A look into the Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)

The Project Management Institute (PMI’s) has outlined specific subject matter for its Agile Certified Practitioner (ACP) exam. The below content evaluates and extrapolates on this outline to give readers a better understanding of the exam material and a starting point for further research and education.  This is a topical overview of the material and readers are encouraged to read PMI’s recommended reference books.

Agile project management integrates a number of techniques. These include understanding and communicating with customers, having respect for time constraints, having a goal for innovation, supporting diverse and new ideas, working as a team in a safe environment, testing and checking products for quality assurance, and most importantly to create maximum output at a minimum cost. In Agile management project leadership and team work are important.  Management and teams should work together to improve communication, be innovative, and be responsive to vision and direction.

The agile business program includes having an agile manager and a self-organizing team.  They are expected to adapt as the project they are working on emerges into a tangible product or solution.  Adaptive planning requires tradeoffs between a point-solution and a best-value outcome.  This means that as an agile project takes shape, its managers need to consider changes both predicted (its point-solution) and unexpected (those leading to the best-value outcome) and act accordingly.  The best outcome of this is that under good circumstances agile management might only require minimal changes that were not originally anticipated but are nonetheless necessary.  Sometimes, however, larger changes are necessary to attain the goal of maximizing profit and minimizing waste and costs.  This adaptation will be worth the effort for the business to make the change, if the outcome maximizes profit and minimizes costs.  After all, this is the driving force and incentive behind using Agile project management.  This is what makes it so successful over other less adaptive methods.

An important aspect of agile project teams which was previously mentioned  is that they are self-organizing.  This means that the teams are able to work themselves out and assign group work effectively to those that are best capable of specializing in the different inter-disciplinary aspects of the project.  They require minimum supervision from their superiors, yet they stay in frequent and close communication with their managers, sponsors and one another to avoid surprises and to make sure that the project is well coordinated within the goals and expectations of the stakeholders.

Undoubtedly communication is the key to success in Agile.  Communication in Agile project management allows for the project team, its sponsors, and the customers to work together. Essentially this facilitates the exchange of new ideas and feedbackthat will lead to more efficient product development in the short term. In the long term, communication builds customer loyalty and improves overall satisfaction.  Good communication leads to a greater sense of intimacy with the customers, which helps to improve satisfaction with the product development process.  Communication with customers helps to improve the exchange of knowledge that the agile group has about the needs, preferences, and desires of its clientele.

There is also communication with superiors.  Communication with superiors creates more efficiency within the command and control of the company and allows for less time wasted as the role of everybody in the team is understood and the data that they collect is shared indiscriminately from the project group to the top.  Finally, there is communication within the group itself. This is to make sure information is accurate and known by all contributing in the team, keeping everybody up-to-date, and leading to less time spent reorganizing when problems would otherwise arise from a lack of communication (Goodpasture, 2010).

Different methods exist to foster this communication in the Agile project team.  One of these is the use of an information radiator.  An information radiator can be anything from a simple tack-board on the wall to an electronic screen.  What matters is that this source of information is visible to all of the members of the Agile project team. It is updated regularly and consistently as changes are made in the group’s progress, and it is understandable – helping the team to stay focused and on task.  Other methods and devices used for fostering communication within the Agile team includes how the team space is organized, the use of Agile tools, creating a working atmosphere for the team that allows for osmotic communication, and the employment of daily stand-ups.

The organization of the team space determines how the team is going to work in relation to the other members of the project.  If team members are in closer proximity to one another it allows for osmotic-communication.  That is communication where information flows freely and relatively uninterrupted or delayed amongst the members of the Agile project group.  This allows for real-time instantaneous feedback from the peers in the group and can even take place subconsciously without team members even realizing that it is happening. This is more difficult to do when the group is dispersed and communication occurs through media, messenger-services, or the telephone.

