Why consider joining the ranks of agile project managers?
Well, do you like to build smooth systems of operation? Does your heart glow when you are on time? Do you crave efficiency? Do you like to bring order out of chaos?
If so, then you may want to consider a career as an agile project manager.
Whether you’re building websites for an ad agency or software for a company, it’s important to understand how to lead your team to success and make your customer happy. Here’s what you need to be an agile PM, also known as a Scrum Master.
Skills every agile project manager needs to succeed
There are four essential responsibilities in which all successful agile leaders excel:
Good communication is the most important skill for a team leader. And as we’ve noted elsewhere on the site, communication skills are absolutely critical for project managers in general, and they take on increased importance when working with remote teams. Solid communication builds trust and ensures the transparent flow of information. Good communicators help the team negotiate conflict, eliminate obstacles, get buy-in from stakeholders. Asking the right questions and listening well helps keep the project flowing. Agile leaders value transparency, so they use “information radiators” like bulletin boards, which allow anybody to see project status at any time.
All Scrum Masters plan for the ideal future. Because they understand their project deeply, they can think ahead to build out work schedules and minimize opportunities for failure. They have to be able to reroute work if something goes wrong. For instance, all projects have dependencies. If a certain part of the project isn’t done on time, the whole project will be affected. A good agile PM is flexible and creative. They always have a plan A,B,C and D, in case something goes wrong, as it usually does in complex environments like software development.
Documentation is an important part of the project manager’s job. Good documentation creates a collective body of knowledge that others can learn from, to minimize future issues. It’s tempting to let this slide, but it’s important to stay on top of this. It will help team members remember where they were, in case their work is interrupted or needs to be completed by somebody else.
Finally, project managers manage, but Scrum Masters lead. They are ultimate responsible for the success of the project. Rather than making sure people do their work on time, the leader trusts team members to be self-sufficient and facilitates their success by focusing on removing obstacles. By working more as a peer than a boss, the leader also builds trust. This keeps the team engaged and keeps motivation high. An important part of this leadership is helping the team develop better Ways of Working (WOW) as they complete each iteration cycle.
The Agile Methodology
In 2001 some software developers wrote the Agile Manifesto. It detailed a clear set of principles that revolutionized the world of software development, and became known as the Agile Methodology.
The Agile Manifesto’s core principles were designed to addressed the shortcomings of developing software in fast-paced environments and solve problems like:
- How do you build software in a complex and dynamic environment where business is changing rapidly?
- What if you’re in a startup that doesn’t know know what the final product should be?
- If you don’t know exactly what you are developing, can you minimize risk, such as wasted time and money?
- How do you work in a complex corporate environment with multiple teams and stakeholders?
If these are some of the challenges you face, then read on for everything you need to know to run a successful project using agile methods.
Every Project Has Similarities
Every software development project has:
- a team to develop it
- software being built to solve specific problems
- a place where it will be built
- a timeframe of delivery
- a stakeholder who will sign off on the project as complete
- a limited amount of money and time with which to build
Let’s get a general overview of how the agile framework can help you be a successful project manager by looking at four key development phases.
Agile Development Phase 1 – Iteration Planning
If you’re building software, or delivering any digital project, you’ll want to start with the first of four agile Ceremonies, known as Iteration Planning. In it the following questions will be answered by the team.
1. Who is building the software?
Agile dev teams are composed of the coders, a Scrum Master and somebody who can sign off on the work as being done. The coders will write code and do testing. The Scrum Master is a team leader who facilitates his team’s success by removing obstacles and dealing with conflicts. They keep everything moving. The Product Owner is the person who signs off on the work as being done.
2. Why is this software being built?
All software is built for business reasons that are summed up in user stories. These stories are brief statements that express specific customer use cases. They are written in the form of:
As a _____, I want ________, so that ________.
For example, “As a participant, I want to learn how to write user stories, so that I can use them in my own team setting to become more agile.”
User stories get converted into features that are collected in centralized locations known as information radiators. These are bulletin boards, or project management software like Monday.com, Jira or Asana. Their purpose is to make all work being done transparent to everybody involved in the project. They contain the product backlog, iteration backlog, burndown chart and user stories.
All features and work that will need to be done eventually gets stored in the product backlog. The team selects chunks of work from it during iteration planning to create an iteration backlog. This is a list of work they intend to complete during the current sprint, which is usually a period of 2-4 weeks.
3. Where’s it being built?
Software may be developed in one location or many locations. It’s less complicated to develop software in one centralized workspace, since everybody can interact with each other in person, in real time. This eliminates time delays and communication errors that come from working in distributed teams. From there, development gets more complex.
Today, it’s common for dev teams to be distributed across multiple time zones and countries. This introduces complexity such as culture and language differences. These more complex environments introduce risk into the project, and may prevent the successful delivery of the project in a timely fashion if not properly set up.
4. What’s being built?
What exactly is being built will be decided during the Iteration Planning meeting, in which the team creates an iteration backlog. During this Agile ceremony, team members consider the highest priority development features, as determined by what the customer wants.
Next, they agree on the Definition of Done (DOD). This is a set of requirements the dev team agrees must be satisfied before a user story can be considered complete. Some examples of a valid DOD include “the content has been vetted by subject matter experts” or “content has been pilot tested.”
Then the team estimates the amount of time to do each one of them. Using a variety of methods, they make their best guesses as to how long the feature will take, based on current information. These guesses are refined as the team gains more information.
The team then collects the list of features they think can be completed successfully during the next sprint, and use it to create the iteration backlog. This is the work they’ll try to complete in the next iteration. They store it in a publicly visible information radiator.
Anybody can look at the project board to find out what needs to be done next, what’s being worked on, what is complete and whether the team is on schedule. They can also see the project burndown chart, which graphs out the work completed relative to what is still outstanding.
5. How’s it being built?
Agile teams get to choose their own Way of Work (WOW). Their goal is to work sustainably and efficiently to bring maximum value to the customer as quickly as possible.
They decide on the best way to build the software. Their considerations include: the best development environments, programming and testing methodologies.
Often times, what seems to be a good way to build may be improved upon. Thus, a team’s WOW will evolve over time and will change during the final phase of the project, known as the Iteration Retrospective. This is when the team looks at how to improve the successful delivery of the product.
Now that the team has determined the scope of the project and what they are working on, they begin work.
Agile Development Phase 2 – The Sprint
Once the team members know what they are building, and have agreed on their definition of done, they begin the Sprint. This is an intensely focused work period, usually 2-4 weeks, in which team members work to complete their agreed upon set of features.
During the Sprint, the team meets daily, under the guidance of the Scrum Master, to review their progress in 15 minute coordination meetings. They discuss work completed and any obstacles they anticipate that might prevent the successful completion of items in the iteration backlog. They may also consider whether their project is on schedule by looking at the burndown chart, which reflects work completed vs. work that still needs to be done.
In the meantime, the Scrum Master ensures the success of the sprint by helping team members stay focused and productive. They remove obstacles, prevent delays, deal with external forces and help to resolve team conflicts.
Agile Development Phase 3 – The Iteration Demonstration
At the end of every sprint, the team gathers in an agile ceremony known as the Iteration Demonstration. The team demonstrates work completed according to their DOD.
During this critical ceremony, they demonstrate how features function, ensure the solution is consumable, focus on value delivered and then gather feedback from the Product Owner.
Agile Development Phase 4 – The Iteration Retrospective
At the end of every iteration, the team meets in the final agile ceremony known as the Iteration Retrospective. They consider what went right and what went wrong. They may choose to revise their WOW, based on what was effective during their last sprint.
At the end of this phase, the cycle starts all over again with the next Iteration Planning meeting.
Modern project managers prefer agile practices when it comes to developing software. Guided by agile principles, Scrum Masters lead the team through four key phases of development: the iteration planning, a sprint, sprint review and sprint retrospective.
First the team plans the work, then they perform the work, review it and figure out what can be done better. The Scrum Master facilitates team success, helping them complete the project on time and on budget.
If this sounds like fun to you, then you may want to become an agile project manager or Scrum Master and join the fast-paced world of software development.