Agile project management, explained

What is agile project management, and is it right for your team? How is it different from other project management approaches? Experts answer all your burning questions
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Change-readiness is the name of the game for companies competing in the digital era. “Where stability and long-term planning were once the mark of a sound strategy, adaptability is the new competitive advantage,” writes Anand Chopra-McGowan in an article for Harvard Business Review.

Companies struggling to keep up might be tempted to look for flaws in talent or technology. But in fact, the culprit could be the tried-and-true project management techniques that served your company well for years. When those stop working, a move to agile project management can provide the adaptability organizations need to quickly and efficiently deliver business value, experts say.

“There are many anti-patterns in traditional project management that impede business agility, starting with the term ‘project.’”

“There are many anti-patterns in traditional project management that impede business agility, starting with the term ‘project,’ which implies a start and an end,” says Tim Beattie, engagement lead for Red Hat Open Innovation Labs. “Agile is much more focused on product management and long-lived product teams that continuously deliver value as opposed to short-term project milestones – it’s a real mindset change for project management.”

Read also: Agile vs. DevOps: What’s the difference? ]

What is agile project management?

So what is it, and how does it compare to a more traditional approach? If you are proposing a significant change to the way things have been done in your organization for years, you must be able to clearly and concisely communicate what agile project management is – in plain English. Here are five clear-cut definitions.

“Agile project management breaks down big projects into smaller projects that are completed in work sessions that run from the design phase to testing and eventually, quality assurance. Agile work helps to build rapid feedback, continuous adaptation, and quality assurance best practices.” – Ben Wald, co-founder and VP of solutions implementation, Very

Agile project management is about working in smaller, multidisciplinary teams.

“Simply put, agile project management is about working in smaller, multidisciplinary teams in order to achieve a company’s objectives more quickly. Agile development allows projects to move faster so that businesses can react more quickly to new customer needs or other changes in the market.” – Namit Jain, senior vice president of engineering, Qubole

“Agile project management is an iterative and incremental value-driven approach to managing software projects focused on continuous delivery, incorporating customer input in each iteration. Agile project management is for organizations seeking to deliver working software that produces higher quality, higher customer satisfaction, reduced risk, and faster ROI realized.” – Phil Lloyd, principal consultant, Sparkhound

“Agile is essentially all about collaboration – collaboration between business folks, collaboration between technical folks, and collaboration between business and technical folks. So, agile project management focuses heavily on facilitating and enabling such collaboration and creating spaces, environments, and connections that promote it.” – Tim Beattie, engagement lead, Red Hat Open Innovation Labs

“Agile project management is an increasingly common approach to fulfilling a given requirement or producing a desired result through a set of established processes, tools, and techniques. Traditional project management approaches emphasize contractual agreements, progress gates, and the delivery of value only at the end of the project. Agile project management instead focuses on incremental iterations, learning, and continuous value delivery throughout the project.” – Matt Poepsel, senior vice president of product, The Predictive Index

When should you use agile project management?

Agile project management may not always be the right approach for every team or every project. In many organizations, there’s room for both waterfall and agile to exist side-by-side, suggests Robert Walden, CIO of Epsilon. “There’s nothing wrong with any process if it succeeds in getting you to your goal effectively,” he wrote.

But for large, complex problems, like the kind presented by digital transformation, agile project management could help organizations get over hurdles and realize business value more quickly.

Agile allows the project to adapt as you learn more about customer needs.

“Agile project management lends itself particularly well to digital transformation projects, which often fail because they are too long and too ambitious, and too reliant on technologies that have moved on before the project is complete,” says Jim Berrisford, chief operating officer for Step5. “Agile allows for continuous inspection and improvement, enabling the digital transformation project to better respond to rapidly changing market needs and technologies.”

Agile project management also may be suitable in situations “when requirements can’t be fully known or documented in advance, when frequent client or customer contact is highly desirable, or when environmental conditions change frequently,” adds Poepsel.

Simply put, Wald says, the agile method is preferred “when the project is neither small nor simple. In these instances, agile is a better fit because it allows the project to adapt as you learn more about customer needs.” 

To learn more about how agile project management works, as well as some terms to help you get started, continue reading. 

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  


Matt and Phil's quotes above explain the real difference between agile and traditional waterfall. I wrote in my blog post that the true difference is the iterative deliver of the solution with many small releases rather than the big bang at the end. All of the other comments about "collaboration" and "working in smaller teams" is nothing special with agile since good solid traditional waterfall project managers would indeed foster collaboration with smaller teams. Aside from perpetual never ending projects for product companies, enterprise "agile" projects with end dates are pretty much hybrid agile/waterfall, and for good reasons. I discuss this position in my blog: