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Best Agile Practices: A Quick Guide to Making Agile Work

Are you looking to learn what you need to lay the foundations of your Agile processes? Then find out in our guide to the best Agile practices.

Is There a Single Best Agile Practice?

In the world of Agile project management, there are numerous practices that you can apply to improve the agility in your company's processes. However, no matter what else you might read, you should remember that Agile is a mindset and a unique approach to project management that doesn't prescribe a single best way to do it.

That's why when talking about best Agile practices, we should only classify them as guidelines for transforming your project management processes. The way you apply them depends on your specific situation. After all, adopting agility is a never-ending process, so you should continuously experiment and see what works best for you.

Nevertheless, as the Japanese concept "Shu-Ha-Ri" suggests, you should first obey the rules (shu), gradually detach from them (ha) and then look to separate yourself completely (ri). That's why, as a start, there are some Agile practices you should be aware of to boost your project management process in a knowledge work environment.

To better structure the information, let's map some of the best Agile practices to three of the main phases in project management: planning, execution, and monitoring.

Agile Planning Practices

Maybe you’ve heard that there is no planning in Agile. This statement is far away from the truth.

Without further ado, here are some of the primary Agile practices for planning projects: 

  • Plan on multiple levels and prioritize customer collaboration
  • Cascade power downwards
  • Use time ranges and probability
  • Enable transparency by connecting planning and execution

Let’s go over each one of those points below.

Plan on Multiple Levels and Prioritize Customer Collaboration

One of the central Agile practices is to plan on multiple organizational levels going from the strategic initiatives all the way down to the individual tasks. As opposed to having one big planning phase, in Agile, teams spread it alongside the project's course and plan only for the short-term. Once a deliverable is released to the customer, the planning process can start again.Agile onion

Furthermore, Agile prioritizes customer collaboration above everything else because this is what dictates the plan. In other words, Agile teams design their plans to focus on outcomes that produce customer value instead of outputs. 

To do this in practice, the Agile approach to project management emphasizes regular customer synchronization points in the process. Those are extremely important in an uncertain environment because they enable fast feedback and feed valuable information to the next portion of the project plan.

This practice of planning on multiple levels and prioritizing customer collaboration creates a highly adaptive planning process. Whenever there is a change in requirements, every level sends information to the one above it. This allows both teams and managers to apply small tweaks to their plans instead of large reworks, which lead to project failures.

Cascade Power Downwards

For the Agile planning process to function correctly, management in organizations needs to adopt cascading power downwards. This means that team members should be encouraged to create their own plans based on some coarse-grained details only.

In other words, managers in Agile are responsible for setting a product or service vision, making sure it's well-understood, and engaging in high-level planning. However, when it comes to developing a fine-grained path to achieving that vision, this is where individual team members become actively involved in the process as opposed to traditional project management.

This approach has several benefits over the conventional one.
It involves the actual subject matter experts (team members), which increases their sense of belonging and produces more accurate plans. Furthermore, it enables responsiveness to changes as the high-level plans are only directions of how things should look instead of prescriptive documents.

Use Time Ranges and Probability

Another Agile planning practice is to plan in ranges instead of specific dates.

Traditionally, project managers look to predict the future based on deterministic estimations. When talking about a knowledge work environment, this approach is hugely flawed as things move quickly, and the work is rarely the same. Therefore, promising that a deliverable will be done by a specific date isn't realistic.

To tackle this problem, Agile teams use time ranges and attach a specific probability based on their historical data. For example, it's much more realistic to say that a feature will be done between 5 and 8 days with an 85% probability than to make exact date promises.

To put this approach into practice, you can use a forecasting tool such as a Monte Carlo Simulation. Based on a statistical analysis of your past performance, the tool can be very useful in determining the probability with which a project or a deliverable will be completed at a certain point in time.Monte carlo project forecasting Here we should mention that the primary key to success when using Monte Carlo Simulations is your workflow's stability. We will explain how to achieve that in the next section.

Enable Transparency by Connecting Planning and Execution

Last but not least, you should aim to create transparency in the whole project management process by bringing together planning and execution. This will ensure that you have visibility of the whole picture, easily track the progress, and react to changes on time.

To do this in practice, you should look to connect multiple workflows. For example, you could have a workflow where you plan your projects and one where you visualize the individual tasks that every team member is responsible for.agile planning in Kanbanize

Of course, based on your process and your projects' scope, the structure might be completely different. Nevertheless, what's important here is the idea of full transparency in the process and measuring plans against their actual execution in real-time.
As a result, you will create an open environment and improve the collaboration on the project between team members and other relevant stakeholders.

Agile Execution Practices

This section will discuss some of the best Agile practices related to executing projects in a knowledge work environment. 

They are the following: 

  • Visualize Workflow
  • Limit WIP and Manage Queues
  • Reduce Batch Size of Work Items

Visualize Workflow

Even though workflow visualization isn't something hard to accomplish, it is one of the most effective Agile practices.

Unlike manufacturing, knowledge work is practically invisible, so it's very hard to keep track and measure your process's effectiveness. That's why simply visualizing your work stages and items will enable you to react faster to emerging issues and improve the collaboration between your team members.

