Agile Project Management

Agile project management is widely used today and is the natural development of management practices. In the Everyday Project Management book by Jeff Davidson, the author explains the differences and some pros and cons.

The Agile Attitude

Understanding Agile takes a bit of, well … agility. It is both an approach to management and a way of thinking. What it is not: a list of instructions, a guidebook, or some type of project management certification. Moreover, viewing Agile as some type of template by which to manage is actually contrary to what Agile is all about.

The Project Management Institute contends that more than 70% of organizations have instituted some type of Agile approach, while more than 25% of manufacturing firms employ Agile exclusively. PMI research suggests that Agile-based projects are nearly 30% more successful than traditional projects.

Agile values doing work in pieces, also known as sprints. These pieces eventually add up to desired results. Agile managers learn from what they have accomplished. The focus of Agile is to produce workable, demonstrable results. To further emphasize, managers who adhere to Agile approaches do their best on the piecework that eventually adds up to a finished product, service, or deliverable. The goal is not to hit a home run on the first swing, but instead to hit single after single to advance runners or, in this case, progress.

Agile project management is ever-changing. Project managers will define it in different ways

Agile project management is ever-changing. Project managers will define it in different ways, and that could be confusing. A simple way to understand Agile project management is to recognize that it focuses on human communication, being flexible in the face of changing situations, and delivering workable solutions.

A key Agile principle holds that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within the development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Many popular project management software packages are designed with Agile in mind. (See Chapter 11, “Choosing Project Management Software.”) “As applied to project management, agile focuses on effectiveness of communications rather than endless meetings, e-mail correspondence, or reams of documentation.” With that in mind, if you can successfully communicate with somebody in 10 to 15 seconds of conversation, instead of an e-mail, by all means proceed.

The accent on face-to-face communications over e-communications gives rise to what is known as the daily scrum, which is part and parcel of an Agile approach. In essence, a scrum is a communication tool within an Agile framework. As one manager put it, “Scrum is a method for organizing tasks to promote agility.”

A scrum can be a 10-minute meeting in which a group stands, not sits, and collectively makes a team plan as well as individual plans for the day. Why is the term scrum employed instead of “a 10-minute standup meeting”?

Scrum is borrowed from rugby, where the players huddle quickly and plan for the next play. In football it’s called a huddle. In baseball, the infielders meet at the pitcher’s mound to discuss the next play. Basketball doesn’t have such a term: Teammates will meet anywhere on the court as needed, generally for a few seconds. Scrum, as used in project management, and as applied by Agile and Tinderbox authors, conveys a sense of exclusivity.

Whether it’s Agile, team building, customer service, or what-have-you

Whether it’s Agile, team building, customer service, or what-have-you, what are their underlying concepts, and what makes their tenets viable now and for the future? You want to always seek both the short- and the long-term utility of a management methodology, a tool, a system, or even a set of beliefs.

In project management, when you sweep away the contemporary hubbub, an underlying structure prevails. The need to establish order, to marshal adequate resources, to carefully schedule activities and events, all remain vital in any era. That’s why this book emphasizes the underlying fundamentals of project management, while acknowledging that today’s terminology and tools provide the contemporary template and operating systems by which we do proceed.

When you stay open-minded to the available new terminology and tools, you’ll tend to learn new things and gain perspectives that you might not otherwise encounter. So, you’ll want to understand the industry jargon, but not be ensnared by it, as if a particular term were mandatory and so vital that you can’t successfully manage a project without it.

Tools for project management do convey considerable benefits

As a youth, you probably learned multiplication and division first, by hand. Later, you used calculators. If you started with calculators and didn’t learn the underlying basic math, you are dependent on calculators and computers for life, and in their absence you’re totally stuck, like those who understand little if any math. Similarly, widely touted tools for project management do convey considerable benefits, but first you need to learn the fundamentals of project management, which this book offers.

Agile devotee or not, it’s prudent for you to become familiar with the essence of the approach, and to learn the jargon, if only to be able to hobnob with other project managers within your organization and the profession in general.

The PMI credential is regarded as the industry standard

The PMI credential is regarded as the industry standard. Significant numbers of instructors in the field teach to this credential, essentially helping their trainees become adept at passing the exam. That’s fine, since the PMI credential indicates that titleholders adhere to an industrywide ethical code. Also, standardization of instruction can be helpful in some ways.

Standardization can also potentially be stifling in terms of your applying original thinking, creative approaches, and innovative solutions to project management challenges. On smaller projects, an astute manager using spreadsheet software and simple management tools can do equally well, and perhaps more easily.

