One of the biggest issues when managing or working on a project is information overload. Without a good system in place it is very easy to lose focus of what is important and start getting overwhelmed with tasks and things you have to do. Moreover, new things happen every day and thus it becomes very important to keep on going in the right direction. As well as being able to change this direction when needed. These are the two things Agile practices aim to solve for teams all over the world.
So what are these techniques and practices that will turn project management chaos into an organized and predictable process? I have prepared a short summary.
What is Agile
If this is your first time hearing about Agile or you are still unsure what it stands for exactly, let me help. The term Agile first came into play once the Manifesto for Agile Software development was released. It outlined 4 main values and 12 principles for teams to follow in. All aimed at achieving a better way of working.
The Agile Manifesto asked the teams to choose:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
While first created for software development teams, Agile is now used in various fields of work. And aims to create a working environment with adaptive planning, early delivery and continuous improvement. Contrary to traditional project management approaches (like Waterfall), Agile is focused on being able to easily change course whenever that is necessary. Giving teams a process that reacts, adapts and improves upon demand.
Agile Frameworks and Practices
You may say – “Well, reading about these principles and values is great, but how do I organize my team now that I want to be Agile?”. To which the answer is various Agile frameworks. These applications came about after the Manifesto and are still being created today. There is Scrum, Kanban, XP, SAFe, SoS and various other approaches to choose from. So you can pick according to your skill level and processes.
All of them differ in some ways, but today I want to focus on what they all have in common. Or what I call the 6 practices of Agile that can be found in all of the Agile frameworks. These practices are the key to what makes this way of project management work and thus should be recognized.
Have I caught your interest? Here they are.
Practice 1 – Visualization
The very first thing any Agile framework will ask you to do is visualize your process. Thus allowing you and your team to fully understand what is going on at the moment. While there are many variations of the board, the main idea is simple. Three sections with the respective names – To Do, Doing and Done. Once you start working, these sections are usually divided into columns representing process steps, but the main three sections are always the same.
Now all you have to do is write out your tasks on sticky notes or task cards if you are using a digital Agile solution and add them to the corresponding sections. By doing this, you have successfully used the first of the Agile practices and now have a visual representation of your process. Giving you and your team clarity on what is going on, how much progress you have made and what is yet to come.
Agile boards are usually kept in the center of the office or where the whole team can access them. The goal is to have a visual reminder of what is going on. As well being able to understand the team’s progress just by looking at the board. Just imagine how much easier it is communicating what has been done with a board like this.
To make sure this board, does not get messy just like any other organizational tool, you should note 2 things.
Put just the necessary information on the task card
Especially true if you are using a physical board to track the progress, this rule is all about restraint. The task card should hold a name, an estimation on how long it will take to complete, a deadline and the name of assignee. Make sure it is easy to understand for both you and your teammates what each task is about just by glancing at the board.
If you are using agile software similar rules apply. However, more details, comments and attachments can be added to tasks without creating visual noise.
Create quickly achievable tasks instead of large ones
To make sure it is easy to notice and monitor progress, you should keep the tasks on the smaller side. A general rule of thumb is that each task should be completed in under a day. While you can add larger items if your process requires it, having smaller tasks means you can more effectively track the progress that is being made.
Imagine – you fill the board with tasks that each take a week to complete. There will be barely any movement on the board, thus making it harder to understand what the team is doing. As well as understanding if there have been any issues along the way. If instead you split the large tasks into smaller more achievable items, you will be able to understand the progress and estimate better.
Practice 2 – Focusing the Work
To make sure teams work in an adaptable way, all Agile frameworks use some sort of iterations. Iterations are usually 1-4 week long sessions during which all the planned tasks are completed and then new tasks are planned. This way, the teams only plan for a certain period of time, instead of the whole project. Meaning if there are any sudden changes, the team can quickly account for them in the next planning event.
Some Agile frameworks take this even further. Kanban for example not only asks to plan tasks on demand, but also to have each team member only working on one task at a time. By limiting the work in progress, this framework makes sure each task is finished before a new one can be taken on. This is great for any manufacturing processes where problems in production have to be solved immediately. Instead of delaying the issues and taking on new items.
Practice 3 – Making the Team Talk
A big problem when working on projects is lack of communication between team members, managers and departments. How can you achieve the best results, when you have no idea what your colleagues on the other side of the wall are doing? Sure, using an Agile board solves this problem a little, but it is still not as good as simply talking to each other.
To facilitate the conversation, the third of Agile practices introduces the daily meeting. The team is asked to take 15 minutes and gather in one place or online once a day. During this time, each of the team members talk about what they have been doing and have accomplished last day and what they plan to take on next. Thus creating a way to share and get to know what is happening throughout the team.
It is also here that teammates can discuss solutions for the problems they have faced. Such discussions are usually kept under 5 minutes. Anything larger is noted and discussed after the meeting with just the team members that can help solve the issue.
Hearing about what your teammates are doing can help solve issues quicker, spark conversations and even generate ideas on how to improve the process. It simply takes 15 minutes of your day.
Practice 4 – Giving Your Team a Choice
It is traditional for managers to be the ones that divvy up tasks for the whole team. It is them that best know the team and the work that has to be done, right? Well if we are talking about Agile projects, this is actually false. It is managers and directors that set the course for each project. When it comes to talking about the small tasks however, it is the team members that get to choose.
Depending on the Agile framework at use, team members either choose and commit to tasks at the beginning of each iteration or choose and pull tasks from the To Do section once the iteration begins. In both cases, they are in charge of which tasks from the planned work they commit to. Creating a sense of control and responsibility to do the best job possible.
Planning for such assignment approach is a little different. If you have a team where everyone completes similar tasks, you simply plan according to the number of people on your team. If on the other hand, your team is made up out of various professionals, it is important to make sure everyone has enough tasks for the whole iteration.
Practice 5 – Measuring Performance
It is important for any manager to know what their team can do. Thus measuring performance is nothing new. However, when it comes to Agile, using visual boards and estimation, adds a layer of ease to measuring performance.
Since the team is always tracking its actions and estimating how much time tasks will take, it becomes very easy to measure how much time completing the work actually took and then creating better estimates for the future. Thus setting and negotiating more accurate deadlines.
You can easily track how team velocity changes. As well as notice if there are any new issues that slow down the workflow.
Practice 6 – Improving the Process
The last of Agile practices is all about improvement. In order to make sure the team is ready to adapt as deliver value to the end customer, it has to be in the best shape. Which cannot be achieved without some effort.
Thus, after every iteration is complete, the team has to sit down and evaluate what has been done. Not to be mixed up with the result of the project, this meeting is to discuss the process and how it could be improved. It allows the team to sit down and talk about what has been working and what should be changed. As such it is a great source of information for the manager and a place where new better processes are born.
No matter which Agile framework you choose to adopt in your office, these 6 key practices will be a part of it. They are designed to not only keep your project on the right course, but to also help you deliver a valuable result and improve the process along the way.
While they have been designed to work together, you can use just a few if that is a better approach for your team. As long as you are improving and delivering value, there are no strict rules on what your day-to-day Agile operations look like. So start from something simple and clearly defined (like Scrum) and then improve to create what works best for you and your team.