Agile | 9 MIN READ

5 Agile Project Management Mistakes You Need to Avoid

Agile project management can significantly increase productivity, as well as an organization's ability to thrive in a digital world. Despite its inherent benefits, however, there are still plenty of agile project management mistakes that prevent businesses from realizing that potential.

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Known for its short “sprint” production timelines that emphasize continuous improvement, agile is all about flexible processes, efficient resource allocation, and rapid solution deployment. Adopting agile Jira practices is especially valuable for organizations looking for unifying project standards that can boost productivity across all service desks.

Striking that balance between structure and versatility isn’t easy. However, the upside to laying an adaptable agile foundation to your operations, both for winning digital transformation and long-term growth, is enormous.

As Henry Mintzberg pointed out, “Management is, above all, a practice where art, science, and craft meet.” To get to that point, you must avoid some of the biggest (and most preventable) mistakes that continue to trip up many project management professionals.

In this blog post, I’ll outline common errors and provide tips for how to skirt them with ease. Let’s get started!

 

1. Failing to Appoint, Trust a Project Manager or Leader

Many organizations still believe that agile projects can be run by committee. But, no matter how much you invest in automation tools or how strong you think your organizational culture is, successful businesses rely on great project managers to get the most out of each initiative.

According to Wrike, 68% of projects don’t have a dedicated sponsor to be the guiding force behind the initiative, even though 80% of high-performing projects are led by a certified manager. Knowing this, it’s unsurprising that only 56% of respondents said their projects met original goals or aligned with ongoing business strategy.

This is especially true of agile projects, where priorities, deadlines, and resource availability can change overnight. As AXELOS’ Matt Perkins notes, “it is perhaps even more important on an agile project to have someone responsible for tracking [and] steering the direction of the project. This will help ensure a ‘fast-moving’ delivery team keeps their ‘eyes on the prize’.”

Once appointed, it’s also crucial that both employees and executives alike trust a project manager. “Any positive working relationship is based on trust,” adds Dr. Marvin Marshall. “An environment of trust assumes that both parties will be safe, and it carries with it an implicit message that you have each other’s best interests in mind.”

Building a trusting, forward-thinking atmosphere around your project manager is an essential ingredient for smooth, reliable agile sprints.

 

2. Not Spending Enough Time on Planning, Goal-Setting

Even with strong leadership at the helm, agile projects are often dealt fatal blows when not enough time is spent on planning or setting clear, actionable goals.

The common argument against constructing those project roadmaps is that they inhibit the flexibility and adaptability at the heart of agile. They're presumed to be stifling, but I’d argue that, without an underlying structure in place, it’s very easy for the agile method to morph into disorganized, directionless chaos.

“No matter what agile methodology you are using [or] where you are on your agile journey [...], there's still a need to forecast over a long period of time, make date commitments, plan resources, and tie your work back to a strategic vision,” explains Atlassian’s Claire Drumond.

Unfortunately, plenty of organizations are still falling short in this regard. A UK study revealed that more than a third (34%) of agile projects aren’t baselined during the planning stage. This lack of direction and clear goal-setting was also cited by executives polled by PMI as the most common factor behind project failure.

If you want to eradicate poor planning and goal-setting habits, Drumond recommends starting with the big picture–the global end game of your agile project–and then break it down, detail by detail. Sound too rigid? Inject more flexibility into your agile planning by leaving yourself additional leeway for small upgrades along the way.

“With agile, [no] project is ever done,” she adds. “Continuing to deliver value through incremental improvements is what drives innovation.” After all, what is agile about if not innovation?

 

3. Turning Every Task Into a Micromanaged Sprint

Micromanagement is bad. Pretty obvious statement right?

Surprisingly, it's becoming harder to separate the core of agile from that overbearing sensibility. In fact, when project managers obsess too much over the details and turn every task into their own micromanaged sprints, it has a devastating effect on employee productivity.

Why is this so? Ironically, agile’s emphasis on flexibility and adaptability often translates into the notion that you need to get every task and process exactly right. Combine that with the pressure to produce more with less, all while remaining perfectly transparent with upper management, and efficiency is bound to dip.