The use of Agile tools is the employment of software or technology that helps to organize the efforts of the group.  Much like an information radiator, Agile tools can compile all of the knowledge of the group and help to organize it into something more comprehensive.  Another highly recommended tool for project success regarding communication is the employment of daily stand-ups.  Stand-ups are scheduled meetings in which group members should feel safe and comfortable to voice their concerns and discuss problems within the project itself.   Stand-ups also help to grow team bonds and understanding between the members of the team.  This is done in the sharing of view-points and information that otherwise might not be appropriate or possible to discuss in the regular work environment.  All of these tools are useful in establishing effective communication, which is essential in the Agile project group (Smite, Moe, & Agerfalk, 2010).

Project management using Agile techniques goes far beyond just a team with good communication systems and interpersonal skills. It involves good management, planning, organization, analysis, and a qualified team. In order for a project managed with Agile techniques to meet the other requirements of being innovative, efficient, profitable, and adaptive, the team must be qualified for the tasks and be well-organized.  It is understood that all projects carry certain levels of risk.  Smaller projects may need only one manager’s approval and be insignificant to the well being of a company.  Other projects may be game changers and the stake of the company’s survival depends on how well the project is managed.

The project manager is the ultimate risk manager of any imbalance between customer driven value, business expectations, and project feasibility.  How much risk should be taken is determined by how much is needed to balance business needs with the project’s abilities.  The manager takes the risks.  The project will only be successful if both the business and the customers are satisfied.  To that end, the business seeks out a balance between its business purpose and its project performance.  An alignment gap may still exist among project capacity and the value of the business and the customers. It is up to the project manager to orchestrate the use of resources and deliver the best-value solution by assessing the risks.

Ultimately, achieving quality in the product is the main goal in Agile development.  Input and the process of development are the means to achieve this goal.  Agile managers forecast outcomes based on iteration backlogs – small stabilized slices of project backlog that gives further insight into past developments on the project. In retrospect, it is a little more possible to predict certain outcomes within the project itself using these backlogs. Quality is unarguably the ultimate goal of this kind of flexible management style. Adhering to agility in setting goals to reach quality, the manager usually carries certain expectations and requirements for everybody in the team. That is to say that everybody in the design group will be respectful of time, team members will be responsible to add to the group output, everyone will focus on learning and self improvement in relation to the job, every member will work for the benefit of the team, every product is to be built as efficiently and with as little waste as possible. (Goodpasture, 2010).

In addition to good communication and risk management, performing effectively with regards to a set time frame is another key important aspect of a well managed and agile project. Good planning, monitoring, and adapting are required in the agile project. Put simply in layman’s terms it is not enough that the train is running, it must run on time.   In order to be Agile and efficient in project management, the manager and team must establish reasonable goals for getting tasks done in a certain time frame.  This includes looking at retrospectives for learning and growth, using task and kanban boards to stay on track, time boxing, iteration and release planning, WIP limits, burn down/up charts, cumulative flow diagrams, and process tailoring.

Another integral part of the agile program is the concept of retrospectives. Retrospectives involve taking time to reflect on and improve practices using previous experience and feed-back.  Retrospectives should be performed after each iteration of the project and not just at the conclusion of the project being developed.  This shows just how much a team is committed to learning and improvement. It also shows just how adaptable that the team really is.  A retrospective is more of a time to reflect, learn, and grow.  It is not meant to focus on fault finding so much as on what can be learned from the iteration that just took place in the project.  Experience may provide data about how a project developed but retrospectives give us knowledge about how to develop a project better in the future (Rising & Manns, 2011).

A Kanban board is a mapping between tasks and time for the team.  It helps to determine what tasks are in the process of being completed and what the time frame is for completing them.  It is different from a task board in that it shows more of the whole process of completing a task and not just the tasks that are in the process of being worked on.  Kanban boards help the team to visualize the different parts of the project and track them from conception to completion.  Typically it seeks to limit the amount of “works in progress” (WIP limit) for the workflow.  This is another effective way to keep on task and see the project come together while adhering to time constraints in the project, which typically run up to six months at times.

