Agile cliff jumping

what to expect on your first agile project


What to expect on your first agile project.


You’ve read the books, you’ve gone to training, and now you’re ready to start your first agile project. But there’s one unsettling question prickling in your mind as you start: What will the reality be, relative to the promises people make?

To answer this question, here’s some practical perspective about what happens after you launch your agile journey.

Mini-waterfalls are okay: Many agile experts emphasize the paradise of high-performing collaborators swarming over a single deliverable at a time. But that’s the end state—it won’t happen right away. The primary goal of agile approaches is to deliver value to sponsors early and often. With that in mind, it doesn’t matter how you do your work, as long as you are able to deliver regular increments of the working product. Sure, over time you will strive to get even more aggressive. But even if you’re using the exact same process cycle as before, slicing a yearlong project into monthly increments of working product will improve your risk profile and value curve dramatically. That is a great place to begin.

The first iteration is always bumpy: You’ve assembled the dream team and provided great training. You’ve used high-level estimation techniques like planning poker to plan out several iterations. Despite all that, I can tell you the first iteration will not go as planned. Why? It’s the first time the new team members are working together at length. It is the first time they are working on that particular business problem. And many times it is the first time they are working with a given set of tools, technologies and, especially, agile approaches themselves.

New agile teams have a significant learning curve. In fact, it takes three to five iterations for a team to get over those initial hurdles before becoming relatively consistent. Yes, plan your project well. But be sure you have some schedule reserves in that plan.

Focus first on reliability, then worry about productivity: A key business benefit of agile is the productivity boost that comes with cross-functional, self-organizing teams. That may not happen right away, however. I’ve seen several project plans that forecast a 20 or 25 percent increase in productivity within the first month of the project. This means a solid 15 percent improvement doesn’t earn the team members that pizza party and they end up feeling like failures. It’s an awkward moment.

Instead, I want my new agile teams to focus on becoming reliable and predictable. Shorter delivery cycles limit our risk and increase our focus. This allows us to be much more likely to deliver on commitments. Reliable output allows me to manage stakeholder expectations better than ever. Only after I have that can I start pushing the needle on productivity.

Agile requires a lot of relearning and problem-solving to achieve promised business benefits. Giving yourself permission to do that during a project may make the difference between agile confusion and agile confidence. PM


Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, is a founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice who participated on the core team of the Software Extension to the PMBOK® Guide. He can be reached at [email protected].

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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