Agile Project Management for Small Businesses

Agile Project Management

Agile project management is a major trend in workforce management that has been gradually making waves in corporate America since the Agile Manifesto was signed in 2002. Agile first caught on with tech startups because it is designed to address highly-risk, high-complexity projects by breaking it down into manageable pieces, or deliverables. These frequent deliverables allowed investors (read customers) to track tangible progress while simultaneously allowing developers to change direction quickly by soliciting feedback sooner.

For years, corporate america pondered this new buzzword and toyed with the idea of bringing this new management style into the cubicles. Many have chosen to adopt variations of agile or iterative project management methodologies, the most popular of which being SCRUM.

Even the government, known to be slow to adopt new age ideas, has caught on. In 2017, Deloitte reported that 80% of major federal IT projects are using some form of Agile or iterative project management methodology.

With the adoption of agile taking hold in government agencies, it would appear that agile here to stay. The onus is on small businesses, then, to keep up. Fortunately, the agile movement need not remain confined to tech startups or even large corporate america’s IT teams. The principles of agile are translatable to project management for all avenues of business, including small businesses who already benefit from the principles of agile, even if they don’t know it yet.

What is Agile Really?

The principles of agile put the customer front and center, embracing change at every step to ensure that the customer’s needs are met. As often as possible, agile methodologies require its practitioners test their theories about what a customer wants by delivering to that customer and soliciting feedback.

In the software world, that might mean adding a new feature to a mobile app and checking the comments to see how well the feature is received. In retail, it might mean bundling products together and putting the result prominently on display for a week and monitoring how much more of those products are sold than previously.

With both examples, these actions are considered experiments. The new feature could be a hit and the reviews in the app store would reflect this. Or it could be an absolute bust, and the development team will have to quickly change directions to incorporate the new feedback from customers. Similarly, with the bundled products, sales of the bundled products could predictably be increased. Upon closer inspection of the numbers, however, the store manager might find that the incremental sales from the new display are not worth the man-hours used to create the bundle and marketing material.

Distilled in entrepreneurial terms, agile is about failing forward. Each experiment meant to address customers’ needs will result in lessons learned, either about what customers want or about what they don’t want. The exciting part about agile for small businesses is that entrepreneurs already know how to do this. That’s how every small business gets its start, through trial and error.

The challenge, then, is translating what entrepreneurs do instinctively into a process that a growing team can follow and mimic in a repeatable fashion.

How Do Teams Practice Agile?

One of the key aspects of agile is that it works best in small teams where face-to-face communication is the primary mode of communication. This is great news for small businesses with physical locations or where teams are small enough to hold group video calls.

Agile emphasizes face-to-face communication because such communication supports real-time collaboration that allows team members to hold each other accountable. When Joe says he has a great idea for attracting new customers by putting marketing decals on the team’s personal vehicles, team members are encouraged to ask questions to flesh out the new idea. Joe’s idea is then prioritized against other demands on the team’s time and budget to determine if and when it will be implemented.

Once an project is approved via group discussion to be executed, team members check-in regularly to provide status updates during team meetings. When Denise says she can’t get ahold of a supplier for her project, other team members are expected to volunteer support to achieve the team’s objectives. Work responsibilities may be shuffled around and priorities might change based on new information, but because the team is collaborating towards the same goals, the important work gets done.

How to Tell If Agile Adoption is Working

The purpose of agile is to minimize risks in high-risk, high-complexity situations. Breaking down a larger initiative into smaller, bite size chunks allows agile teams to focus on delivering quality work instead of just getting the work over the finish line. Therefore, the way to tell if an agile experiment is working is if the realized risks (also known as issues) have been reduced in comparison to previous, non-agile projects.

This can be measured in several different ways.

Quantifiable Metrics

Reduced customer complaints

Feedback solicited through regular feedback channels see a decrease in negative reviews, complaints, and/or refund requests.

Increased Revenue

Increased sales related to the new product or service offering.

Increased Cost Avoidance

Fewer customer service calls, less re-work, fewer hours spent on a given service or product. This time and energy can then be redirected to more revenue generating tasks, such as coming up with new ideas or better customer service for those calls that do come in.

Qualitative Metrics

What if you don’t want to wait until the numbers are in to see if the experiment will do well? If you have a good idea of what the end result of the new service or product should look like and how it should function, you can write up acceptance criteria so the team can recognize whether the work they’ve done matches expectations.

Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance criteria generally lists what a customer should be able to do, see, and feel after the new product or service is launched. An example for a print shop might read-

  1. PDF files emailed to should appear in the printshop inbox as an email with an attachment
  2. PDF attachments may be opened from the inbox using a print shop employee’s credentials
  3. When a PDF is opened from the email inbox, the PDF displays for the customer to confirm
  4. When the employee clicks the print icon, the print settings screen appears
  5. Print settings screen functions as it does for regular print jobs

Increased Visibility to Progress of Projects

As businesses grow and team size increases, it can become difficult to get a good picture of where each project is in the pipeline, what’s been done, and what is left to be done. Because agile encourages the breakdown of projects into smaller, manageable deliverables, progress should be consistently delivered on a short timetable. Each team’s timeline will vary, from two weeks to eight weeks, but once established, leadership should expect results at regular intervals. If the established timeline comes to an end and the commitments aren’t met, leadership will know, because they will have nothing to show for the time elapsed.

In Summary

The adoption of agile is designed to be adaptable to each team and situation, and requires extensive experimentation to arrive at the right fit for a given organization. Luckily, small businesses are accustomed to trying new ideas and failing forward towards success. The smaller team sizes of small businesses also lends itself to the face-to-face collaborative culture that agile touts as one of its strengths.

Bring that entrepreneurial spirit to growing teams by following the agile principles and watch the results transform your culture and your organization.

This article was originally posted at ValuePenguin.