Time boxing is yet another method to control work pace in the group effectively and is also a form of risk management.  Often deadlines are set within different time boxes that make up the overall itinerary for completing a project.  Each time box is allotted its own budget and works to be completed.  The motivating factor is that these tasks must be completed by the time the individual time boxes finish out.  If these tasks are not completed in the time frame set up in the time boxes, it can jeopardize the project being completed in time for its pre-planned delivery date.  When time boxes are not fulfilled by the time their deadlines come around it can have large consequences for the success of the project.  The consequences include dropping requirements of lesser importance, working overtime to compensate for the time lost, moving the deadlines back further, and lowering product quality.  None of these are desirable and can dampen the final outcome of the project.  Good teams should be able to create and plan appropriate and accurate time boxes and meet the deadlines of those time-boxes.  Effective time management is a key factor for efficiency of the project (Hiranabe, 2007).

It is simply not enough to plan while managing a project.  If one wishes to be Agile they must indeed be agile in their estimations.  A project can easily be affected by two opposite but damaging scenarios.  These are a team that fails to have a plan and a team that plans too specifically.  Teams that do not plan at all cannot answer basic questions such as “when the project will be done” and “how much the project will cost”.  This kind of lack of planning has a very negative outcome in terms of impressing investors and efficiently caring out a project.  On the other hand, teams that plan too rigidly can easily fail to be Agile as well.  This is because too regimented planning can lead to a false sense of a fail proof plan.  This may be effective from time to time but it is not Agile.  An Agile plan is more of a flexible outline than a perfect map or blue print to a successful project and success in the market.

Things such as relative sizing help with estimations in an agile project.  If team members can assign a loose point system within task analysis then they can more effectively plan their work in terms of time and resource distribution.  For example, when a group of workers in an agile team are looking to finish part of a project, they can use relative sizing to determine how many should work on that part of the project, for how long, and which team members will be best suited for that project.  This assigns a point system that adds up each workers relative skill for the task to see who is best suited, it determines how much time a task should take, and it determines how many are needed to get the task done as efficiently as possible.  It’s a mathematical approach to project management.

To be more thorough, the wide band Delphi process can be employed to agile estimation.  In this process the coordinator of the project communicates with the other experts within the planning of the group.  They each are assigned the task of estimating the various stages of the project with the purpose of coming to conclusions about the necessary time frame and budget needed to conclude a project successfully.  The term wide band is used to further demonstrate the level of communication used in the process.  Experts give their original estimations like in the original Delphi process, but then they add to it by meeting regularly and discussing differences in their estimations and reconfigure their estimations accordingly.

Next to be discussed is ideal time, planning poker and affinity estimations.  Ideal time in estimation is also more common in agile project management than is real time.  This is because ideal time takes into account how much time will be spent on a task of a project without interruptions.  It may not be able to specify a project will be finished by a certain time, but it helps those working in the teams to estimate how much time they can expect to spend on one aspect of the project.  This is especially useful when a project group worker is balancing several projects at once.  Planning poker is also useful for estimating a project.  In this method estimators for an Agile project conduct a meeting with identical card decks.  Each one of these cards contains numbers that indicate how much time a project will take.  One person chairing the meeting does not play or engage in the poker game.  A timer is used and each time the timer is up, everybody in the meeting simultaneously plays their card giving estimates on time for completion.  The goal of this is to avoid anchoring.  Anchoring occurs when estimators freely discuss their estimates at a meeting.  This can sub-consciously affect the estimates of others in the meeting.  This method simply prevents the facts for the project and continues until a concusses is reached throughout several rounds of playing these estimation cards (Armour, 2002).