Whether you’re a beginner or have managed projects for a while, you’ll want to be comfortable in various settings. It is useful for you to ultimately understand the basic principles of scrum, not a topic in this text, but certainly one you will encounter. It’s also wise to eventually become familiar with Tinderbox capabilities for project planning and other approaches deemed vital by PMI. However, these are not the first areas to explore on the path to being an effective project manager. PMA explains the same.

As discussed in Chapter 1, balance is vital, as is your ability to work with people and communicate effectively. Once you punch those tickets, then understanding the basic tools—including the Gantt chart, flowcharts, and the critical path method (CPM) of project control (topics covered in Chapters 9 and 10)—represents the third leg of the stool to support your efforts.

Underlying Concepts Count

Constructing this book, to reemphasize, required a ground-up approach. In analog fashion, Everyday Project Management first examines the tools that people have successfully relied on for at least the last hundred years, including the aforementioned Gantt chart, the critical path method (CPM), flowcharts, and tree diagrams. It then discusses how they can be applied in the work and life of the everyday project manager.

The difficulty of jumping into project management relying totally on popular software, without understanding the underlying concepts, can be illustrated by the following story.

I had met Annie, the VP of Internet Technology (IT) for a major bank with headquarters on the East Coast. She was receiving a salary of $248,000—an outrageous sum in North Carolina a few years back—plus a matching bonus of $248,000, as well as other perks and bonuses. All told, she annually received more than a half-million dollars.

It was Annie’s standard operating procedure to use her GPS every time she got into her car, even to drive only a few blocks to or from her lavish home. She relied on the GPS to such a great degree that she had precious little knowledge of the streets and larger community in which she resided.

For whatever reason, one day, while she was driving us around town, her GPS gave out. Despite repeated attempts, she could not make it function properly, and she kept no maps in the car. Suddenly, she realized she was lost and this highly intelligent, self-confident, and supremely competent person became unglued. Annie was frustrated with the device, but more so with herself. Not being from the area, I was of little help.

When she got a few blocks closer to her house, Annie began to recognize a landmark here and there, and eventually got home. In perspective: This otherwise ultra-effective, highly rewarded, career professional had relied heavily on technology to navigate about town, without learning the basics—the major roads of Charlotte and the streets near her home. As such, in the face of this temporary glitch, she got utterly lost.

How many other motorists today, I wonder, fail to ever look at a map so as to understand the basics of their own geographic environment, gain some knowledge of their own neighborhood and surrounding community, get familiar with the major roads, and be able to navigate a bit around town without relying on their GPS crutch?

The prevailing industry software and the enjoyment of the benefits and features

Even a few blocks from her house, Annie was befuddled until she recognized some businesses and houses. The names of streets meant nothing to her. The fact that she had traversed some of these roads at other times was of little help.

The lesson for budding and as well as seasoned project managers is clear: First learn the fundamentals of project management, which will be covered in this book. Then gravitate to the prevailing industry software and enjoy the benefits and features of that software, which will make your job easier.

Without understanding the underlying concepts of project management, if you jump into the fray while relying heavily on project and software, be forewarned: You run only a minuscule risk that the software will somehow fail you. What’s more likely is that you won’t feel fully comfortable in your role as a project manager to the degree that others do, who took the time to learn the basics.

Want Some Fries with Your Order?

If you’ve been in a fast food restaurant, particularly in an airport, as you’re ready to pay for your order, did you know that the cash register keys might not contain numbers? Instead, in many stores, the cash register keys contain pictures of, say, a hamburger, french fries, and a milkshake.

Having cash register keys with pictures can cut down on entry errors. More than that, fast food franchisors often find it difficult to hire competent help. So, they “engineered” around employees’ needing to have simple arithmetic skills. As long as a cashier can press cash register keys with the pictures of what customers order, the proper amount to charge the customer will appear.

If the customer is paying by credit card, as happens in airport settings nearly all the time, then the cashier doesn’t need to have arithmetic skills at all: The system takes care of everything. One can only surmise what happens on a day when the “cashier” has to rely on arithmetic skills to make change because the cash register malfunctions in some way.

As a project manager, please don’t emulate the person who is overly dependent on tools

As a project manager, please don’t emulate the person who is overly dependent on tools. You’ll want to be the person who can come in and say, “Here’s how we’ll proceed,” whether or not the technology and gadgets are available. After all, during a storm, all the power can go off in your office. Can you still keep going?

At an executive retreat I witnessed, one of the challenges posed to participants was to complete a task without the customary resources at their command, such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops, as well as people resources. The executives who had overrelied on their administrative assistants back in the work-a-day world found themselves stymied when seeking to tackle the challenge on their own, in the raw.

