What is agile project management?

Agile project management is often seen as the new kid on the block when it comes to managing projects.  With agile methods such as Scrum becoming commonplace in many organisations, there is often a mistaken belief that agile methods are a form of agile project management.  The Scrum master is also seen as a replacement for a traditional project manager. This is not the case and this article explains why.

Agile methods are not project management methods

Agile methods such as Scrum are often seen in lists of different project management methods. This is wrong. Agile methods were designed as software development methods, not as project management methods.

Although teams use agile methods to help them deliver working software to the customer, they don’t answer some of the key questions which are addressed by project management, for example is the project worthwhile?

Waterfall and iterative methods

Traditional project management is normally associated with waterfall life cycles. These are where the main phases of the project (e.g. requirements, design, build, test) are done sequentially. The end of a phase coincides with a management decision to proceed to the next phase. These decision points often required large, completed sets of requirements, design, and testing documentation.

Waterfall is predictive

These waterfall approaches are often known as predictive methods. They are based upon the assumption that requirements are well-known at the beginning and are unlikely to change. Any changes to scope are negotiated through a formal change control process.

Waterfall is top-down

Usually these projects are managed top-down. An overall plan is developed and then broken down into smaller plans which are allocated to different teams. Changes are often costly and time-consuming because it often requires going back to earlier phases and re-doing earlier work.

Is the project manager ‘in control’?

On these projects, project managers are required to be ‘in control’ of, and manage the project variables of time, cost, quality, scope, benefits and risks.

Being ‘in control’ is a misnomer because many waterfall projects often became associated with ‘firefighting’. This was where a project manager runs around like a headless chicken trying to extinguish one problem, only for other problems to start up elsewhere on the project.

Agile methods

In the 1990s waterfall methods started to be questioned by the newly emerging agile proponents who often saw waterfall projects being delivered late, over-budget and beset with quality problems.

Agile is adaptive

In address these problems, an agile approach popularised in the Agile Manifesto sought to develop software in a series of iterations, each one delivering more parts of a product to the customer.

With close customer collaboration, agile methods seek to incorporate customer feedback and changing customer requirements within short iterations called time-boxes. Planning is done just before each time-box and involves prioritising work from a list (or backlog) which has been identified by the customer.

Changing requirements

In agile, when customers change their mind about requirements, these can be prioritised and incorporated straightaway into the work plan for the next iteration.

Is a Scrum master a project manager?

No. In the most popular agile method Scrum, the Scrum master role is primarily an enabler. It seeks to remove impediments to the work of the team and tries to foster a collaborative culture amongst the development team.

The Scrum master role does not get involved in writing a business case or get involved in quantifying the benefits expected from a project. Yet, for any organisation to take wise investment decisions about projects requires an approved, and robust business case.

Agile projects in corporate cultures

There is often a conflict between agile methods and the prevailing corporate culture, especially in large organisations. Within start-ups the culture may already by agile, or lean, but in more established organisations, hierarchy is still a fact of life, and functional management is often reluctant to adopt a culture of agility.

Business case

To justify the investment in a project a project sponsor within an organisation will develop a business case to weigh up the benefits to be gained from a project, against the costs, risks and timescales required.

Once the decision is taken to proceed with the project, a project manager is appointed to ensure the required products are delivered within the constraints within the business case.

This business case assessment is never a part of agile methods, yet an agile project must still be able to justify its investment to its senior management.

Do you still need a project manager on agile projects?

Yes, since most agile methods do not consider questions such as the viability of the project, nor the benefits to be gained by investing in the project.

This missing aspect of agile has tried to be addressed by some agile methods, most notably Agile Project Management (AgilePM®), as developed by the Agile Business Consortium in conjunction with APMG International.

Benefits of using Agile Project Management (AgilePM)

The Agile Project Management (AgilePM) framework is based upon one of the founding agile methods – DSDM. DSDM combines agility with project management rigour.

This makes business ownership of agile projects more likely, enables on-time delivery whilst still protecting solution quality. It also reduces the risk of building the wrong solution and is more likely to deliver a solution that meets real business needs.


Agile methods have enabled teams to better organise to deliver fast, frequent delivery of software which meets business needs. They have not addressed the question of whether the project is the right one to solve the business needs or problems.

Traditional project management, whilst understanding how projects can help solve business problems, has been unable to prevent many waterfall projects from delivering low quality products late and/or over budget.

Frameworks such Agile Project Management (AgilePM) combines agility with the rigour of traditional project management. As such AgilePM can meet the needs of corporate cultures which still work in a top-down functional management way.