Analysis and Design includes many things such as a project road mapping, wire frames, user stories and back grounds, and agile modeling.   Project road maps provide a detailed idea of where a project is moving forward towards.  This is where the goal or purpose of the project can be found.  Analysis involves a lot of communication, iterations, and discussion on what should be produced.  Analysis and design seek to answer the questions of what should be produced, how much should be produced, why a project should take place, how much will the project cost, and how long will it take.  This is similar to estimation except for the fact that it seeks to answer the purpose of the project a little bit more than the “how” of the project.  Wireframes seek to set up the ground work and structures that need to be in place to meet the goal of what is the road map.  Agile modeling sets up a sort of practice based methodology towards modeling.  It incorporates a set of values, principles, and practices that can be applied to designing.  It involves a lot of customer communication and can be difficult to apply in large teams.  User stories and back grounds are extremely useful for development using the agile model.  They can most easily be likened to small notes, phrases, or a brief description that states what a customer wants and expects.  It is kept short and usually on a card so that it does not elaborate too much distracting from the overall purpose of the design.  It is intended primarily to keep the designer in the agile team focused to exactly what the customer is expecting from the project design team (Shore & Warden, 2008).

Soft skills negotiation goes into a completely different category of the Agile project model.  Up until this point it has been discussed how product quality, development, design, adaptability, and communication play a role in agile projects.  However, soft skills are just as valuable.  As businesses who are Agile seek to be competitive, it is not enough to focus on quality and efficiency in the production process alone.  It has become increasingly evident that the personable face of a company can have just as large an effect on gaining and retaining customers as the quality of a product can.  Important in the training of team members for agile projects is the skill of emotional intelligence.  The Agile project model simply seeks to develop this by encouraging good emotional intelligence among team members within the agile project.  Collaboration is also important for soft-skills negotiation.  It involves working together to achieve a common goal.  In the business sense this is a step upwards from regular communication.  It involves working together on the part of all parties involved in the agile project.  Adaptive leadership is also an important skill for managers and those leading or innovating in the agile business environment.  Adaptive leadership is not passive but active.  It is a dynamic process of mutual influence.  It employs intelligent, purpose driven, and meaningful interactions between leaders in the agile business setting and their environment.  Since environments change and can be difficult to deal with in business and in the markets, it is important that leaders can adapt to these changes and engage their team members and customers on a meaningful level.  They must be good listeners and mentors within their teams.  They must be able to resolve conflicts between members of the groups that they preside over, and they must be capable of problem-solving, conflict resolution, and motivating their teams.  (Larsen & Derby, 2006).


Metrics are parameters or measures of quantitative assessment used to measure and compare companies.  This is done even when companies have many variations between one another.  These measurements can be based on the recorded output of a company, or they can be based on money values etc.  Earned value management is one example of this.  In earned value management calculations are included to show how much progress has been made on a project already giving value to the project even though it is not yet completed.   Other metrics can be compared within an industry itself comparing how many televisions a company put out in relation to another television company or how many barrels of oil one oil company put out in comparison to another.  It is used to measure the success, output, and value of a company (Shore & Warden, 2008).

Value Stream Analysis deals with figuring out how production, resources, and all things commanded by the central planning authority of a company are going to move along the chain of production of a project and end up from the raw form or suppliers to the company, to being produced by the company, and then transported off to the customer, and then how the feedback from the customer will return back to the central planning authority for the project for product analysis.  Value Stream mapping is a very effective way to visualize this process. In VSM a chart is designed showing how the entire flow of the company’s products moves along the chain of production.  This helps those involved in the overall process to visualize how the physical assets of the company are working and moving.  If necessary problems in this process can be more easily visualized and understood and proper reconfiguration can take place to fix any lack of efficiency in this aspect of the company (Shore & Warden, 2008).

In conclusion, agile techniques incorporate some of the best business practices and principles into their framework.  The term “Agile” was selected to encompass the fact that these methods when applied together seem to be highly capable of adapting themselves to changing customer needs and remain effective in all types of economic environments and situations, adverse or favorable.  These methods create teams that work, communicate, innovate, plan, and manage their time in the most efficient manner possible.  They keep customer value and business needs balanced in a feasible way.  They keep wastes and costs to a minimum and maximize project output and efficiency.  They allow for teams to learn lessons, organize data and results to form real knowledge that will be beneficial at every point of the development process.  In short  Agile is a remarkable method of project management and is  highly useful for all stages of production from conceptualization to completion.  (Aguanno, 2005).





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