Agile project managers also tend to become micromanagers unintentionally, even if they have the best intentions at heart. Katy Sherman, Senior Director of Software Engineering at Premier Inc, notes as much about her former boss in this LinkedIn post:

“He was always stressed out. He sent emails and then called across the open space - did you get my email? Every spreadsheet and presentation had to be drafted weeks in advance and sent for his approval, and then reviewed several times until they were perfect (in the end they were never perfect). Was he malicious in his anxiety and mistrust? No, absolutely not. He was a hard-working person of impeccable integrity and work ethics. He was nice and friendly, always happy to help, perhaps a little too soft to handle the pressure. He would have been hurt and surprised if we told him what we really thought about his management style.”

The preoccupation with perfection and the resulting risk-averse approach to innovation isn’t just at odds with agile; it can leave project managers feeling useless. In his blog post on the topic, Stefan Wolpers explains that, if middle management can’t embrace self-organization, experimentation, and failure, they’re nowhere close to being agile. Plain and simple.

 

4. Letting Too Much Flexibility Lead to a Lawless Version of Agile

 

A close cousin of agile micromanagement is also its polar opposite. In this case, overly flexible processes distract from agile project objectives, flood timelines with too many works in progress, and ultimately enable a lawless, “Wild West” version of agile.

To avoid this, we return to the idea of finding that much sought-after middle ground for your agile process. Being open to feedback and deploying improvements? That’s a good kind of flexibility. Acquiescing to every change request at the expense of your original agile project plan? Decidedly less so, but often confused with being “truly agile.”

The more I think about it, the more agile becomes about the planning instead of an operational framework. As per John Yorke, “[agile] forces focus and prioritization and it limits work in progress, it mandates reflection and improvement [...] it is a very flexible way of planning a project. But the flexibility is controlled and structured.”

When project managers or entire teams take their hands off the wheel, an initiative’s parameters can get out of whack very quickly. According to HBR, the average project goes over budget by 27%. Worse still, only 37% of UK-based teams said they consistently completed projects on time.

Sometimes, in the pursuit of maximal productivity, you must tighten processes instead of loosening them further. Otherwise, why build a strategy and even hire a project manager at all? Shouldn’t agile’s commitment to faster, more efficient project cycles make it easier, and not harder, to achieve your desired goals?

 

5. Forgetting The People Aspect of Project Management

Finally, we come to the most sensitive project management mistake that agile organizations make on a regular basis: forgetting the people aspect of agile on both the operations and customer experience fronts.

Misuse or misinterpretation of its framework leads to agile reinforcing barriers between teams instead of breaking them down. In fact, 63% of professionals blame failed agile implementation on the gap between their organization’s siloed culture and agile’s business principles. Plainly, the two can’t coexist and deliver and optimal ROI.

Constructing walls around ideas, processes, even entire projects, fractures communication and limits the scalability of your operations and IT services. This, in turn, leads to a subpar customer experience, creating a vicious feedback loop that’s demoralizes staff. In short, glossing over agile’s human component is a surefire to internal frustration.

This isn’t to say that the people part of project management is a walk in the park either. Clear communication, being able to work well with different types of personalities, learning how to direct team focus and energy, setting ambitious-but-realistic expectations. These take time, patience, and practice to master.

Making that effort is also what separates the great project managers from the mediocre ones. It can mean the difference between maximizing your resources to attain business objectives and falling short of those targets, even though you have all the tools at your disposal to do so.

Process is important, sure, as are the ITSM tools most agile teams use to attack their daily tasks. However, disregarding the individuals using said tools and executing your agile sprints in favor of the technical details will prevent you from unleashing all the framework’s benefits.


If your organization has suffered a major agile project failure, you’re not alone. According to KPMG, a whopping 70% of companies have endured at least one in the last 12 months. However, avoiding these five common agile project management mistakes will put you in a great position to grow and thrive in a digital-first marketplace down the road.

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Originally published Nov 5, 2019, 7:00:00 AM

Topics: Agile