How to win friends and manage projects the agile way

If you are still using pen and Post-it to keep track of your projects, this article is for you. Drop the stickies and trust us: this is the 21st century, and there is a better way.

You may have heard the word “agile” thrown around in recent years in regards to project management. First developed in the 1970s, this approach to software development breaks projects down into manageable pieces and encourages oversight, fluid product requirements, and flexible internal timelines. Check out this video for an overview of Scrum, the most popular Agile Method.

But what if you’re not building a product? Many nonprofits aren’t. But the Agile Method is a great framework for any organization to envision and manage any type of project. For instance, maybe your organization is writing a big grant application. Maybe you’re planning an annual fundraising gala. Or maybe you’re creating a new social media strategy. However you define “project,” here are five ways to apply the Agile Method.

1 – Get it all down

A core piece of Agile Scrum is compartmentalizing each aspect of the project into boxes. In order to build it, it has to be written down. Same goes for any project. Brainstorming all subtasks that will need to take place, to the highest level of detail possible, will force you to think ahead and will inform a more realistic timeline. Each box of tasks will comprise a “sprint” — a period of time you want to finish those tasks by. A sprint can be a few days, a week, a month, or any time period that feels manageable to your team and appropriate for the project’s timeline. It’s best to fit in a few sprints before the final project deadline – these will serve as internal deadlines that will keep your team motivated.

At Whole Whale we like to have planning sessions for clients every 2 weeks to map out all of the work we have been doing and work that needs to be prioritized. We then use a tool called Producteev to list out these tasks for each client.

2 – Assign tasks

In Agile, team members take responsibility for very specific pieces of each product. Assigning tasks to team members will make it easier for project managers to support specific aspects of the project. Someone’s head should be on the line for each line item. Tasks can change hands depending on progress, but should always belong to one team member at a time. Swapping out the waterfall process for a scrum methodology, team members can complete tasks simultaneously without having to wait for deliverables from other members.

In this example we can see how our Whole Whale team has passed the assignment of this article to each other to write, edit, design and post it. While one of our members is writing the article, another is creating supporting visuals at the same time.

 

3 – Communicate

Daily progress updates serve two purposes. First, team members can collaborate and problem-solve together (five heads are better than one!). Second, social pressure is a powerful force: team members will be motivated to meet deadlines when they know they’ll be dictating their progress to their colleagues. Find ten minutes each morning for a “standup,” where each person reports what they did yesterday, what they are doing today, and if there are any blockers.

Blockers are people or things that are stopping the critical path of work being done and are the most valuable part of the meeting. Finding blockers in the team process can save days of delay in a project and avoid frustration (helping you win friends on the team :).

Protip: These meetings are commonly called ‘standup’ meetings because they will actually only take 10 minutes if people are standing because people are lazy and like sitting down.

4 – Monitor productivity as you go

Progress Burndowns in Agile allow a project manager to monitor the team’s productivity against deadlines. You should also map the progress of your project by checking in with team members daily about how much work they have left and visualizing this against your project’s timeline. Has progress lulled? You may need to reevaluate the scope of tasks or reassign elements.

At Whole Whale, we circle up at the end of each two-week sprint and check how many tasks we got through. If we blew past our goal, we might discuss new projects to tackle (but let’s be honest, when does that ever happen?). If there is a lot left on the table, we brainstorm ways to better manage our workflow.

5 – Be reflective

A crucial part of Scrumming involves checking in with teammates and — we’re gonna get meta here — evaluating how the Scrumming is going. Find time to circle up with your team to review strength and weakness of the process. Being reflective about your method will make you a more productive and cohesive team by allowing you to iron out kinks as you go.

Our Project Manager, Julie, keeps us in line and makes sure we’re sticking to the system. She calls us out when we forget to put tasks in Producteev or if we leave tasks hanging. We don’t mind because she also bakes us banana bread.

BONUS: Agile management programs

There are a number of programs available to help keep track of your team’s progress. Check out AgileZen, Gravity, Producteev, or Asana (the Whole Whale tool of choice).

Every piece of agile methodology may not apply to your organization’s project. But find the way to best tailor this approach, and you’ll find the productivity of your team soar. Say goodbye to those Post-Its and jump on the Agile train!