How to introduce agile project management methodology to your product development?

Katarzyna Pielach - Project Manager

All organizations cope with some level of uncertainty. Those managing complex projects or developing innovative products probably experience that a bit more than others. But we all have to deal with it to some extent. So why not learn to play the game and use this uncertainty to our advantage?
This is when agile comes in handy. Unlike traditional rigid waterfall, agile provides flexibility and adaptability that help to win the race. In this article, you will learn how to prepare for a transition from waterfall to agile in your product development.

Agile methodology was created when software development was a relatively young field filled with surprises. One of its main goals is to manage uncertainty by being flexible and learning quickly.
In the beginning, agile was primarily used by small disruptive teams. It’s been 20, and a lot of those companies scaled and matured. In the meantime, other businesses and teams (such as marketing, sales, or HR) successfully adapted agile project management in their work.
According to a 2019 Gartner’s study, Agile in the Enterprise, most IT organizations already used or planned to use agile methodology. At the same time, most survey participant said that their organizations’ reason for adopting agile have been successfully achieved.
So, how to introduce agile project management to product development effectively?
To help you get a good grasp of how to switch from waterfall to agile, we’ll first walk you through a comparison of both methodologies. Later, we’ll dive into the principles of agile, as well as explain a practical side of things – how does the workflow look like in agile? what are the most popular frameworks and which to choose? To finally see how to introduce agile project management to your product development step by step.

Agile Project Management

Agile is an iterative project management approach. It breaks projects (even large and complex ones) into a series of manageable iterations. Teams focus on delivering an MVP (minimum viable product) of a product and of each feature first. If current project needs are limited to an MVP, for example, when you want to present the concept to potential investors or raise VC money, work is paused at this point. However, in case your funding is secured, the MVP is improved gradually in the following iterations until full product scope is delivered.
Agile project management supports the business by providing flexibility and focusing on user needs. Re-prioritization based on customer feedback, continuous learning, and responding to changing business requirements are natural parts of an agile process. The decision about what to tackle in the next increment can be made each time after an iteration ends and before the new one begins.

The users get to test the newest version of the product in a staging environment at the end of each iteration. They can show it to investors or other stakeholders to get feedback before deciding whether to deploy or not. Continuous releases allow to regularly verify assumptions by checking how people interact with a new product version and whether it complies with the business requirements.

Waterfall Project Management

Waterfall is a linear, sequential project management approach. It divides projects into clearly defined phases that depend form each other – each stage must be finished and approved by stakeholders before the next one starts. The steps cascade like a waterfall, hence the name.
Waterfall project management helps organizations to ship complete products within a predictable time, budget, and scope. However, there’s a catch. To be able to plan the whole product development process beforehand, you need to clearly define the scope and requirements in advance. Going back to already finished phases will be costly and time-consuming. Hence, making any adjustments during the process is problematic, sometimes impossible.
The process includes user testing, which happens after the design and development phases are finished. Therefore, it allows fixing bugs but not changing product requirements in case the assumptions made at the beginning of the project are proved wrong. The clients get to try the product when it’s finished.

Agile vs Waterfall – What’s the Difference?

Let’s start with terminology. Calling both, Agile and Waterfall methodologies is a common simplification.

  • Agile is a mindset to approaching projects.
  • Waterfall is a structured product development framework.

This article will provide a more detailed breakdown of agile, so we’ll go back to this topic later.
The key differences between agile and waterfall are:

Agile Waterfall
Incremental and iterative approach Linear and sequential approach
Divides a project into iterations (Sprints) Divides a project into phases
Each phase (gathering requirements, development, design, testing, etc.) happens in every iteration Each phase happens once
Allows scope changes and re-prioritization before each sprint Avoids scope changes and re-prioritization after the project kick-off
Focuses on user needs Focuses on delivering a project within predefined scope, time, and budget
Short, circular learning loop – every iteration verifies team’s assumptions Long, linear learning loop – based on a solid research run upfront and learnings from previous projects
High flexibility High predictability
Works best with time & materials contracts Works best with fixed-price contracts
Requires stakeholders input throughout the project Requires stakeholders input only at milestones
The team is self-organizing and able to work without a project manager The team requires a dedicated team manager who plays an essential role
Promotes collaboration, dedication and cross-functional roles Responsibilities and roles are precisely defined, coordination is limited to predefined handoffs

When it comes to their similarities, agile and waterfall can be applied in different management processes, software product development being their most common use case. Agile was initially used by small and scaling teams, while waterfall in more traditional environments where the requirements were clear from the beginning. After 20 years on the market, agile is considered a better option also for complex projects and business scenarios with a high level of uncertainty.

