Explanation of agile project management, including how to get started as a manager

Mastering complex challenges with new project cultures and understanding agile project management

The demand for agile project management is increasing in many companies. But why is this the case? And what are the important factors to consider when introducing agile working methods in projects?

The pressure for more agility in projects is increasing significantly. Over the past year, I have had many opportunities to hold in-depth discussions with experienced project managers, both freelancers and company employees. These conversations have repeatedly focused on the desire and pressure from management to carry out projects using agile methods. And although the term “agile” is on everyone’s lips and agile coaching is becoming the standard, I quickly realized that the ideas about agile project management are very different and often vague. For example, the need for agile working methods is often justified with “faster adaptability”.

After more than 15 years of experience in managing complex corporate projects, it is therefore important for me to share my expert perspective on the necessity and background of agile project work. And to derive both my expectations and my maneuvering criticism of the current implementation.

Why do we need agile project management?

First of all, I would like to firmly reject the idea that agility in projects is a passing hype or a buzzword gimmick. Our projects and their framework conditions have changed massively over the last 20 years.

The often cited “complex world” has found its way into our companies and has a particular impact on projects. While standardization and optimization have priority in the line organization, we have to unleash the full complexity and creativity in projects. Today, projects are at the heart of corporate development. Without a well-developed project culture, companies will no longer be able to adapt quickly enough to the constant changes.

But what has happened in the last 20 years? Why does the long-standing waterfall model in projects no longer lead to project success? People have happened to us!

People are complex beings and have increasingly become an essential part of today’s projects. Whether as clients, customers or project teams, as those affected or as stakeholders. Today, they all have a massive influence on our projects and want their needs to be taken into account. This was not always the case.

The waterfall model was justified in those times when we mainly had to deal with trivial machines in our projects. Be it in plant engineering, mechanical engineering or in IT and software development. Trivial machines react as expected. Every input or impulse generates a predictable output. The blessing of industrialization.

However, we humans are not trivial machines – we are complex beings. A project impulse or a piece of information can cause different reactions in different people. Not easy to predict. And then timing, mood and group dynamics come into play. People are non-trivial systems. They are “social systems”, as we systemics experts call them. In other words, complex beings.

And the influence of people on the success of our projects is increasing significantly. In many projects, the success of the project is even largely determined by the opinion and mood of the project stakeholders – regardless of the actual measurable results of a project. Under this increasing influence, our projects have become more and more complex. And all project managers who have already experienced this will surely agree with me: To be successful here, you need agile project management.

What do we mean by agile project management?

Agile project management must therefore be able to take this unpredictable influence of all kinds of people on our project into account in the best possible way. And above all, it must be able to adapt to the changing opinions and assessments of important influencers such as project sponsors, steering committees and the project team. My many years of experience have even shown me that it is helpful when project sponsors adapt their project goals based on new findings along the course of a project.

The core task of agile project management is now to capture and take account of these changes. In fact, if we can now assume that important project objectives and framework conditions will change over the course of a project, it is important to address them proactively. Agility is therefore not just the ability to adapt quickly and in the best possible way to the unforeseen. Agile project management is based on these changes and is able to deal with them in an anticipatory and proactive manner (see Wikipedia “Agility“).

In order to meet this requirement, we have a range of agile project methods such as Kanban, Sprints, Lean, Prince2, Design Thinking, etc. at our disposal. They are all easy to find with an online search and can also be learned via video tutorials. However, there is one important prerequisite for the effective and productive use of these methods that is often overlooked. Working with agile methods requires a certain attitude: the “growth mindset”. This mindset includes characteristics such as openness to new ideas, curiosity, willingness to learn and tolerance of mistakes.

With a growth mindset, we are able to see changes as opportunities for growth and learning and not as obstacles that we need to avoid. We are willing to try new things, experiment with different approaches and seek feedback and advice from others. These are all prerequisites for using agile methods effectively.

And then we also need agile leadership, an anticipatory management style. It is the key to thinking about the future together in the project team. And not anxiously, based on our past experiences, but constructively and with foresight. If we have a good idea of future developments, we can prepare for them today and will no longer be surprised by them as project managers. We will already be prepared and will have taken the right measures.

What can we expect from an agile way of working?

