A Comprehensive Guide to Agile Project Management for Startups

The Agile methodology is ideal for projects where requirements are uncertain, or may change during the life of the project. Businesses need to adapt quickly to changes in the market and start-ups are ideally placed to do this.

There are 3 defined roles in an Agile project: Scrum Master, Product Owner and the Team. So what happened to the Project Manager?

Agile empowers the team; everyone has the opportunity to perform well. One might think that with an empowered team, an experienced scrum master and a product owner with skin in the game, there would be no need for the project manager role. Absolutely untrue.

Here we take a brief look at how and why Agile works; we consider the “traditional” project manager workload and why it is still very relevant in Agile.

Agile

Agile was born in response to a failure in software development. In the 1990s, the widespread use of methodologies such as SSADM meant that software systems took years to build. By the time they were production-ready, the business need had changed or disappeared. Many projects were cancelled or failed to deliver what the client needed.

By replacing sequential and specification-heavy processes, Agile promised: “Working software over comprehensive documentation.”

Sprint and Scrum

The sprint is the cornerstone of an Agile project. A sprint normally lasts between 2 and 4 weeks and delivers a working, tested piece of the final deliverable. The project is delivered as a series of sprints, each contributing to the whole.

Sprints allow the team to iterate to a solution; complex and uncertain pieces can be evolved and verified with the client. Clients can change their requirements, to an extent, without breaking the project. Quality is inherent as only completed work gets through. Incomplete or faulty work is put into the “backlog” for a future sprint.

Scrum is the tool for close management of the sprint. The team meets daily under the direction of the “Scrum Master” to feed back on progress and issues. Tasks move across the “Scrum Board” and are reassigned within the team until they are completed.

Training

To deliver its benefits, Agile requires a level of training for everyone involved. The Scrum Master, in particular, needs training in Agile practices (https://www.prince2training.co.uk/courses/scrum-training/scrum-master-certification/) to keep the project moving. The team, as they are being asked to be more proactive, need to understand the Agile concepts.

Finally, the project manager must tread a fine line between allowing the team the authority to make their own decisions whilst keeping the project on track. Agile project management training with a recognised body, is essential if you want to get the most out of this methodology from your staff.

It’s also valuable for the project manager to achieve a recognized certification. The client may feel some uncertainty with Agile. The consequences of a team given some autonomy may make them feel uneasy. Certification will reassure them that the project manager is in on top of things.

Agile Project Manager role

Despite the role of Scrum Master and increased responsibility in the team, there is still a role for the project manager.

Scrum Master

Firstly, on a small project or in a startup business, the project manager may take on the Scrum Master role. This makes sense, as the roles are complementary; in fact, they are the only roles that can be combined. There is (rightly) a tension between the Product Owner and Project Manager so the two may not be combined.

Resources

A necessary strength in project management is fighting for resources. This is especially critical in Agile as the team needs to bond and perform well as a unit. Having team members pulled away to other work will seriously harm the project and the morale of the team.

The project manager also needs to balance resources. While the team members can, to an extent, work across roles, this will harm the project in the long term. The project manager must ensure that the team has the right balance of skills and no one is overloaded.

Issues and risks

Day to day issues can be handled within the scrum meeting. The project manager must take ownership of wider issues, such as those that require resolution with the client. There is also a need for robust risk management, including assessment, mitigation and monitoring of risks.

Stakeholders

The project manager is the communication link to the stakeholders, shielding the team from interference while facilitating clarification of business needs. In Agile, the stakeholders play a vital part in giving feedback on evolving functionality; changes to functionality are likely. The project manager must manage the Change Request process to capture and agree changes and assess their impact.

Conclusion

Agile can bring tangible benefits to projects. The team is able to adapt to changes in the market and to evolve functionality to meet client requirements. This improves morale and gives everyone the opportunity to perform.

The project manager role is as critical for Agile as any other methodology, motivating the team, involving stakeholders and managing resources.

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