Agile practice guide : What is Agile and why getting the definition right matters

Agile – It is both the mindset and the method


Agile is everywhere in the world of work – in casual conversations, in formal management meetings, even in boardrooms – there is constant chatter about Agile.Where ever you turn, some one seems to be mouthing an ever-expanding stream of agile phrases – daily standup, xp, retrospectives, lean, test driven development, kanban, devops, the list goes on. While this is great fodder for lively debates, you as a project leader have a more immediate task of  leading your teams to get stuff done in this era of digital disruption. You have been told Agile can help you deliver programs and projects – smarter (value is delivered quickly and incrementally), faster (on time), and better (cost less to deliver).  However, there is very little practical guidance available on how you integrate Agile into projects. Agile methods focus on various aspects of project work – for example, Scrum is focussed on product development, XP on development practices , Lean / Kanban on process improvement – but don’t provide guidance on integrating Agile at a project level. As a consequence, projects and their sponsoring organization struggle to integrate Agile effectively at the project level and never fully realize the benefits of Agile.

To address this guidance gap, PMI in collaboration with Agile Alliance has stepped in with the Agile Practice Guide ( Agile Practice Guide (2017)). The guide says in its introduction ” This practice guide provides practical guidance geared toward project leaders and team members adapting to an agile approach in planning and executing projects.”

Before we get started with exploring the Agile Practice Guide, we need to acknowledge the volunteers who put this guide together. Although, it is rough on the edges ( it is the first iteration, after all)  and the authors graciously admit it to be the case, it is a great start as it provides project leaders a structure to have a much-needed conversation on how to incorporate Agile into projects. Agile is huge and continually expanding,  and to realize the its benefits we have to be thoughtful and deliberate on how we adopt it and then adapt it to our unique project and organizational circumstances. So, a well deserved shout out to the PMI and Agile Alliance volunteers for publishing the Agile Practice Guide 2017, and getting this urgent conversation started.

With that well deserved acknowledgement, let us get on with getting Agile, and take a look at what the Agile Practice Guide has as practical guidance for project leaders. . The introduction expectedly begins  by trying to answer , ” Why an Agile practice guide and Why now” even though Agile has been around for quite bit of time ; the Agile Manifesto was published in 2001, almost a couple of decades ago and  even before that milestone, project teams were using Agile techniques.  The short answer is – disruptive technologies i.e. digital technologies. Digital technologies based on silicon and software, are pervasive, they are everywhere – in every process, in every product and in every company and are disrupting every industry across the economy. For instance, a bank is no longer a place you go to in order to complete a financial transaction, it is a giant computer that you access from a powerful phone you carry in your pocket ; A car is no longer an electro-mechanical contraption, it is computer on wheels which is close to becoming self driving and shortly you will be able to summon it to drive you to your destination.

As digital technologies,  continue to make rapid inroads into our lives, there is an ever-increasing digital component to every company’s strategy and portfolio of products and projects. And as is well-known,  the old way  of project management – predictive project management, to conceive, develop and deploy digital technologies doesn’t work well. A new way of  managing these technologies is required. Luckily for us, the folks who wrote up the Agile Manifesto had an inkling of the digital tsunami coming our way and had come up with Agile as the most appropriate way of managing the development and deployment of these silicon and software based disruptive digital technologies. (History : The Agile Manifesto , the passage on the upcoming new economy attests to their prescience). But what exactly is Agile.

The Agile practice guide doesn’t clearly define the term Agile. Although, the text in the picture, inspired by Ahmed Sidky, ( Figure 2-3. The Relationship Between the Agile Manifesto to Values, Principles and Common Practices) offers this Agile mindset weighted definition – ” Agile is a mindset defined by values, guided by principles, and manifested through many different practices. Agile practitioners select practices based on their needs.” While, this definition scores marks for succinctness, I think you will find this slightly more expansive definition of Agile  found in the book ( Learning Agile,  Andrew Stellman; Jennifer Greene Published by O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2014) more practical, as it  covers the dual aspects of Agile – Agile as a set of methods and methodologies ( and associated practices) and Agile as a mindset. The book states; ” Agile is set of methods and methodologies that help your team to think more effectively, work more efficiently, and make better decisons….Each of those methods and methodologies ( Scrum, XP, Lean / Kanaban etc) consists of practices ( Daily standup, retrospectives, pair programming, queues, work in process etc) that are streamlined and optimized to make them as easy as possible to adopt. Agile is also mindset, because the right mindset can make a big difference in how effectively a team uses the practices.” The methods and the mindset are joined at the hip, the Agile method provides the practices to actualize Agile, and  the Agile mindset ensure you maximize the benefits of the practices.

Now that you know that Agile is both a mindset and a method, your job as a project leader is two-fold

  • Champion and build the Agile mindset among your delivery teams ( both technical and non technical teams)  and your project governance teams ( sponsors, senior leaders both within your organization and supplier organizations)
  • Create a project environment that provides teams with the guidance and support needed to implement and sustain the Agile methods and practices that will work best in your project context.

Obviously, there is no cookie cutter way, no plug and play way  of integrating Agile into projects. To become agile, we have to do agile. So, the onus is on us as project leaders to learn the Agile methods ( I would recommend  the PMI- Agile Certfiied Practioner certificate), instill the Agile mindset in our teams and jointly with our teams develop the Agile method and the associated practices that works for us. Watch out for further posts, as we dig deeper into integrating Agile at a project level.

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