To do this in practice, you can use Kanban boards. A good practice is to apply the lean management technique "value stream mapping" to see how your team delivers customer value. With this information in mind, you can start optimizing your workflow by removing wasteful activities, re-structuring your board based on customer needs, spotting and alleviating bottlenecks, etc.spot kanban bottlenecks

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Another great thing about visualization, and specifically Kanban boards, is that you can apply them across the entire company - from the management of multiple projects to multiple team's workflows. This will allow you to bring transparency at scale, one of the main themes when building an Agile organization

Moreover, by connecting all of these boards, you will create an organizational structure where every layer regularly feeds with information the one above it or vice versa. As a result, whenever any emerging and unexpected changes occur, you will have the management system in place to take any necessary actions as soon as possible.portfolio agile kanban

Limit WIP and Manage Queues

WIP stands for Work In Progress and is one of the essential measures in the Agile world. It represents work that has been started but not finished yet, which means that it has not accumulated any outcomes. Therefore, having a lot of work in progress is a waste.

That's why a useful Agile practice that comes from Kanban is to limit WIP to reduce waste and speed up the flow of the process. Applying this is extremely important in a knowledge work environment because it prevents context switching and enables team members to focus on finishing work instead of always starting a new one.

Limiting WIP happens easily with the help of a Kanban board where you can restrict how many work items can reside in a work stage/column at any given time.wip limit

In addition to that, another practice that successful Agile teams use is to manage queues in their process instead of tracking timelines. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense because by making sure that long queues don't form, Agile project managers can reduce the cycle time of work items. Eventually, this automatically gives them control over timelines.

An excellent tool for managing queues is the application of WIP limits. You can restrict how many items can enter a waiting stage to form a pull system in your process where a task is started only when there is capacity available. As a result, this will lay the foundations of a stable and predictable value delivery process.

Reduce Batch Size of Work Items

Working on small batches is another critical Agile practice when executing projects.

In fact, this is what enables the concept of frequent and continuous delivery in Agile project management. frequent value deliveryReducing batch sizes also helps teams decrease the possibility of having many work items linger in the work process for too long. This facilitates flow and enables timely customer delivery of what has been promised.

As a rule of thumb, you should be aware that a very small batch size which doesn't produce value is also not preferable. The idea here is to find the sweet spot and determine what the smallest possible work item that can be successfully released for customer examination is.

Agile Monitoring Practices

The final section consists of Agile practices for monitoring projects. This point is an integral piece of the puzzle where Agile teams sync progress and seek continuous improvement.

Some of the best Agile monitoring practices are summarized below:

  • Sync Progress Daily
  • Track and Measure Flow Metrics
  • Engage in Frequent Reviews

Let’s add more detail to each one of these practices.

Sync Progress Daily

One of the most common Agile practices is to daily sync progress on projects with other team members. This usually happens due to the daily stand-up meeting where the entire team stands in front of a physical or digital Kanban board and engages in discussions about everything that has transpired since the last meeting.

The main objective here is for everybody to give a quick status update, so there is a mutual awareness of who's working on what and how the team is tracking against the plan. Furthermore, team members might need to escalate impediments to their flow in this meeting so necessary actions could be undertaken as fast as possible.

As a rule of thumb, you should keep the daily stand-up on point and below 15 minutes. Try not to turn it into an extensive status report or engage in lengthy discussions about emerging issues.

The idea here is that you sync progress as quickly as possible and return to your work. In case some of your team members have an issue, they should discuss it with a senior colleague privately outside the meeting.

Track and Measure Flow Metrics

Flow is the pinnacle to a stable process and predictable project delivery, so measuring flow metrics in Agile is another best practice.

Some of the most important flow metrics to track are WIP, cycle time, and throughput. Together, they will allow you to determine what can be done in the process and how long it will take, so you can better match demand with existing capabilities.

For example, with the help of charts such as the Cumulative Flow Diagram, Cycle Time Scatterplot, Heat Maps, etc., you will be equipped with the tools to measure the performance of your flow and collect historical data. agile metrics
As a result, you will be able to continuously track the demand and capacity levels in your system so you can begin to create a predictable workflow and give realistic forecasts for project delivery to your customers.

Engage in Frequent Reviews

Lastly, it's all about continuous improvement. That's why another helpful Agile practice is to implement regular feedback loops for reviewing your work processes.

In Kanban, for example, we do that by engaging in a regular Service Delivery Review, which is usually held weekly or bi-weekly. There, our teams reflect on all the deliverables that they have released to the customer and incorporate both internal and external feedback.

This iterative process allows us to continuously improve our processes and quickly implement valuable lessons learned while the project is still active. As a result, you will be able to remain agile to any emerging changes so you can frequently meet customer expectations.

In Summary

There isn’t a single best practice that you can implement and call your team or company “Agile”. Instead, you should adopt the Agile mindset first and then experiment to see what works best for you. 

Still, you need a starting point. So, some of the best Agile practices related to planning, executing, and monitoring projects that you can implement are: 

  • Plan on multiple levels and prioritize customer collaboration
  • Cascade power downwards
  • Use time ranges and probability
  • Enable transparency by connecting planning and execution
  • Visualize workflow
  • Limit WIP and manage queues
  • Reduce the batch size of work items
  • Sync progress daily
  • Track and measure flow metrics
  • Engage in frequent reviews

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