The Complete Guide to Agile Program Management

“The Complete Guide to Agile Program Management” on Smartsheet, April 30, 2022.

What Is Agile Program Management?

Agile program management is the coordination of multiple, related Agile projects across an organization. The goal of Agile program management is to use Agile concepts to produce the best results for individual projects, while keeping overall business objectives in mind.

Traditional program management, as opposed to project management, does not focus on deliverables of individual projects, but on the progress and success of many related projects. In a small business, program managers might oversee projects across the entire company, while in a large enterprise, they might lead a single division.

Both Agile program management and traditional program management involve the coordination of teams working on similar projects and strive toward evolutionary and adaptive development of the final product. Agile program management, however, focuses on the Agile process and works to scale up the effort of Agile teams.

“When we talk about Agile program management, typically what people talk about, just from a label perspective, is scaling Agile, Agile at scale, or things like that,” says Alan Zucker, Founding Principal at Project Management Essentials. By implementing Agile best practices, program managers can coordinate and integrate multiple Agile projects to ensure program success.

Agile Program Management Governance

“Your Agile teams are doing pretty much the same thing that they’re currently doing,” says Zucker. “They’ve got the product backlog, they’re doing their planning, but imagine you’ve got a dozen teams. How do we coordinate the work across those dozen teams, so it’s not just chaos?”

Zucker says that with traditional program management, “we do our big upfront planning. We parse out the work to all of our teams. They deliver. Then people finish at different times, and at the end, we integrate the work.”

Agile program management has to accommodate the differences in how Agile works, while accomplishing the same coordination of traditional program management. “We need to be synchronized so that we know what the priorities are,” says Zucker. “If the priorities on some Agile teams changed from two weeks ago to the next iteration or the next sprint, are we still coordinated on those changes? If we’re developing in two-week cycles, it requires a lot more, and a lot closer, coordination.”

SAFe: Agile Release Train

A vital component of SAFe is the Agile Release Train (ART), a collection of several Agile teams that work on similar projects or products. These teams coordinate to track dependencies, align priorities, and ensure timely completion of all projects.

An Agile Release Train usually includes about 75 to 150 people working on separate but related projects. “SAFe coordinates the work of half a dozen to a dozen different teams into a program,” says Zucker.

SAFe and its Agile Release Trains are important on a complex program, Zucker says, because “if we’re trying to deliver iteratively and incrementally across multiple teams and we don’t have a framework or a set of practices to coordinate that effort, we’re going to run into the same issues that we have on our traditional programs. SAFe creates that framework for you.”

What Is the Focus of the Agile Program Management Office?

An Agile program management office provides team members with the necessary tools and information to keep their projects aligned with the entire program’s needs. These offices focus on each program’s objective and the tangible progress made toward its goals.

Sometimes called a value management office, a program management office is an important component of any large, complex organization with multiple teams and projects to coordinate.

Although Agile program management offices differ from company to company, they all share some common goals:

  • Encourage Big-Picture Focus: A program management office helps team members focus on whether a program is progressing well and meeting its objectives.Klarich suggests focusing on the following questions: “Are we delivering value frequently? And effectively? For what we’re trying to do, are we meeting our objectives? Do we have a way to quantify that? Do we know how to measure it?”
  • Offer Tools and Basic Help: Program management offices exist to provide support to teams within a program, so they can meet their objectives. Klarich says the most important question that a program management office can ask of project and program team members is: “What help do you need?”Even Agile teams that are operating well will sometimes have organizational and structural issues. Zucker explains that in these cases, the Agile program management office “can provide the infrastructure, tools, templates, practices, and coaches to help organizations be more successful.”
  • Discourage Micromanagement and Overgeneralizing: Like any program management office, Agile program management offices should avoid doing two things: micromanaging programs and offering one-size-fits-all tools and templates. Zucker reiterates that every program is different and may need tools and templates that are specific and customized.

How to Implement Agile Program Management

Train Your Team: After you set up your governing structure, it’s important to train your team to understand how that structure works and agree on overall expectations.

“Get people trained up so that everybody understands the framework, how we’re going to do it, how we’re going to execute it,” Zucker says. “I’m a big fan of incrementalism. Begin to add the structures as we need to. Then it becomes more robust. Always ask: How do we make it better?”

Agile Program Management Best Practices

  • Create an Accessible Program Backlog: In Agile program management, a program backlog is the list of all upcoming work that will need to be done to move forward on the program’s objectives or product. Program backlogs are especially common in product development.  Experts say it’s especially important that the program backlog is easily accessible and transparent for everyone involved in the program. “What are the things that we want to do at a program level so that everybody knows what’s coming up?” says Zucker. “If we have that transparency, it’s clear where we’re going and what we want to do.”

Benefits of Agile Program Management

  • Waste Decreases: The process means you’re delivering high-quality products quickly and not wasting time on features that don’t work or that don’t add value for customers.“You’re delivering only the things with the highest value, with the greater and more frequent feedback from customers,” says Zucker.

Problems with Agile Program Management

  • Lack of Commitment: Some organizations try to implement Agile program management but do not have commitment throughout their organization to the Agile process. In these cases, organizations might allow some teams to use Agile but then manage them with more traditional program management techniques.“They haven’t gotten to true business agility,” says Klarich, “so there tends to be a layer of Waterfall management on top of Agile projects.”“They don’t adopt the mindset,” says Zucker. “That’s the thing that kills Agile 90 percent of the time — the cultural issues, organizational issues.”