In 2001, at Utah’s Snowbird ski resort, 17 software developers got together and produced the groundbreaking Agile Manifesto.

It was meant to streamline the software development process by de-emphasizing inefficient practices such as heavy documentation, excessive meetings, and rigid adherence to process.

There’s no way they could have known back then what the Agile movement would become. More than 15 years later, Agile is everywhere.

It has become a full-on business buzzword among the ranks of “synergy,” “disruptive,” and the all-time great, “thinking outside the box.”

Everyone from the sales department to the mailroom is talking about who’s more Agile than whom.

The big difference between Agile and the rest of the project management buzzwords that came before it? Agile is an actual approach to project management with an actual definition.

definition of agile project management

This article will cut through the clutter to give a clear, concise definition of the term so that you can correct your manager the next time they talk about how Agile they were with their series of afternoon meetings to plan next month’s series of planning meetings.

By understanding what Agile really means, you’ll also be better equipped to help implement Agile practices at your organization, and recognize situations that could be improved with a dash of Agile (like nixing the weekly meeting-planning meeting).

We’ll also look at three real world examples of Agile project management in action.

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A definition of Agile project management

What is agile project management? The first—and perhaps most pure—definition of Agile project management comes from the Agile Manifesto itself:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

But we can distill that somewhat arcane summary to come up with a more concise definition:

Agile project management is an iterative development methodology that values human communication and feedback, adapting to changes, and producing working results.

Now let’s break that down.

  • Agile is iterative, meaning that it is done in pieces (sprints), with each sprint building and improving off the lessons learned from the previous sprint. This is where the Scrum framework comes into the equation. As Gartner research director Nathan Wilson said at the 2017 Gartner PPM Summit, “Scrum is a way of organizing work to promote agility.”
  • Agile is an approach and a mindset. It’s not a textbook, or a list of instructions, or a certification. In fact, trying to turn Agile methodology into a black and white template goes against everything that Agile is. It would be like trying to give someone a detailed, step-by-step plan on how to be “cool,” or play jazz. However, there is project management software that is designed specifically to promote agility.
  • Agile project management is all about efficient communication over documentation, or convoluted email chains, or excessive meetings. According to the 12 principles behind the Agile Manifesto: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” If you can communicate something with a ten-second conversation instead of an email, you should. This is where the daily scrum comes into play.
  • Agile is all about producing tangible, working results after each iteration. This is an important one. According to the 12 principles, “Working software is the primary measure of progress.” To compare Agile to the editorial process—you deliver a rough draft, then revise based on your editor’s suggestions. You’re not delivering the entire piece all at once on the day it goes to press.

Why Agile matters

So that’s what Agile is, but why is it important?

According to the Project Management Institute, more than 70% of organizations have incorporated some Agile approaches, while more than a quarter of manufacturing firms use Agile exclusively.

But here’s the kicker:

According to Price WaterhouseCoopers research, Agile projects are 28% more successful than traditional projects.

If your business is not using Agile, you’re in the increasing minority, and you’re falling behind as a result.

Real-life examples of Agile project management

Entire books have been written on Agile project management, and we could dissect it from 100 different angles and through the scope of dozens of different industries.

But this article is about coming up with an easy-to-understand explanation of Agile.

So lets look at a few examples of Agile in the real world.

1. The build-your-own meal

Customers order food at a Chipotle restaurant in a display of Agile project management

Agile project management in action at Chipotle (via Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone is familiar with the build-your-own-meal trend in fast, casual dining. At restaurants such as Chipotle or Subway, an employee puts your meal together as you give feedback.

More cheese? Less cheese? Different bread? Guacamole? No guacamole? No problem.

Every step of the way, your food project manager checks in with you to make sure your food project is still on track. The end result is a delicious meal that was improved during each step thanks to constant collaboration.

2. The Apple Genius Bar

Customers wait to be served at the Apple Genius Bar

Agile project management in action at the Apple Genius Bar (via Wikimedia Commons)

Looking past the pretentiousness of the name, the Apple Genius Bar is a great, real-world example of Agile project management in action.

When you come in with your busted iPhone or iPad, you don’t have to fill out a bunch of forms or wait in a series of lines (it’s more like a waiting gathering). It’s a world apart from your last experience at the DMV with its labyrinthine lines and reams of forms.

What makes the Genius Bar an Agile process is the focus on communication. The associate you deal with asks you questions and takes notes. In other words: “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

You may be saying, “But Apple uses processes and tools, like the iPad they take notes on.”

Yes, but the conversation between humans comes first.

3. Baseball

A baseball manager argues with the umpire during a baseball game as the catcher looks on

Agile project management in action during a baseball game (via Wikimedia Commons)

You may think that this is a stretch, but stick with me here.

A baseball manager very much has to be an Agile project manager to succeed. Every season is a major project made up of 162 games, and each game is an iteration of that project.

Imagine if a baseball manager put the same players in the same positions, batting in the same order for all 162 games despite injuries, poor performance, or bad match-ups. That manager would probably not be very successful (even Lou Piniella with the 2001 Seattle Mariners needed to make adjustments here and there).

In fact, Agile is all over baseball. Infield scrum meetings at the pitcher’s mound, phone calls to the bullpen (not emails), a concrete result (win or loss) at the end of every iteration (game).

The next time you watch a baseball game, think about how your small business team could operate more like a baseball team. We advise skipping the chewing tobacco, though.

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None more Agile

If you just remember that Agile project management is about human-to-human communication, adapting to changing conditions, and producing working results, you’ll be on the right track.

But Agile project management is, by definition, ever evolving and changing. Ask ten different project managers to define Agile and you’ll probably get ten distinct answers.

I’d love to hear how you would define Agile. Let me know in the comments.