What is Agile project management?

Don’t let the jargon put you off! Agile is a set of principles, rather than a project management methodology, that gets work done (and maybe even makes it fun).

Tile with text What Is Agile Project Management

So, what is Agile in project management?

We called in a gun professional to help us answer this question.

“The whole concept of agility is to deliver value quickly and to make sure that you’re meeting the needs of the customer or end user,” says Priya Harikrishnan, Senior Project Manager at NAB (National Australia Bank). She has 20 years of experience delivering projects within financial services and is currently involved in NAB’s acquisition of the Citibank credit cards business.

Agile is a way of breaking a project into smaller chunks, creating those chunks, letting them go live periodically and getting user feedback at each stage.

“By involving the user in the process throughout the development life cycle, any changes can be incorporated along the way, rather than trying to force them in at the end. This reduces your time to market,” Priya continues.

The origins (and evolution) of Agile

Bear with us while we get geeky for a second. In the 1970s, the aerospace and computer industries needed a more nimble project management methodology. Using traditional project management techniques, development took too long.

“In traditional project management, also called the ‘waterfall’ method, you start by finding out what users want, then going through a long documentation process where you write out the business’ requirements. Followed by the design process, then documenting that. And then testing happens. And finally, at the very conclusion, you show users what you’ve built,” Priya explains.

“Because of the duration taken, user needs would have changed. What you’ve built may no longer be relevant,” she continues. At best, you’d be looking at painful fixes. At worst, a product that’s completely obsolete.

Fast forward to the software wars of 2000. A group of 17 developers met and hammered out the Agile Manifesto, which addressed two key points:

  • Project work cycles needed to be shortened so customers could get their hands on benefits more quickly
  • Customer feedback should be collected and acted upon quickly and more frequently so quality could be improved in an ongoing manner

*Newsflash* While Agile’s earliest adopters were software development teams, today, you’ll find it being used in marketing, finance and even HR teams in an ‘evolved’ form called Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Some notable organisations on the Agile/SAFe train are Netflix Talent (HR), Procter & Gamble, Rolls Royce and Astra Zeneca.Traditional vs Agile project management:

Is one better than the other?

As with everything else in life, the situation is a little more nuanced.

“I’ve always worked in hybrid environments, combining SAFe/Agile principles as well as traditional methods. I’ve found that this is usually the case in big corporations. Some teams will be pure Agile, others pure waterfall, or a mix—they’ll choose what’s best for them and the tech that they’re working with,” Priya says.

“It makes sense for the digital teams (such as the internet and mobile banking teams) to use Agile. But back-end teams managing customer ledger information typically use legacy mainframe systems and traditional methods for delivery ,” she explains, in the context of banks and financial institutions.

Agile project management Traditional project management
Is a set of principles that can be
applied through methodologies like
Scrum, Kanban and SAFe. Prioritises
responsiveness to change.
Called the ‘waterfall’ approach in
 Iterative  Linear
General scope, goals and outcomes
are agreed at the start, but actual
deliverables are fluid and
dependent on user feedback.
Entire project is planned upfront
without any scope for changing
 The self-organising team breaks the
project into smaller ‘user
stories’—each is a feature desired
by the user.
Clearly defined sequence of
execution with phases that don’t
advance until the phase before
receives final approval.
The team decides what user stories
to prioritise (based on project
goals) and works through them in
order of priority.
The team follows a set plan.
 Work is usually organised in
‘sprints’—what the team decides
they can achieve within a
A ‘critical path’ is used to track
Stakeholder and customer feedback
is accounted for within some
sprints, and can be addressed in a
future sprint without stressing the
Once a phase is completed, it can
be difficult and costly to
 Ongoing conversation on priorities
between developers and stakeholders
means that work can stay on track
by adapting—focusing on critical
deliverables and setting aside less
important ones. 
One missed deadline or blocking
issue could delay the entire
As pure Agile, suitable for small
teams. In its iteration as SAFe,
suited for complex projects with
multiple teams/vendors and systems.
Suited for simpler projects where
the work has predictable,
repeatable processes.
Each sprint produces a tangible
portion of the project that users
can test and interact with.
 Customers don’t interact with the
product/output until the whole
project is completed.

Values and principles of Agile project management

In the beginning, those 17 developers put forward four guiding values in the Agile Manifesto (just replace ‘software’ with ‘product’ or ‘service’):

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

To quote them, “While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

They went on to write the 12 principles of Agile project management as well (feel free to print these out and stick them above your desk):

  1. The highest priority is customer satisfaction through early and continuous delivery of software
  2. Welcome changes, even late in development
  3. Deliver working software frequently
  4. Business people and developers must work together
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals, trust they will get the job done
  6. The most efficient and effective way to communicate is face-to-face
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility
  10. Simplicity is essential
  11. The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organising teams
  12. The team should reflect on how to become more effective and adapt accordingly

Agile project management benefits (and some drawbacks)

For Priya, the first principle mentioned above (on customer satisfaction being the highest priority) is the most important one.

“Having a mechanism to address changing needs quickly is the no. 1 reason to adopt Agile,” she says.

Managers sometimes need to adjust to the idea of self-organising teams. Won’t people do less work if they’re not being directed? Easy answer—no.

Fact: they’re actually more likely to create a superior quality product as they’re allowed learn, grow and improve on their own terms, which translates into greater job satisfaction.

The benefits don’t end there. Other ones include better project predictability, reduced risks and more transparency. Definitely an all-round win.

One important thing to note, though, is that transitioning from a traditional to Agile approach can be extremely challenging for organisations. It’s a steep-ish learning curve at the start and old working habits are hard to break.

According to Priya, “Sometimes it’s easier to use the waterfall method if that’s what stakeholders are used to—that way everyone understands what we’re trying to do.”

Courses in Agile project management

Still reading? Great—here’s how you can qualify to become an Agile project manager. No matter your background, it’s possible as long as you have the interest to learn and grow.

“I’m a computer systems engineer who moved into the professional services arm of the software firm I was in. I liked the stakeholder engagement and delivery component of the job,” says Priya.

Start with a bachelor degree in a related field such as business management or business administration. If you’re interested in studying online, here are some options.

If you already have a bachelors, then consider postgraduate study in project management. Curtin University offers specific courses through Open Universities Australia that include units on Agile. Their Graduate Diploma in Project Management even leads into the Master of Science (Project Management).
Not sure if learning Agile is a must-have at the moment? There are many other degrees, short courses and single subjects which can teach you a broad range of project management skills.

Following that, you could seek a number of Agile project management certifications, including:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • PMI-Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)
  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)
  • Certified Practising Project Practitioner (CPPP), Project Manager (CPPM) or Senior Project Manager (CPSPM)

There’s a veritable buffet available. So, it’s best to reach out to those working in the industry you want to join to find out what they deem worthy of your hard-earned time and cash.

Keen to get closely acquainted with sprints, standups and showcases? Browse a variety of online project management courses available to study online with leading Australian universities through Open Universities Australia. 

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