Only a handful of participants were able to plot a path and follow a plan that led to success in completing the task. The rest were up in arms. They had relied for so long on supporting resources that they regarded such support as a given. Now, even in a supportive environment, tackling a rather minor challenge, they were at a loss as to how to proceed. For sure, the ability to delegate effectively is a skill vital to leaders. Still, this tale makes one wonder about the nature of competence and confidence.

Competence and Confidence

The more competent you are, the greater your confidence can be in the work you perform. Likewise, if you are highly confident, that can help to enhance your competence. In all cases, you need to have knowledge of the underlying essentials within a given discipline. Even in the age of ultrasmart calculators and computers, good engineers still know how to use a slide rule.

The proverbial bottom line: You need to have earned your chops, not rely all the time on software. As discussed previously, the language employed to discuss the fundamentals might change. The fundamentals themselves don’t change, however, especially in relation to smaller projects, the type to which you’ll likely be assigned early in your career will change.

Much is at stake if you’re building a bridge, a nuclear submarine, or some other hard asset. The many “givens” to your situation can’t be altered, such as the length of the bridge, the number of tons of steel required, or the date the client must have the finished product. So, you draw on your basic skills, judgment, and, yes, the available tools of technology. You can’t be changing your mind every other day on a project to construct a new, hard asset, because you’ll run the risk of, say, stockpiling tons of rusty bolts.

Alternatively, if you’re a software engineer or are working on some type of software-related project, you have options. You can traverse different paths, and then abandon them if they don’t pay off. You can consider multiple ways of accomplishing the same task. You can add bells and whistles, or exclude them.

You have flexibility because a deliverable, such as software, exists in a virtual world that allows for contingencies. The day before delivery, you can position a banner on the bottom, instead of the top of the page, simply because you want to. Such changes might not disrupt the project. Some users will like the banner at the bottom. Others might have preferred it to be at the top.

Agile project management software places emphasis

At your discretion, you can make a change to the software if an overwhelming number of users prefer the banner to be at the top.

For the reasons above, Agile project management software places emphasis on what it terms user-driven priority queues and customer-needs priority queues.

If you’re repairing a bridge, you have to obtain approval by the big bureaucracy—the group dispensing the $10 million or $20 million to complete the project. You’re going to incur big trouble if you decide to deviate in a major way, midway through the project.

When developing software, say in Silicon Valley, it’s common to scrap one way of doing things for another. At times, a single e-mail from a customer will prompt a firm to turn 180 degrees in what they’re developing. As project manager, you decide. You can rely on technology tools, but when the dust clears, you decide.

Interpersonal and Technological Skills

Equally important to understanding the tools is connecting with the team charged with completing the project. Make no mistake: Interpersonal skills are as critical to the project manager as technological skills. Read our What is project management article.

The project manager reports to others, and has sponsors, constituents, and perhaps well-wishers, all of whom need to be regularly kept informed. The project manager has human resources within the organization—project team members—who could be full-time for the duration of the project, or coming and going. Each project team member needs to have a relationship with the w and, likely, with one or more others on the team, as well.

It’s been stated in many texts that it’s easier to take somebody with people skills and teach them the technical fundamentals of project management than it is to take somebody with technical project management skills and teach them the fundamentals of dealing with people, since they don’t already have such capability.

In this book we focus on the underlying technical concepts and the people side of project management. Accept this as a truism: You will not be able to avoid the ever-constant need to work effectively with others. Having interpersonal skills are not optional for the project manager, and indeed will likely be the make-or-break factor in your long-term success.

QUICK RECAP

◾  The world is full of architectural, landscaping, engineering, and construction wonders conceived, built, and perfected without the aid of a computer, software, or any of the technological tools commonly associated with project management.

◾  The basic knowledge and skills that a person needs to adroitly manage a project can be diluted by complex and esoteric terms. So, stay focused on the underlying concepts that key terms encompass.

◾  Agile is a way of thinking and also a general approach to management that emphasizes the value of human communication, especially in an environment that constantly changes.

◾  Avoid jumping into project management by relying totally on sophisticated software without understanding the underlying concepts. Otherwise, you might not feel fully comfortable in your role. Seek to be the person who can confidently say, “Here’s how we proceed,” whether the technology and gadgets are available or not.

◾  The more competent you are, the greater your confidence can be. Likewise, if you are highly confident, that can help to enhance your competence. It’s most useful to have knowledge of the underlying essentials within a given discipline.

◾  Equally important to understanding the project management tools is connecting with the team charged with completing the project. Interpersonal skills are as important to the project manager as technological skills.

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