Adapt and Grow: The Complete Guide to Agile Project Management Workflows

“Adapt and Grow: The Complete Guide to Agile Project Management Workflows” on Smartsheet, April 21, 2023.

What Is an Agile Workflow?

An Agile workflow is a timeline of steps you need to start, work, and finish an Agile project. Agile workflows break projects into short, repeated phases. Teams use these cycles to seek customer feedback and add updates to the deliverable.

Workflow phases or sprints last from one week to three months, during which time teams commit to finishing a limited set of tasks. Throughout the process, stakeholders hold frequent reviews, so teams can incorporate insights as the work progresses rather than waiting until the end of the project to make changes. This Agile project management workflow methodology provides teams with regular product review periods and faster turnarounds and, thereby, the flexibility to respond rapidly to problems and opportunities as they arise in today’s dynamic business landscape.

Alan Zucker

“A workflow allows us to capture valuable metrics about the flow of work. For example, how long has an item been sitting on the backlog? How quickly are we delivering things?” explains Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials.

“Agile is based on empiricism and systems thinking. We need ways of measuring how we work and how we improve. Agile is not the absence of process. It’s not like in the old Our Gang kids comedies — ‘Hey, Darla, let’s put on a show’— where people just decide to do a project. When experts like Jeff Sutherland and Dean Leffingwell talked about Agile, they talked about increasing the predictability and reducing the variability of our projects,” Zucker notes.

Agile Project Management Workflow Diagram

An Agile project management workflow diagram is a sketch of the steps in a process. A graphical flow diagram shows stakeholders any work item delays and blockers. You can use a task board to engage with workflow diagrams daily.

“Typically, Agile workflow diagrams look like flowcharts, with steps going across the page. But a workflow gets operationalized by creating a Kanban or task board. Then we start tracking the stories or features moving across the board,” shares Zucker.

Workflow diagrams provide a visual reference that quickly communicates steps in a process and helps to avoid misunderstandings about how teams work. Zucker, who has more than two decades of experience managing projects in Fortune 100 companies, adds, “If we perform our daily stand up referencing a Kanban board, it allows us to collaborate and say, ‘Hey, looks like you seem to be stuck on something. Do you need help?’ The visualization also creates accountability. A board is more than tickets in the back of the machine that no one really sees or people looking at a long list in a spreadsheet. We actually see the work — it’s tangible, it’s there.”

What to Consider When Building a Workflow in Agile Project Management

When you build an Agile project management workflow, first realize that the team must create its workflow. Sketch out a simple workflow with sticky notes or on paper, and add more stages if needed.

Start the process by having the team create the workflow. “It shouldn’t be the managers, the project managers, or the Scrum Master saying, ‘OK, this is the ideal workflow.’ It should be a team-based event,” says Zucker. If you force a process on people, it will likely fail.

“I see all of it as a living, breathing organism,” shares Fruy. “The setup really needs to work for the team. Just because something is a good idea for some folks doesn’t mean it’s a universal application, and you need to be able to modify a workflow to work for the individuals that you’re collaborating with.”

The complexity of developing a workflow is one reason Zucker recommends starting with a paper model. Consider using sticky notes and painter’s tape on a wall. People can feel a digital model is codified. With a paper draft, people aren’t invested in a flow if it needs change.

“When we’re using any electronic tool, it becomes harder to change. In design thinking, we find that people will give you more feedback on a very rough-hewn, hand-drawn sketch,” Zucker explains. Plus, any digitized workflow requires some programming, which may require considerable effort to revise. If you must go digital, consider a low-fidelity tool until you refine the process.

Another critical approach when developing a workflow is to start where you are. “We want to start easy and then begin to add detail in our workflow. If we start by saying, ’Let’s define the perfect workflow,’ it becomes very complicated very quickly,” Zucker explains.

He suggests starting with the iconic three-step workflow of backlog, doing, and done. Then, break up the doing phase into steps, such as analyzing, coding, testing, reviewing, and ready to deploy. “That works so much better than trying to determine the optimal workflow at the beginning because we are not going to find that optimal workflow just by brainstorming for an hour one morning,” Zucker adds.

Finally, monitor the process and make changes when needed. “When starting with a workflow, one of the questions we should ask during our retrospectives is, ‘How’s that workflow working for us? Do we need to tweak it?'” says Zucker.

Zucker points to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s remarks in his century-old book, The Principles of Scientific Management that it took years to define his perfect processes. Henry Ford took almost a decade to refine the Model T line. Leadership expert John Kotter says organizational change takes 5-10 years. Similarly, Jeff Bezos also discusses lengthy organizational evolution. “You look at this long range of great management philosophy that says defining a workflow takes time,” says Zucker. “If you’re going to define a workflow, you need to make it front and center of what you do.”

How to Optimize Agile Project Workflows

You can use the Agile principle of continuous improvement to optimize Agile project workflows.  Customers, stakeholders, and teams can use data from reviews and retrospectives to reflect on project and process improvements. Teams turn these improvement ideas into work items.

One common approach to project and quality management is the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle. PDCA is useful for tracking progress and for tuning processes:

  • Plan: Identify issues.
  • Do: Test a new approach or a fix for a problem.
  • Check: Evaluate the success of the solution. Review Agile metrics to check for improvements.
  • Act: Implement the solution and propagate it throughout the organization.

Sprint retrospectives are also vital to optimizing Agile project workflows. Biweekly or monthly retrospectives present opportunities to discuss practices and fine-tune workflows. “We can track the stories or the features, and that’s great,” explains Zucker. “But we get better by saying, ‘It seems like we always have a problem in this step. Why are we having a problem here?'”

How to Overcome the Challenges of Scaling Project Management Workflows

You overcome the challenges of scaling project management workflows by ensuring that all teams embrace Agile. Standard working agreements and workflows add efficiency to shared projects.

Here are some tips for surmounting Agile scaling obstacles:

  • Unify the Entire Organization Behind Agile: Understand that this will make the organization more value driven. The whole company can respond better to market changes and risks.
    For Zucker, connected task boards have value: “By connecting all these boards, you create an organizational structure where every layer regularly feeds information to the layer above it or vice versa. As a result, whenever any emerging and unexpected changes occur, you have the management system in place to take necessary actions as soon as possible.”
  • Expect a Flexible Scaling of a Single Process: According to Zucker, every team might have a slightly different Kanban board. But for enterprise portfolios, you might have a high-level task board with varying levels of detail expressed through color.