What is Agile Project Management?

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Michael Delis, course lecturer at McGill SCS in the Agile Project Management: Practice and Certification online course, dives into why agile is a revolutionary approach to project management.

Almost all of us have exhibited project management skills like budgeting, time management, and conflict resolution in the past. However, that’s not enough to equip someone for professional or corporate project management. Additionally, professional certification is becoming increasingly important, as employers want to be certain that their project managers have the skills necessary to tackle any potential problems.  

There are several distinct modern project management methodologies such as Scrum and Waterfall. However, none are more sought after in today’s fast-paced corporate environment than agile project management. At its core, agile espouses trust, flexibility, empowerment, and collaboration between team members above all. But what exactly does that mean?  

To find out, we sat down with Michael Delis, Executive Vice-President and Director of Training at the Project Management Centre. Michael has been implementing the agile project management approach for over 20 years and has rolled out agile projects across the globe. As course lecturer for the Agile Project Management: Practice and Certification online course at the McGill School of Continuing Studies, there are few more qualified to educate us on this topic. Read our Q&A with Michael below to find out what Agile project management is, why it’s so popular, and how you can benefit from it! 

What is Agile Project Management? 

Agile project management is a revolutionary way of managing projects and is characterized by an iterative and incremental approach. This means that agile projects are built slowly and piece by piece. In traditional project management there is the tendency to complete all the steps in a project and deliver the final product to the client for review. Alternatively, with an incremental, agile approach, clients can evaluate the project’s value as it progresses, intervene and provide feedback if they are not satisfied. With this approach, it’s less likely that there will be gaps between what the client wants and what the project manager delivers. In traditional project management, things tend to be so rigid that any change to the original plan can cause disruption. Agile projects tend to be a lot more flexible, collaborative and interactive, and most changes are value-adding.    

Why is it so Popular? 

The roots of agile can be found in the mid-late 80s and throughout the 90s. At the time, traditional, upfront planning approaches were still working, but the rise of telecommunication networks and technological innovation really threw a wrench in the works. As a project manager, you would build a plan, start executing, then suddenly, the technological landscape would change, and you’d have to begin again. You’d start executing your new plan, but then you’d have to stop and re-plan, and the cycle would continue. People started looking for a better, more effective approach to project management, and were testing out different techniques in terms of delivering solutions faster and more efficiently, and eventually the agile approach was born.   

Agile’s roots are in lean management, in efficiency and effectiveness. The digital revolution that began in the 80s has only accelerated over the years, and nowadays most companies are transforming their business to meet digital demands. The main reason agile has become so popular is that it is specifically designed for the fast-paced digital world, and allows companies to deliver faster, leaner solutions. Companies that don’t employ agile techniques tend to go obsolete, while others like Uber and Airbnb are able to use agility to deliver solutions that really meet customer needs cheaper, quicker, and more efficiently.   

What are the Key Features and Benefits? 

There are many benefits to the agile approach. There’s an amazing report published every year called The Annual State of Agile and the latest one identifies around 12-13 major benefits. Some of the most important ones for companies include being able to manage changing priorities and developing mechanisms to treat change as a competitive advantage as opposed to a negative one. 

Another major benefit of agile is its transparency: it outlines process and progress which allows teams to really collaborate effectively. One of agile’s biggest accomplishments is breaking down the barriers between business and technology, between “what do we need” and “how are we going to do it.” Traditional project management tends to see a natural opposition between business and technology, but an agile approach requires the two to work collaboratively for a project to succeed. Effective and frequent communication leads to many other benefits, too, namely a decrease in time to market and increase in team productivity. 

One of the biggest benefits that tends to be hugely underestimated, is that people have more fun in agile environments. Traditional management structures have a few leaders who say, “you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do that.” In agile environments, it’s the team that makes decisions. Empowerment is inherent to the agile approach. As a result, agile companies are more likely to hire and retain talent than traditional legacy corporations, as prospective employees know they’re more likely to be valued and supported. 

What Misconceptions Might People Have About Agile? 

A common misconception is that there’s a "war" between traditional management and agile approaches. It’s not a war at all and a lot of people don’t know that you can utilize both in the same organization.   

