Agile workflows: Your no-fuss guide to getting started
October 06, 2021
Smart project managers know that every project needs a plan. But planning is an art form in itself — don’t do enough, and it’ll be like trying to find your way across the Atlantic with a map scribbled on the back of a napkin. Be too meticulous about it, and you’ll end up spending more time doing the prep work than doing the task at hand.
This is where Agile comes in.
Rather than begin a project by planning out the entire thing in fine detail, Agile is about mapping out a rough guide but only adding the granular bits in two- to four-week bursts.
This means that you can get started quickly, and if things change mid-project as they invariably do, you don’t lose weeks’ worth of detailed planning — because you haven’t done it yet. It also means the team will be happier to incorporate new ideas because they don’t stand to lose much if there’s a change in direction.
Picture this: You’ve spent months planning everything in detail, then the client asks for something else. Even if what they’ve asked for is sensible, you’d be far more tempted to push back if time and money has already been spent on planning than if it hadn’t. With Agile, you can be a mixture of speedy, detailed, and flexible. Read on to learn more.
What are Agile workflows?
In a nutshell: Agile workflows are a way of planning that involves splitting a project into tasks, called iterations. Teams then work on these specific tasks for a certain amount of time. These time slots are called sprints, which go on until project completion.
Agile workflows vs. traditional project management workflow: What’s the difference?
Traditional workflows are mapped out from start to finish with milestones and other markers set out. Teams work steadily along from start to finish until the project is complete.
With Agile, teams split the project up into mini-projects that last two to four weeks. Managers hold a review at the end of each sprint, giving everyone the opportunity to learn and adapt priorities based on things learned from the previous sprint.
Agile workflows vs. waterfall: How are they different?
In a word: adaptability.
With waterfall, stages happen one after the other, from planning right the way through to the finish. With Agile, you address the most pressing tasks first, put them into an iteration, then tackle them with a sprint. When that’s over, you review. This gives you the opportunity to address issues every couple of weeks as you add functionalities, rather than just once at the beginning.
By continually reviewing your product, you involve the customer in the development process rather than assuming what they want. This means fewer mistakes and a finished product that’s more in line with the client’s needs. In fact, according to one study, only 8% of Agile projects fail, vs. 21% of Waterfall projects. These are impressive figures.
Popular Agile frameworks (and what they mean)
The framework you choose will depend on your company size, team size, number of projects, and more. Here are three of the most popular approaches:
Scrum is a framework that involves sprints, followed by feedback that informs the following one. In Scrum, daily standups involve the team gathering together and discussing the work ahead for the day and making sure any roadblocks are cleared out the way.
- Learn more about Scrum
Kanban involves a prioritized list of tasks, which is known as a backlog. It’s a part of Lean — a process that’s all about making sure workers have just the right amount of resources to fulfill their tasks, and no more.
Kanban is actually a visual tool, made up a board (like the one below) with columns and cards (which represent tasks). The cards are prioritized and moved along through the columns depending on progress. It’s a particularly transparent way of working that helps managers see how everyone is doing and spot issues like resource problems or bottlenecks.
Created in Cacoo
As the name implies, this is a mashup of Scrum and Kanban. It combines the best of both and was first introduced to transition teams from one to the other. It’s since become a methodology in its own right, combining Scrum’s iteration planning with Kanban’s pull system.
Rather than relying on daily standups for planning, teams just make sure the backlog of work is limited and has run down to zero before moving onto the next stage.
What are the five stages of the Agile lifecycle?
Agile workflows are made up of five stages, which are generally the same whatever the project — whether you’re developing an app, branding a business, or building a house.
Map out the full scope of your project. This includes listing its key features and requirements, then working out how you might split these into sprints.
Assign people to sprints according to their skillset and technical expertise. For example, if you were building a house, you’d want all the bricklayers to be assigned to the wall-building sprint, and the plumbers to be assigned to the plumbing sprint. If you were creating a SaaS product, you’d want to assign your UX pros to any sprints that involve website building.
The team reviews the sprint ahead of them and decides what needs to be done. Then they actually do the work, test the iteration once it’s complete, and carry learnings across into the next one.
Once a sprint is complete, it needs to be tested in the real world. This is where you get your most valuable feedback: From actual users. Everything you learn here should be carried forward into the next sprint.
The goal of working in iterations is to create something that continually improves. Once you have updates, you can either replace the old iteration, phase it out, or upgrade it.
How to get started with Agile workflows
Getting started with Agile takes a little prep. Here’s how to begin.
1. Get to know the Agile methodology
To have the best chance of success, everyone needs to understand what this way of working involves and why it’s the best approach. No one should be unsure about this — from the manager to the team members and stakeholders.
During this stage, focus on the following three things:
- Implementing specialty Agile roles
- Planning Agile events like sprint planning, retrospectives, and standups
- Understanding Agile principles and their importance
- Choosing a framework to help you implement the Agile framework
2. Create a roadmap and assign requirements
It’s the project manager’s job to plan the project’s scope. This involves meeting with stakeholders and team members to help understand tasks and priorities, which the PM will then use to plan a schedule.
3. Define your backlog
Once you have your teams, your Agile structure, and your roadmap in place, it’s time to kick things off.
Work with teams and stakeholders to start developing your backlog, which you’ll then divide into sprints. Work closely with your team, who will be able to tell you whether the suggested sprints are attainable (or not).
4. Begin your first sprint
First, assign team members to various sprints, and set out what they’ll be doing in each. Remember to take each individual’s specialist skills and technicalities into account.
For Agile projects, you’ll likely need to assign the following roles:
- A product owner: This person passes information from the team back to the stakeholders and vice-versa.
- A project manager: This person takes information from the product owner and turns it into an actionable task.
- The project stakeholders: These people have a vested interest in the project but don’t necessarily work on it themselves (in fact, they almost never don’t)
- The project team: These are the people who perform the technical work and actually create the product.
- Scrum master: If you’re taking a Scrum approach, you’ll need to assign someone to streamline the process and look for improvements.
Follow the Agile manifesto and its stages, and you’ll soon be flying along and reaping the benefits of Agile.
Remember to conduct daily standups and review each sprint once it’s complete. This includes making sure all feedback — from customers, stakeholders, and other users — is fed back to the team so they can incorporate it into subsequent iterations.
Agile workflows: Top Tips
Agile is a process that’s so successful because it works. But only if you follow the framework, do the proper planning, and equip your team with the tools they need to collaborate and work efficiently.
If you really want to fly with Agile, you’ll need project management software.
Using one central platform to work from means everyone will be on the same page simultaneously, making it easier for everyone to stay up-to-date, including managers.
Some project management tools, like Backlog, come with automatically generated data visualizations displayed on a central dashboard. This means data that could otherwise seem impenetrable is super-easy to understand. With Backlog, you can also plan your sprints, document progress, and facilitate team collaboration thanks to customizable Kanban boards and real-time notifications — something that’s all the more important when the project is whizzing along at top speed.