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What the Software Industry Can Teach You About Agile Project Management

What the Software Industry Can Teach You About Agile Project Management


Think of your latest project at work. What went well? What roadblocks did you encounter?

More importantly, would you manage the project differently if you did it again?

Everyone has had that project where everything seemed to change or fall apart, and they had to scramble to finish it in a timely and productive manner. Plans, however well laid, always seem to want to go awry. A deadline gets missed, someone leaves the company and their workload falls on someone else, upper management tells you to take the project in a different direction, another project suddenly becomes more important, the list goes on.

When disruptions happen, you rely on your current project management structure to help you work through these changes and carry the project to completion. However, the traditional, sequential style of project management — often called Waterfall — is hardly adaptable.

If any of what I’ve just said sounds familiar to you, perhaps you should consider Agile.

What is Agile?

Agile is an iterative approach to project management which evolved out of software development and is now embraced by many other professions and industries. Agile is gaining popularity because it encourages prioritization and flexible response to change. In Agile, teams collaborate with each other and stakeholders before, during, and after a project They are self-organized and cross-functional, with the freedom to solve issues on their own. In setting an Agile team loose to do its work, senior leadership can focus on setting the broader, strategic vision for their organization.

At Clearwater, Agile project management principles run deep, to the core of who are and how we operate in our software development, client servicing, marketing, IT, and product management teams. The goal of the Agile iterative framework is to ensure required changes are recognized as soon as possible, and working solutions are delivered with fewer delays.

Most of all, Agile encourages innovation, something many companies seek as they jostle for prominence in competitive markets. Because of this, we increasingly see Agile used at organizations that do not develop software.

Comparing Agile to Waterfall

When software development was in its early days, there was no recognized alternative project management methodology to Waterfall. That was a problem, because software development is different from other industrial or corporate processes.

It was considered innovative for Henry Ford to put assembly lines in his automobile factories, a Waterfall-like process of building something piece by piece. With the dawn of the software age, it became apparent that a different approach was needed. Software is like a spiderweb, building on itself and growing simultaneously in every direction. Furthermore, the cost to change a piece of code is typically much less than to scrap the system and rebuild it.

And so, Agile was developed to promote iteration and incremental improvement throughout a software build project.

(For more information about the birth of Agile project management, see this piece from The Atlantic.) Not every project is adaptable to Agile, but Agile can be suited for more situations than you might think. Consider again your latest project. If it were run with Agile principles, how might it have differed from Waterfall? Use the following table to compare:

Waterfall vs. Agile Project Management
Waterfall projects depend on a rigid and linear workflow, with little room for adjustment. Milestones are designed to fall one after the other. Under the Waterfall method, the initial phase must be completed before the second phase can begin, and so on throughout the project.
Agile projects are split into small, achievable goals that can often run concurrently. With Agile, things like team structure, project requirements, and necessary resources are malleable and changeable. They are refined and shaped throughout the project as needs evolve.
With Waterfall, changes to project requirements and scope get costlier as the project progresses — like deciding to add another bathroom after you have already framed a house. In this way, Waterfall is fundamentally inflexible. If new information is discovered, or the core requirements evolve mid-project, it is very difficult to adapt without starting over.
Agile is designed to help you respond to and even embrace change. Frequent and well-documented communication keep contributors on the same page and focused on solutions. And, the concurrent structure of Agile projects enables teams to continue working toward their goals because they are not dependent on preceding milestones.
In the worst-case scenario, the initial requirements for a Waterfall project are no longer relevant by the time the project is completed. For example, your human resources department rolls out a new program for the entire company after months of planning and work, only to be told by employees that the initial problems they set out to solve are no longer applicable. The HR department might need to go back to the drawing board and start again.
Agile prioritizes working solutions. Start by producing a simple product, then test it and add to it over time. The result is that a solution or initiative goes to market sooner. Take the example of rolling out a new human resources program for your company. Rather than roll out the full program to everyone, try rolling it out to a smaller group first, then make updates based on their feedback and gradually roll it out to other groups.

Consider Agile

Though its home is software development, Agile is embraced by other industries for its flexible and innovative nature. Agile project management is core to Clearwater’s approach to building software, servicing clients, planning and executing key initiatives, and working in all regards for our clients’ ongoing success. We are Agile because it helps us innovate, move quickly, and stay well ahead of evolving industry challenges. 

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