What is an Agile workflow?

An Agile workflow describes a set of iterative phases in application development where projects are divided into short, individual cycles called sprints.

The Agile development methodology is a strict departure from how software has traditionally been developed. First conceived of in the spring of 2000, Agile has since replaced the ‘Waterfall’ methodology as the standard approach to software development among enterprise businesses. As the name suggests, Agile empowers development teams to function with agility, responding quickly and decisively to any changes in terms of projects scope, objectives, or requirements. And this approach is not limited to software; Agile is seeing implementation in a variety of project types in a range of industries.

To help promote a more Agile mindset and to ensure that they are getting the most out of their adoption of the Agile methodology, companies around the world are embracing the concept of Agile workflow.

To understand what Agile workflow is, it may be beneficial to understand what it is not. Agile differs from the more-traditional Waterfall workflow in several ways:

Waterfall

In the Waterfall methodology, work moves in a linear path, flowing sequentially from one project phase into the next. Functioning similarly to an assembly line, Waterfall requires that a new phase can only begin once the previous phase is completed. Waterfall projects are highly structured, with project requirements needing to be fully finalized before the project can begin. The project is predictive. It creates a linear plan, which the project must follow to completion.

While Waterfall may be suitable for projects that demand significant departmentalization and control, and for small projects with easy-to-define deliverables, it is not as effective when used for projects that demand flexibility.

Agile

The Agile approach to project development eschews structure and sequence in favor of collaborative, cyclical workflows. Customers and testers are involved in every phase, providing feedback and evaluating functionalities throughout. Rather than waiting for their separate phases to begin, cross-functional teams can work together simultaneously on distinct aspects of the project. And when new goals of information necessitate revisions to the project, teams can easily revisit completed phases to make the required changes.

Agile is well suited to projects that do not have a clear structure, and where project constraints may not be well understood. Likewise, projects that need to be capable of quickly adapting to changing conditions benefit from the flexibility of Agile.

The benefits of Agile workflow make it particularly effective for businesses and activities that demand the freedom to pivot mid-production. These benefits include:

Better adaptability

The most well-recognized advantage of Agile workflow is its adaptability. Projects are not locked into predetermined plans. Project requirements may be adjusted at any point without causing significant disruption or loss of work. Additionally, because testing is integrated at every stage instead of being delayed until directly prior to project launch, errors and bugs may be identified and corrected early on, before they can cause significant delays.

Improved customer satisfaction

Agile workflow involves the end user in the project process from the very beginning. This means more than simply trying to understand customer expectations; it means actively interacting with customers and constantly soliciting their feedback. This feedback may then be evaluated and implemented into the project as it takes shape. By including the user as an important traveler along project journey and not simply viewing them as the project destination, businesses can ensure that their end product matches user needs.

Increased collaboration

Because Agile workflow does not follow a rigid structure, teams need some way to chart project progress. Different Agile workflow types offer visualization techniques where managers, team members, and even clients can see at a glance who is working on what and at what stage the project is currently in. With everyone on the same page, collaborating becomes much easier.

Faster time to market

Although Agile workflow is not always suitable for projects facing strict deadlines, it does tend to reduce development and project time to market. Agile workflow makes it possible for features and project components to be released at a much faster pace. Larger features can be broken down into smaller sprints, with the first sprints including only the most basic form of the feature. Then, the project or app can be rolled out to the end user, with continuous development and continuous delivery providing necessary updates along the way.

While different tasks may necessitate variations on the basic Agile methodology, the Agile workflows lifecycle remains consistent across projects. Typically, the steps in Agile workflow consist of:

Ideation

When beginning an Agile project, the first step is to create a plan. Although this plan isn’t as rigid as the planning needed for the Waterfall approach, it must still provide some direction. Ideation in Agile workflow must define the scope for the project ideas, while also allowing teams to create their product backlog. Clearly outlining project sprints is also a vital early step.

Graphic outlining the agile workflow process.

