Agile is perhaps the trendiest buzzword in project management at the moment. It’s the concept of remaining flexible throughout to develop and refine requirements for your customers. Also you continually develop, test and improve your deliverables as you go. However, agile isn’t always adopted or even used in a retail setting. So, in this article, you’ll discover more about the agile methodology. Plus, you’ll discover if you should think about doing agile project management in retail.

Agile origins and how it differs to “waterfall”

Agile is an approach originally from the IT industry. It’s relatively new actually but now has expanded wider than the original software development scope that it was intended for. Let’s go back a few decades. Software development is new. As it started to grow in the 1970s and 1980s, you must know there was no experience. This was cutting edge. As such, a classic approach was born as a natural way of dividing the expertise and process. But it was slow and cumbersome. So in 2001, software thought leaders came together and agile was born. Agile represented a significant shift from the classic “waterfall” approach.

Waterfall was the traditional approach. Each task or stage is fully completed before being passed to the next stage. Whilst commonly known as ‘waterfall’, it has also been known as ‘over the wall’ development. Each stage passes it over the wall when complete and then onto the next stage.

There is little overlap or concurrent working with classic waterfall development. Development took a long time to complete. Also, once something was started, there was little flexibility to change it. In fact, a change would require rework to happen from the beginning again.

Agile takes a different approach to waterfall. As such, done well, it can result in faster completion times and makes the overall development more flexible to changes.

How does agile work then?

Agile teams should prioritise and distil requirements into the most basic elements – a proof of concept or minimum viable product (MVP). Then, you can get quick feedback and develop or iterate from there.

If you’re not familiar with agile at all, think of mobile apps. Developers create apps in a basic way to start with. Then, apps are developed and new versions are released on a regular and ongoing basis. The developers add more functions and features. But also, problems are fixed (and even created too!) with each iteration that is released.

4 agile principles to keep you on track

The Agile Alliance have come up with 4 principles to give guidance for how to remain true to agile.

1. Individuals and interactions > over processes and tools
2. Working software > over comprehensive documentation
3. Customer collaboration > over contract negotiation
4. Responding to change > over following a plan

© 2001, the Agile Manifesto authors

These principles give you a good indication of what is important to be truly agile.

It is about collaborating across functions. Agile encourages breaking down silos. Your entire project team should act accordingly.

Agile is about getting stuff done. It’s not about creating huge reams of specs and requirements, etc. Ultimately, the customer is looking for a working output. If you have the choice of investing time into creating a working output or thorough documentation, obviously, customers will choose the working output every time.

Next, agile needs you to collaborate with customers regularly. Don’t wait until the end of the project and just hope that customers like it. Collaborate with them throughout the development.

Finally, it’s about responding to change and remaining flexible rather than rigidly sticking to a forecast once you know there is important insight to guide your new direction.

Agile project management vs agile software development

As you know now, agile was originally for developing software in a faster and more flexible way. However, you can apply the same principles to project management too.

  • You should be working cross functionally, pulling expertise and experience from across the business (and outside the business when relevant).
  • Change will only happen if you develop a good deliverable. No deliverable = no change.
  • You should consult customers to help you in the right direction.
  • Don’t blindly follow your plan but adjust as needed, especially if the external environment is changing too.

Agile project management in retail

Generally, the retail industry does not understand agile – especially outside the IT part of the organisation. Generally, large retailers are plc’s (public limited companies). As such, plc’s must report results to the stock exchange and media. Shareholders expect more strategy details and predictability.

Often, Agile doesn’t lend itself so well in these instances. These tough stakeholders demand a more predictable approach and forecast. Especially in larger transformation projects outside of the IT remit. Investors, the media and shareholders don’t like the non-committal forecasts that agile projects often give.

But, you can apply the tools and techniques from agile to project management in retail.

Tools and techniques for agile project management in retail

Agile tools and techniques work well in project management too. In fact, the good news is that you may already be familiar with many of them:

Sprints. Essentially, you have a defined period of time to do a defined period of work. Perhaps this agile’s the biggest different compared to the status quo. But actually, you can easily achieve this with your existing project plan. For me, the huge benefit of sprints is putting deadlines at the end of every sprint. In turn, you add urgency throughout the project and this encourages more pace and speed.

Scrums / Daily Stand Up Meetings. These are regular discussion to help keep the team accountable and overcome challeneges. This is similar to having a regular project team meeting but just on a very frequent basis. Also, each meeting is short and sharp. In fact, the challenge is to overcome the cultural preference for longer, less frequent meetings but move to short, daily meetings.

User Stories. These are to record how the user of your deliverable would interact. By understanding your stakeholders perspective, you can detail all of the different elements of the deliverables that you need to develop.

Backlogs. Essentially, your backlog is all off the work that you still need to do. But, prioritised and ordered. Then you allocate it to a sprint in the right order, at the right time. You’ll work through the backlog by managing and completing each sprint.

Team walls. Basically, this is the same as a project war room. However, with space as a luxury in many project settings, this isn’t always possible. Also, you must be very aware of the confidential nature of your project work, even within your organisation.

The bottom line – your retail project management might already be agile

Retail projects are fast and highly competitive. Naturally, you must stay relatively ‘agile’ in this situation. So, I actually think much of project management in retail is already agile. However, I also think that there is more to do. Particularly by using sprints and scrums to increase pace and improve communication. Maybe it’s time to see what other agile principles you could adapt into your project management approach?

Read more about what makes retail project management different.

Let’s start a conversation on Twitter. Tweet your thoughts to @projectmsuccess and I look forward to hearing from you.

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s led and managed many different types of retail projects. Oliver’s first experience in agile was around 2009, in a software integration role. Since then, he’s applied the essence of agile’s fast paced and flexible nature to projects when relevant.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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