When it comes to agile project management, it’s important to understand that it requires a significant amount of extra work. Many people assume that implementing an agile approach can be done quickly and easily, but this is not the case. It’s not just about introducing a few new “agile” project methods, but also about developing a new project culture and an agile mindset.

We can only decide whether agile project management is worth the effort when we know how much influence the people affected and involved will have on the success of our project. For a better understanding, I would like to give three examples of how social complexity can affect our projects and where the use of agile project management is beneficial:

Dealing with multiple and changing project objectives

The need to consider multiple, often competing project objectives simultaneously can be a daunting task. Often these objectives include factors such as cost, schedule, quality, scope and resources that are not always aligned. This so-called “scope creep” rarely exists at the start of a project, but develops over time. By learning to understand the motivations behind each of these objectives and taking a forward-looking approach, we can ensure that each aspect receives the attention it deserves.

Balancing hidden and conflicting expectations

It’s often the hidden and conflicting needs and expectations of our stakeholders that make project management difficult. Sometimes we feel like Sisyphus, constantly being loaded with new stones with no hope of an end. However, approaching the project with a growth mindset, being curious and listening carefully to understand the concerns can lead to a more collaborative and balanced project environment.

Change the opinion and behavior of stakeholders

Finally, it is increasingly necessary to involve a group of affected parties and stakeholders in the project and familiarize them with new attitudes and opinions. As described at the beginning, projects are now at the heart of corporate development. And further development often requires the need for change. As a result, project managers are increasingly finding themselves involved in change and transformation projects without this being explicitly stated in the project brief.

Agile ways of thinking and approaches are essential for successfully mastering these tasks. They recognize the unpredictable, complex influence of people on the project as an integral component by placing all project participants promptly and continuously at the heart of the project’s success.

Where are the limits of practical implementation today?

“Do-as-you-go” is currently one of the most common reasons for the failure of supposedly agile projects. Worse still, it gives a boost to those critics of agile working methods who have always been of the opinion that the effort is not worth it. If management is also unsettled by this, the development of effective, agile project management usually falls by the wayside completely.

A typical example of doing-it-as-if is the introduction of “stand-up meetings” (one of the best-known agile methods), which serve purely as a self-presentation platform for the project management. Or the introduction of agile role descriptions, such as “Business Owner” or “Product Owner”, while maintaining the same way of working. It is of course very tempting to use new, modern terms and methods in order to bask in their “agile” light. However, if we use agile methods without fulfilling their purpose, we are acting counterproductively.

An equally big obstacle to the introduction of agile project management is an existing “fixed mindset” corporate culture. In such an environment, the need for security, predictability and immutability is too strong for agile working methods to prevail.

The self-control of project management that is necessary for an agile way of working is prevented by massive external intervention. Decisions are made by the project management committee after “thorough examination” and in an opaque manner. External factors such as regulatory requirements, the financial situation, customer needs or market conditions are put forward as arguments. Welcome back to the waterfall.

And finally, I would like to emphasize that a belief in methods is not necessarily a successful path to agile project work. Agile working should not be confused with the use of one (1) agile method. The widespread principle of “let’s just start with an agile method and see what it can do” has just as much potential to fail as the “do-it-as-if” approach.

Successful, agile project management is a bouquet of different methods that need to be used in a targeted manner and simultaneously. Our growth mindset and our agile management approach are the compass that tells us which methods are the most suitable at any given time.

The correct basic principle in agile work is “form follows function”, and not the other way around. What does that mean? It is not the individual, good-looking and good-sounding agile method that will lead us to our goal, but the purpose it serves. In agile project management, therefore, always ask yourself first what insights you want to gain and what purpose you are pursuing, and only then choose the appropriate methods that will lead you there.

Ich arbeite seit über 20 Jahren als Management-Berater, Autor und Leadership Facilitator mit Führungskräften aus unterschiedlichen Branchen. Im Jahr 2008 begründete ich mit BUSINESS DESIGN eine Agentur für die systemische Geschäfts- und Organisationsentwicklung, die mit namhaften Banken, Versicherungen und Industrieunternehmen schlagkräftige Geschäftsmodelle und leistungsfähige Organisationen entwickelt. Agile Project Management ist dabei zu einem fixen Bestandteil unserer Arbeit geworden: https://www.business-design.biz/agile-project-management.

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