Agile project management: 10 challenges you’ll face

Clashes with finance. Legacy HR processes. Agile fever. How to handle these and other common agile project management problem areas
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Agile project management offers a host of potential benefits to the IT organization, including faster deployments, greater adaptability, and better alignment with business or customer needs. The adoption of agile mindsets and frameworks, however, still proves challenging.

Most IT organizations, accustomed to traditional project management methods, will hit hurdles along the way. IT leaders who can anticipate these common challenges – and understand how to overcome or avoid them – can smooth the transition.

Consider these tips from agile experts on 10 common agile hurdles:

[ Need to explain agile to others in plain terms? Read Agile project management, explained. ]

Agile challenges and how to beat them

1. Clashes with finance

“You don’t scope everything out to the -nth degree. For a lot of finance organizations, that’s a big leap.”

 “When you first move to agile, funding can be a challenge,” says Colin Chapman, chief delivery officer at agile software services provider Nexient. With traditional projects, IT makes a business case that defines a project’s scope (and costs) down to the dime. “Agile works differently. It requires room to release and iterate,” Chapman explains. “You don’t scope everything out to the -nth degree. For a lot of finance organizations, that’s a big leap.”

This will require some finesse, and – if finance and IT aren’t already well-aligned ­– a liaison. “[You] need someone on the business side to get finance on board. They might point out that all those carefully crafted plans never pan out as promised, that projects are always late and over budget, that IT is change-requested to death and projects take forever to get going,” says Chapman. “Finance is often more willing to hear all that from a business champion than IT itself.”

2. Lack of planning

Similarly, many business leaders will want to know what something will cost and what the benefits are before committing to it. “In many situations, ‘take the next item off the backlog and do it’ or ‘we’ll know what it costs when we are done’ just isn’t good enough,” says Michael Levine, author or People Over Process: Leadership for Agility. “When you need a plan, don’t be afraid of doing it thinking you will be accused of falling back to waterfall.”

It’s ok to do some detailed requirements exploration, architecture, and design work up front, to provide some estimates in hours and dollars, or real dates in addition to points and sprint numbers. “You can still get the benefits of agile by revisiting requirements and designs in sprint planning, being test-driven, and working with business partners every day,” Levine says. “Agile is not an excuse not to plan.”

[ What tools can help? Read also: Top 7 open source project management tools for agile teams. ]

3. Change resistance to agile

“Transforming employees and company culture is the single greatest challenge we see facing enterprises that are undergoing an agile transformation,” says Blair Hanley Frank, principal analyst at global technology research and advisory firm ISG. Indeed, 61 percent of those who have implemented agile practices recommend focusing on culture and people as a critical part of the shift, according to a recent ISG Research survey.

“No matter what tools you throw at the problem, this is ultimately a transition that requires employees to change the way they work on a fundamental level,” Frank says. “This means IT leaders need to be proactive about demonstrating the benefits of this new way of working, along with providing appropriate training resources for helping employees understand both the logistics and reasoning behind the shift.”

“Leaders need to lead by example by executing core agile practices themselves," says Tim Beattie, engagement lead for Red Hat Open Innovation Labs. He recommends these three steps:

  • Visualize all work in an open and transparent manner inviting conversation and feedback.
  • Hold retrospectives early and regularly to drive continuous improvement and course-correction.
  • Encourage daily synchronization of team members with each other.

[ Want more advice? Read also: 10 agile project management tips from the masters. ]

4. Legacy HR practices

Agile benefits from different approaches to recruiting, evaluating, and rewarding talent.

Agile is a very different way of working, notes Stephen Townsend, director of network programs for the Project Management Institute (PMI). As such, it benefits from different approaches to recruiting, evaluating, and rewarding talent. “In most agile organizations, the right people for the project surface by people raising their hands, not based on job descriptions and set roles,” Townsend says. “Individuals self-nominate because they have expertise in the specific domain, strong collaboration capabilities, and passion for the work.”

They may not be driven as much by compensation and financial benefits as interesting projects, strong teams, and engaged product owners. “Many organizations adopting agile completely change their recognition, reward, and performance programs to accommodate team-based assessments and development,” Townsend notes.

5. Taking a waterfall approach to agile rollouts

Many IT organizations will naturally take a centralized, in-depth, planned-out tack when it comes to introducing agile. “In other words, they apply the waterfall mindset to adopting agile,” says Frank of ISG. That usually leads to stalls. “The best way we see for enterprises to progress with Agile culture transformation is to start small and get going, learning as they go,” Frank says.

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.


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Thanks for the article. An apt summary of what pitfalls enterprises should be looking out for before pursuing goal of being "Entirely Agile"!!