7 Critical Success Factors for Agile Project Management

Disclaimer: SUKAD and Mounir Ajam views on Agile are clear and have been documented via multiple blog articles and YouTube videos. Here is a link to a YouTube Playlist on Debunking the Myth of Agile Project Management. However, we are open to listen and share. Therefore, this article DOES NOT represent the SUKAD or Mounir’s views, but it does represent a view. We will publish it as received, without editing or even discussions beyond this disclaimer.

For example, as you can read in our articles or view in our videos, we do not believe in something called Agile Project Management. Agility principles can apply anywhere, including on projects but not as project management methods or agile method. Agility is different from Agile as in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

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For more than 15 years now, various studies have demonstrated the great improvements in project execution that can be realized by adopting the agile methodology. The agile process can deliver better quality output, faster and at a lower cost.

Despite these proven benefits though, there are still agile projects that fail. What that means is that simply replacing the waterfall technique with the agile method is no guarantee of project success. Certain factors determine the likelihood of agile project success. Here’s a look at some of them.

Getting Contractors on the Same Page

Whether you are procuring a new software application or are overseeing the development of a new product, you’ll likely be working in tandem with contractors and other third parties. It is difficult to execute a project via the agile approach if the contractors involved aren’t engaged accordingly and brought up to speed.

If you are commissioning the development of new software for instance, it takes more than just inserting a bullet point in the project requirements that states the contractor will use agile.

Agile represents a fairly radical change to how projects are initiated, executed, tested and monitored. Ergo, requirements, proposal and project contract language must be adopted to ensure all parties understand the need to deliver lighter deliverables, faster and with strict adherence to timelines.

Where more than one contractor will be involved, the role of each contractor must be clearly defined to ensure all parties work together as a team.

Executive Champions

No initiative ever succeeds across a large organization if it doesn’t have the buy in of senior management. Employees have to juggle multiple competing needs every day and will therefore give priority to those that have the unequivocal and visible backing of top executives.

All projects require employee time, organization resources and some changes in standard operating procedures. Agile project management must have champions at the highest level who are willing to drive change, challenge status quo and empower project teams to succeed.

There are multiple ways to secure executive sponsorship but perhaps the best is through a project charter. The charter details the goals, scope, affected entities, responsibilities, roles and resources required for success. When senior management sign this charter, it becomes a formal public commitment to the success of the initiative.

Leverage Existing Knowledge

Often, large organizations hire agile project management coaches who take teams through the basics of agile methods and scrum practices. During such training, the project team’s expertise is sharpened through repeated practical execution and a lessons review after each agile iteration.

While such training does work, it fails to apply the very principles of agile project management. Since the official birth of the agile project management movement in 2001, thousands of lessons have been learned and disseminated through books, conferences and other forums. As opposed to reinventing the wheel, organizations should understand and apply these lessons during agile planning to ensure potential barriers to project success are eliminated early.

Remember that agile is not an end of itself but rather a means to an end.

More Dashboards and Verbal Communication

Organizations that have chosen the agile approach must establish clear avenues for verbal and visual communication. This includes scheduled meetings (at least weekly) with key stakeholders. Agile management heavily relies on the ability of project leaders to review progress very frequently and provide direction accordingly.

Sending out an email update every day is great. However, it won’t communicate the current status and any challenges as well as an interactive physical meeting or video conference would. Verbal communication is more effective at quickly resolving problems. Project leaders must develop a robust communication plan whose highlight is the weekly meeting.

Communication should also incorporate progress dashboards, key metrics and some light documentation.

Include the Right Subject Matter Experts and Product Owner

Without the right subject matter experts and product owners, the agile project team may not create the product that end users require. You need subject matter experts that have deep understanding and practical experience of the process. They should not only be knowledge gurus but must have the interpersonal skills to solicit input from other experts who are not necessarily part of the agile team.

The product owner can be a subject matter expert too but, more importantly, they should have a breadth of cross-departmental knowledge and have the respect of the project team, end users and senior management.

They must have the ability to assess and weigh the intention of executives. Some projects are meant to radically transform how certain business processes work. It’s up to the product owner to ensure the executives in charge of these processes are comfortable with these changes.

So vital is the role of the product owner role that they can make the difference between the successful deployment of a product and its failure.

Anticipating Tooling and Infrastructure Needs

An agile project can exert significant pressure on existing technology infrastructure and tools. In particular, where the output of the project is a software or hardware product, agile management will require rapid development, deployment, testing and eventual release into a production environment.

You need the right tools to optimize the process and ensure seamless project and product execution. Security and compatibility considerations are also of paramount importance. The project leader must ensure relevant cybersecurity risks are identified and mitigated against. In addition, any new code shouldn’t disrupt existing systems when its introduced to production.

If the technology environment is not prepared beforehand, it can be a bottleneck to project success.  

Automated Testing

There are going to be numerous tests performed on the product before its finally ready for end users. The testing, while important, can slow down the other processes. Since the core objective of agile project management is speed, it makes sense to explore all opportunities to expedite the overall process.

One opportunity to do that is by automating the testing process. Often, there’s a standard set of functions that you need to confirm after each iteration. As opposed manually testing the product after each improvement, the test process should be automated. There’s very limited work time between agile sprints. Automation allows teams to dedicate more time to actually building the product.

No two agile projects are the same. The difference in clients and challenges means there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Still, the above success factors are fundamental for the success of any agile project. Once the product (software especially) is deployed to production, make the most of monitoring tools such as AppOptics + CloudWatch | AppOptics.