Product teams using the agile methodology are better prepared to cope with the challenges of today. Agile projects are generally cheaper, quicker, and more flexible. They are also better suited to the needs of all the parties involved in the development process: the technical team and business stakeholders. Waterfall is a better choice only if project requirements are complete and clearly defined in advance and can’t be subject to any change.

How to Transition to Agile Project Management?

When a team or an entire organization is optimized to work best in a linear and predictable waterfall process, switching to a more collaborative and dynamic process can be tricky. The good news is that a transition to agile can be done in an agile way. Actually, it’s the most effective way to execute it.
Remember, agile is a mindset, so the biggest shift needs to happen in the way of thinking. Changing a mindset is much more tricky than choosing the right planning method or adjusting new tools (however, both are important and can help you along the way.) That process is iterative and agile in its nature, and can be an exciting and satisfying introduction to agile project management.
Before you start, it’s important to understand the differences between the methodology you were using and agile. What will the change entail for you, the business, and the team? What’s your goal, and why do YOU want to switch?

Step 1: Get your manager and stakeholder buy-in.
Any successful transformation starts with securing management commitment. Whether you want to advocate for an organization-wide change or test agile in one project, having support from the top will be helpful.
Identify the goals of managers and stakeholders you want to convince. Then, think about how they can improve those KPIs or accomplish their goals by changing the project management methodology to agile. Remember that the stakeholders will get closer to the development team and the product in the new reality, as the workflow will be much more collaborative.

Step 2: Start small.
Navigating a transition in one team is much easier than in a whole complex organization at once. Luckily, incorporating the agile mindset in project management is easier when done gradually. Educate yourself about agile principles, listen to practitioners, or best find a mentor who managed a similar transition. At the same time, remember about your organization and its goals.
You can start by shortening release cycles or creating a product backlog and making it a live document that can be changed (and actually changes) as the requirements evolve.

Step 3: Make your team excited about the change.
Agile is based on trust, collaboration, and the impact that everyone has on the product. It brings together all the team members – software developers, sales, marketing, customer support, and others. At some point, you’ll need all those people onboard. For starters, a few advocates who are excited about the change will make it. The agile methodology will make peoples’ work easier and more effective. Try to show them how they will benefit from it. Also, feedback is an integral part of every agile process, so they should have a safe space to voice their concerns (and things they like about the new process).

Step 4: Choose a fitting framework and stick to it.
Consider the needs of your team carefully before you decide on the best framework. Remember about all agile practices that can be used no matter if you go for kanban or scrum. They will help you to adjust the process to the needs of the team and stakeholders. Once you start, the workflow will be yours, and according to the agile principles, it will serve you, not the other way around. So make good use of the power it entails!

Agile is the Today and Tomorrow of Product Development

In a world where the only constant is change, agile project management helps product teams to adapt to fluid circumstances. In an agile environment, users and stakeholders get to try a product and share their feedback regularly. Their input shapes the product and makes it better suited to their requirements.
When deciding about a framework (or a mix of agile frameworks) for your team, remember that agile should serve you as a north star, and frameworks are about how a collaboration process is organized.

The good news is people tend to love agile processes sooner rather than later. We’ve seen that process many times with our clients. Apart from the benefits, it gives an organization, agile empowers whole teams and their members. People reluctant to change at the beginning get to see how their work shapes the products they work on and become more invested in work that really matters.

If you want to work on your agile transition with a team that has successfully used the methodology in 30+ software projects, let’s talk!

Let’s get in touch
Author's Bio
Katarzyna Pielach

Project Manager

For 7 years working as project management, inter alia, for the largest Banks in the Middle East and innovative start-ups. Customers from Europe, South America and The Middle East has shown that there are no barriers to achieving a common goal and building a valuable product. I started my adventure with project management in Berlin, building the world's first database of art collectors. Despite the love for art, new technologies and the world of IT interested me enough that I am still in it.

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