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On agile project management: a beginner’s guide

When you initiate a new creative project, do you start with a concrete vision of the end result? Do you have a clear idea of what it will look like, how it will function, who will use it, and which problems it will solve?

Your answers to these questions could determine which project management methodology you should follow as you progress from point A to point Z. If you answered ‘yes’ or ‘pretty much’ you probably work in a Waterfall world, even if you’ve never heard that term before.

Unless you’re a professional project manager, you may not even be aware that there are multiple project management methodologies to choose from. You may have worked within several different systems, without knowing what they’re called. But there’s one approach in particular that you should know by name: Agile.

Agile project management grew out of the IT world, where speed and flexibility are essential and nothing is concrete. It’s now gaining traction in a wide variety of work teams, from marketing and creative departments to product design and digital services. And for good reason.

If you’re wondering whether Agile could be right for your team, it’s important to first understand how Agile is different from what you’re doing now. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Waterfall?

Waterfall is the default, sequential methodology that most teams adopt by default. It involves up-front planning followed by sequential execution on the plan. Each phase of the project flows downhill, triggering the next phase, followed by the next, until you reach completion. You can also think of it like a relay race, with each runner representing a phase in the process. Only one runner is in motion at a time, and he must completely circle the track before the next runner begins. This method works best when the scope of the project is clear from the beginning, like when you’re building a bridge or a producing a monthly magazine with a predictable page count to fill. Just follow the track, hand off the baton, and repeat.

What is Agile?

Agile project management is a flexible, team-based way to organise your work and your time. It’s more like rugby than a relay race. In fact, one popular approach is called Scrum, short for ‘scrummage’, indicating that the team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth to achieve greater speed and flexibility.

The goal is to create a ,minimum viable product, that you actually release to your customer base before the complete and final vision has been realised. You observe how your users interact with this first iteration, you learn from their reactions, then you iterate again.

Agile works best in situations where it’s impossible to completely describe or predict what the final product will look like or how it will function. It allows you to start with a looser vision and allow the process to guide the outcome.

The Basics of Agile

Agile project management comes with a unique vocabulary that sounds like a foreign tongue at first. There’s even a manifesto or two. The first three terms you need to understand are ‘backlog’, ‘sprint’, and ‘storyboard’. Start with these and then build the rest of your new creative process from there.

1.  Your backlog is a constantly evolving, consolidated list of all the work assigned to your team. Each item on the list (often called a ‘user story’) should be detailed enough so you know when it’s due, how high a priority it is, and roughly how long it will take.

2.  At set time intervals, usually weekly, a sprint planning meeting is held, and a certain number of items are pulled from the backlog into the current sprint – the work queue that reflects all the tasks you have the capacity to complete in that week.

3.  All items in the current sprint are displayed on a storyboard, which is either a public wall chart or shared digital graph that displays the current status of each item in the sprint: incomplete, in progress, approval, complete.

As the manifestos indicate, there’s much more to Agile than this, but you now know enough to seek out further information.

If you’re standing in the middle of a waterfall, interested in dipping a toe in Agile waters, there are free resources that can take the mystery out of the transition. Don’t be deterred by the learning curve. Just wade into Agile one step at a time, keeping the aspects that work for your team and discarding the rest. Like everything else, it’s a process.

Lead image: Montage image elements from istockphoto.com

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