If you’re working in an environment where the requirements are stable and the way you work is consistent, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. That’s what we call a predictive environment, and that’s where the traditional Waterfall approach thrives. It’s important to know that agile is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It should really be applied in areas where technology may not be stable, where there will be a lot of innovation, and where things are bound to change. If you try and use traditional predictive approaches in that sort of environment, you’re going to be planning and re-planning. It’s not efficient, and it’s not effective— agile is adaptive, fluid, and better suited for that. 

Another misconception is that, since agile is adaptive, project managers don’t have to plan ahead but this couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s just as much planning involved with agile, if not more, but it’s just structured differently. A Waterfall approach has a lot of upfront planning, in the hopes that everything will unfold according to that plan. Comparatively, an agile approach requires just enough upfront planning to begin work and then acquires empirical information as it goes along, allowing you to adapt your planning incrementally and iteratively throughout the course of your project. You still have a long-term roadmap and a vision, but you’re being honest and acknowledging that, at the beginning of a project, you really have no idea where things are going to be in 18 months. This approach allows stakeholders to periodically check in on your product, ensure it’s in line with their vision, and enact change and innovation on the fly, which is always a competitive advantage.   

In Which Industries or Sectors is it Applicable? Which Industries Could Benefit From it?  

Agile’s origins are really rooted in the software industry. That was the first industry that started moving so quickly that an agile approach was necessary, and that was the first industry to really benefit from it. However, these days, because of the digital revolution, even non-software companies have IT and software departments because they need digital marketing and other solutions. Many Fortune 500 companies are using an agile approach.  

A company I worked with here in Montreal delivered a brand-new yogurt across Canada. What do I know about yogurt? Nothing. What does yogurt have to do with software? Nothing. But we implemented agile practices in an area where it normally takes three years to deliver five new products, and in 18 months they delivered 57 new products.  Any company that wants to stay afloat and stay competitive in a digitized world could benefit from agile management. Even if you work in what seems to be a remarkably stable industry, a little agile knowledge can go a long way.   

What Key Skills are Required of a Project Manager to Employ an Agile Approach? 

In your typical project, the project manager is the boss: they provide directives and team members do as they say. It’s a very top-down approach. 

The agile environment flips that around and uses something called “servant leadership,” where agile project managers lead by both serving and guiding their team. The agile program has a list of principles called SERVE and GUIDE, in which each letter references a key characteristic.  

(S)elflessness. A good PM in an agile environment must be humble and place the needs of others in front of their own work in order to do what's best for the project. 

(E)mpowerment. Learn how to empower your team and create an environment where they can make mistakes, learn from them, and continue to improve. 

(R)esolution. Make sure you identify anything that slows down team productivity. This could be a human issue or a technical obstacle. A project manager doesn’t have to solve the problem, but rather help facilitate a solution.  

(V)ision. Projects need to have overarching goals. As a project manager, you need to communicate with your team and make sure they stay committed to those goals. 

(E)ncouragement. You should be a little bit of a cheerleader, able to inspire and motivate when the team is down. 


 The next five I refer to as the GUIDE

(G)uardianship. A good manager needs to protect their team. Teams get pilfered all the time, resources change, distractions come in. The job of an agile PM is to protect the team and keep them focused on their work. 

(U)nderstanding. Show a certain level of empathy. You have one mouth, but two ears, so you should spend twice as much time listening as you do talking. Understand and show empathy. Recognize that you’re all in the same boat and trying to reach the same destination. 

(I)nfluence. Facilitate decision making inside and outside of the team that can impact the project. 

(D)evelopment. Provide team members with skills, competencies, and advancement opportunities through constructive feedback, training, mentoring, and continuous improvement practices. 

(E)xperience. Bring your personal experiences to the team. There is no cookie cutter solution to all problems. A good project manager takes their experiences and uses them to help create solutions. 

Agile is more than a corporate project management tool: it’s a life skill. From homeschooling, to household management, to wedding planning, you can apply agile techniques and streamline your personal life as well as your professional life.  


Learn the essentials of the agile approach to project management and prepare for the PMI-ACP certification with the self-paced online Agile Project Management: Practice and Certification program at the McGill School of Continuing Studies.  

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