery method as “a system used … for organizing and financing design, construction, operations, and maintenance services … by entering into legal agreements with one or more entities or parties”.
It’s interesting to note the above definition covers both “construction” (not necessarily buildings, but could be construction of anything e.g. software) and “operations and maintenance”. Construction activities typically take place as part of a project – projects deliver products or services. Project activities are temporary by their very nature.
Operations and maintenance, however, are what are normally referred to as “business as usual” (BAU) i.e. the ongoing, everyday activities which take place in an organization. It’s usually projects which deliver products at the end of the projects, and these are often maintained by staff who work in BAU.
Agile is now an umbrella term underneath which lots of different agile development methods, concepts, behaviours and techniques are placed. The closest definition of what agile is can be found in the Agile Manifesto , created in 2001 by a group of leading agile thinkers. This is what the Agile Manifesto says:
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Working software over comprehensive documentation.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
Agile development methods were developed to overcome many of the problems which typically plagued software projects. These problems often meant projects were late, over budget and beset with quality problems.
Although agile started in the software industry and a lot of its terminology is directly related to I.T., there is now an acknowledgement that agile development methods, behaviours, principles and techniques can be used on any type of project. Some people even replace the word ‘software’ found in the Agile Manifesto with words such as ‘product’ or ‘service’.
Agile development methods are for teams
One common feature of almost all agile development methods is that they tend to focus on the team level e.g. how to make teams more efficient and better able to deliver what the customer needs on time using a variety of agile techniques. Agile development methods do not focus on project management because they were not designed for that purpose.
However, on any project there is a need to understand why the project is required. This is the most important question of all. A lack of clarity here could mean a lot of time and money is wasted developing products which are not required by the business. This question is answered usually on a project by a role often known as the Project Sponsor or Executive.
Project management methodologies such as PRINCE2 are clear about the role of the Executive. It is to ensure that the project gives value for money, that it fits in with corporate strategies and that it can be funded. It is also to ensure that the project delivers a product which in turn, will achieve the forecasted benefits i.e. the positive things which will result as a return for the investment.
Often projects have steering committees or Project Boards which bring together the major business, user and supplier stakeholders, so that there is unified direction given to the project. The people on these boards are, by their very nature, senior people. They will commit the necessary resources and approve plans.
Sitting in between teams and a Project Board is a Project Manager. The Project Manager’s traditional role is to manage the project day to day. This involves agreeing work with teams, managing issues and risks, creating and updating plans and reporting progress to the Project Board.
The teams on a project are responsible for delivering in a timely manner those products which the customer needs. Agile teams now have a variety of agile development methods to choose from: Extreme Programming, Kanban, Lean Startup and Scrum – the latter being the most well-known. These agile development methods are able to maximize the productivity of their team members by applying a number of key agile principles which are defined in the Agile Manifesto.
Historically, project management has focussed on the top 2 levels shown in the diagram above, whilst leaving the methods to be used at the bottom for the teams themselves to specify.
Agile versus Waterfall
Before agile development methods began to dominate the software industry, the delivery methods employed on projects were often referred to as “waterfall methods”. These typically relied on lots of documentation to be produced, had predefined sequential phases to go through (requirements analysis, design, build, test, deployment) and each phase required signoff before proceeding to the next. These methods found it difficult to respond to customers’ changes.
Research conducted by the Standish Group of projects conducted between 2002 and 2010 reported that: “Software applications developed through the agile process have three times the success rate of the traditional waterfall method and a much lower percentage of time and cost overruns” . Success in the report was defined as on time, on budget, and with all planned features.
Over the last 15 years, there has been a fervent debate within the software industry about whether agile or waterfall is best. This has partly been driven by the internet and speed up of work associated with it.
One of the features of agile development methods is the lack of focus on “design up front” when compared with waterfall approaches. The latter utilizes a design phase in which software architectures and high level designs are produced. The construction of the software proceeds after the design phase has been signed off.
Agile methods work in a series of iterations, each iteration producing a workable and incremental piece of software. During these iterations, design (and re-design) is done bit by bit, not all at once as in waterfall.
Agile is therefore a good choice for projects which need to quickly bring software to market e.g. a website or web-based tool or service. It is less good at producing long-lasting and well-engineered systems. Can you imagine the control software for a nuclear power station being developed with no up-front design?
This problem was highlighted in the 2014 CRASH Report , which showed that enterprise software built using a mixture of agile and waterfall methods – with an up-front emphasis on architectural quality and design – will result in more robust and secure applications than those built using either agile or waterfall methods alone.
Agile Project Management
Nevertheless, if your project is using agile development methods, do you still need project management? There are some people in the agile community who like to think that the advent of agile development methods means there is now no need for project management. As we said above, agile development methods were not designed as project management methodologies, so your project still needs project management. The fact is that none of the different agile approaches define a ‘project manager’ role.
One of the strengths of project management methodologies such as PRINCE2 is that they have developed over a long time (PRINCE2 can trace its roots back to something called PROMPT in 1975). They are based upon what are generally regarded as best practices in project management. They have been written and developed by experienced project managers managing many different types of projects over many years.
So, what is agile project management? It’s about combining the best of both worlds. The strengths of project management methodologies such as PRINCE2 lie in their focus on giving direction and management on a project. PRINCE2 and other project management standards or methodologies do not, however, provide any focus in the area of product delivery.
Agile development methods focus almost entirely at the product delivery level, and do not concern themselves with the project direction or management. So, agile project management is a way of providing project management and direction to a project which uses agile methods at the team level.
Agile project management, however, is more than just a marriage between project management methodologies and agile development methods. It’s also about applying agile principles to both the project management and development methods.
Agile Project Management Certification
If you are a traditional project manager and your project teams are using agile development methods, it would be useful to consider updating your skills to include one of the new agile project management qualifications. If you are involved at a team level and are looking to move into a project management role, then gaining agile project management certification will also be very useful.
Agile project management training
PRINCE2 Agile certification is offered at Practitioner level for existing PRINCE2 Practitioners. Its aim is to combine the strengths of PRINCE2 with the flexibility of agile methods. Certification can be obtained by attending 3 days of agile project management training. The course manual assumes a level of understanding of PRINCE2, and focuses almost entirely on the different agile development methods and how they can be used in a PRINCE2 project.
If you are already certified at PRINCE2 Practitioner level and you want to expand your knowledge and certification in agile, there’s no better way to obtain your PRINCE2 Agile certification than by attending agile project management training.
The course syllabus is based upon DSDM, which was the world’s first agile project management methodology when it launched in 1995. The latest version – the DSDM Agile Project Framework (AgilePF) – was launched in 2014 and is documented in the Agile Project Management Handbook v2.0.
These courses were designed to help students develop both the knowledge and skills required to work on an agile project and develop the understanding to apply the guidance on an agile project.
The DSDM Consortium is a not for profit organisation which was a signatory to the original Agile Manifesto in 2001.
 Agile Manifesto. 2001. http://www.agilemanifesto.org/
 The Standish Group. 2011. The CHAOS Report, page 25. https://www.standishgroup.com/
 CAST Software Inc. 2014. The CRASH Report. http://www.castsoftware.com/research-labs/crash-reports