What Is Agile? A Beginner's Guide

Agile is an approach to project management that leans heavily on short time frames, adaptability, and iteration.
Project manager executes agile methodology with her team

Agile is an approach to project management that emphasizes incremental and iterative steps to completing projects. The incremental parts of a project are carried out in short-term development cycles. The approach prioritizes quick delivery, adapting to change, and collaboration rather than top-down management and following a set plan.

In agile processes, there is constant feedback, allowing for team members to adjust to challenges as they arise, and stakeholders an opportunity to communicate consistently. Though originally created for software development, the agile approach is now widely used in executing many different types of projects and in running organizations.

Contrast this with more traditional forms of project management. Traditional project management generally progresses linearly. Moving from planning, designing, implementation and closing stages happen after the previous stage is complete.  

So what’s agile methodology?

Agile isn’t a methodology by itself, and is better thought of as a mindset in approaching how projects get done. It is, however, the umbrella term for many types of management methodologies. Scrum, Kanban, and the Crystal Method are each considered different agile methodologies, though there are plenty more.

Agile pros and cons

Though agile is gaining in popularity and has a host of advantages, it’s not without its challenges. Below are some of the benefits and drawbacks agile users faced, according to Digital.ai’s 2020 State of Agile Survey [1].

Agile benefitsAgile challenges
Ability to manage changing prioritiesOrganizations can resist change in adoption
Increased project visibilityTeams may use inconsistent practices
Improved business/IT alignmentNeeds support of leadership and management
Delivery speed/time to marketOrganizational culture can be at odds with agile values
Project risk reduction
Project predictability

When should you use agile?

The tenets of agile—adaptability, iteration, and short time frames, among others—make it a project management style that’s better suited for ongoing projects and projects where certain details aren’t known from the outset. That means if a project doesn’t have clear constraints, timelines, or available resources, it’s a good candidate for an agile approach.

For example, designing and launching a new product might push a team against several unforeseen challenges. Having an agile approach can mean the project already has the methodology in place to test products as often as needed, iterate quickly, and communicate changes with stakeholders.

Traditional project management approaches like waterfall can be easier to plan out and progress easier to measure. This can make projects that have clearly demarcated details (like resource constraints or scope), or projects where teams are expected to work independently of stakeholders better suited for traditional project management.

What if both sound good?

Not all projects fit neatly into one category or the other. For the projects that might benefit from elements of both traditional and agile management, an agile-waterfall hybrid approach can make sense. This could mean, for example, that planning and design are done in waterfall, but development is carried out in short development cycles, agile-style.

Read more: 12 Project Management Methodologies: Your Guide

Agile methodologies and frameworks

There are several agile methodologies and frameworks, each with its own pros and cons. Some—like ScrumBan—are hybrids of multiple methodologies. Digital.ai found that 58 percent of agile adopters used Scrum, with the next most-used methodology being ScrumBan, at 10 percent [2].

Popular agile methodologies include:

  • Scrum

  • Kanban

  • Lean

  • Crystal Method

  • Disciplined Agile (DA)

  • Extreme Programming (XP)

  • Feature-Driven Development (FDD)

  • Domain-Driven Design (DDD)

  • Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)

  • ScrumBan

  • Agile-Waterfall/Hybrid Agile

  • Scrum XP Hybrid

Scaling methods

Agile scaling methods are used to implement agile practices across multiple teams, or entire organizations. There are several scaling methods, including the following:

  • Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

  • Scrum of Scrums

  • Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)

  • Large Scale Scrum (LSS or LeSS)

  • Enterprise Scrum

  • Lean Management

  • Agile Portfolio Management (APM)

  • Nexus

Agile values and principles

Agile project management was established on four values and twelve principles. These values and principles are rooted in the Agile Manifesto, which was created in 2001 by seventeen managers of software development [3]. Much of the philosophy that underpins the Agile Manifesto came about in reaction to what people perceived as the bottlenecks of software development processes at the time.

Agile Values

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: While tools and processes are important, the Agile Manifesto prioritizes the people behind them. Having the right people in place and empowering them to interact smoothly with each other can lead to successes that tools by themselves won’t be able to.

Working software over comprehensive documentation: The creators of agile believed that it was more important to get stuff done than get bogged down in the planning and documentation stages.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: Instead of siloing stakeholders off from the project, agile aims to maintain contact with them throughout the creation process.

Responding to change over following a plan: Following a plan that doesn’t make sense to follow anymore can be counterproductive. Adaptation is central to the agile philosophy.

The twelve principles define early and frequent delivery, simplicity, constant feedback, the collaboration of interested parties, and individual support, among other principles, as the pillars of agile project management [4].

Agile certifications

Certifications in agile project management can verify your knowledge of agile as a whole, or in specific agile methodologies. Think about what skills you’ll likely use in your workplace and career before deciding on which certification to get (if any).

The PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), Certified Agile Leadership, and APMG International Agile Project Management Certification are each popular agile certifications.

You can also consider a certification in a specific framework. For example, you could become a Certified ScrumMaster to work with Scrum, or get a PMI Disciplined Agile Certification to work with Disciplined Agile.

Getting started with agile

Incorporating agile into your workplace starts with getting to know the basics. There are several courses on Coursera to help you get on started.

Learn both traditional and agile approaches in the Google Professional Certificate in Project Management. No prior experience is required.

Related articles

Article sources

1. Digital.ai. "15th Annual State of Agile Survey, https://stateofagile.com/#." Accessed March 29, 2021.

2. Digital.ai.

3. Agile Manifesto. "Manifesto for Agile Software Development, https://agilemanifesto.org/." March 29, 2021.

4. Agile Manifesto. "Principles behind the Agile Manifesto, https://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html." Accessed March 29, 2021.

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