Inception

With the project verified and approved, the next step is to assemble cross-functional sprint teams. Assign tasks to the teams based on team-member skill sets, and then work with the teams to establish goals and timeframe expectations. Allocate any necessary resources to the project, including funding, tools, additional support, etc.

Iteration

With resources secured, requirements established, and sprints fully defined, the team can now begin to move forward on the project. The iteration stage is where the teams begin addressing backlog items, building the first iterations from which the rest of the project will grow. Documentation is also an important part of this step.

Release

As each iteration is completed, the product is released to stakeholders and end users. Feedback is collected, considered, and applied to the project. Any new changes are tested to ensure viability before the start of the next sprint. Through the process, QA teams review product functionality so that any remaining issues may be resolved prior to the final release.

Production

With all previous requirements met and the product fully tested, it can finally pass into the production phase. The team’s role in this phase is to help customers and train them in using the product, provide ongoing, post-release support, and help facilitate a successful launch.

Retirement

When a new project release makes the old project redundant, it is officially retired, ending the workflow.

When considering adopting an Agile approach, it’s worth noting that there are several types of Agile workflow to choose from. Here are some of the most popular options:

Scrum

The most widely adopted type of Agile workflow, Scrum is built on a repetitive approach that employs lightweight teams to respond quickly to changes. Scrum emphasizes continual improvement, with a focus on meeting customer expectations and providing increased user satisfaction. Stages in Scrum are: Product Backlog, Planning Sprint, Sprint Backlog, Sprint, Routine Scrum Meetings, Sprint Reviewal, and Internal Scrum Meetings.

Kanban

Kanban is a non-restrictive Agile workflow that allows teams to adopt an iterative or non-iterative approach and is even less structured than most other Agile solutions. Kanban is built on a visual system designed to help teams identify and resolve bottlenecks in the process, allowing the workflow to proceed unhindered and at the best possible speed.

Stages in Kanban are: Product Backlog, Requirements, Design, Development, Testing, Deployment, and Done.

Extreme Programming (XP)

One of the earlier ‘lightweight’ Agile processes, XP was originally designed for software projects. XP is similar to Scrum, but also incorporates 12 supporting processes specific to application development. Basic stages in XP are: Coding, Testing, Listening, and Designing.

Altern

Effective in IT as well as non-IT projects, Altern relies on clearly defined requirements and benefits being in place before work on the project can begin. Stages in Altern are: Pre-project, Feasibility, Foundations, Exploration, Engineering, Deployment, and Post project.

Feature-Driven Development (FDD)

Also specific to software development, FDD is built on consistency and rigid documentation. Stages in FDD are: Develop an overall model, Build a feature list, Plan by feature, Design by feature, Build a feature.

Other types of Agile workflows

Other widely used processes and workflows include Agile Unified Process (AUP), Adaptive Software Development (ASD), Dynamic Systems Development (DSDM), and Crystal. It is important to recognize that many of these different workflows overlap. Certain workflows can also be combined or customized to meet unique business needs.

Creating an Agile workflow can take time but has the potential to more than pay for that effort in increased returns. To ensure an effective set of processes when building an Agile workflow, consider the following steps:

Understand Agile principles

Team buy-in and a clear understanding of Agile principles are prerequisite to establishing an effective Agile workflow. This insight into Agile becomes even easier when the organization is pursuing Agile transformation, reshaping their culture and mindset to be more in line with Agile practices.

Select a framework that matches the need

Review the available Agile frameworks to find something that is the correct fit. It may be beneficial to research how other businesses in the industry use different frameworks, and then build on their examples.

Create a roadmap

Although Agile allows teams to operate with creativity and freedom, an effective Agile workflow will still require a roadmap to guide sprint teams as they pursue their goals. This roadmap should include a process plan, as well as direction for developing backlogs and using relevant tools. The roadmap should also establish timelines and identify priorities.

Form sprint teams and assign roles

Assemble the right people for the job. Build cross-functional teams displaying a range of skills needed to complete their sprint, and define the roles that each member will fill within the team.

Begin using the workflow

If all the previous steps have been followed, the workflow should be ready for implementation. Continually reassess the workflow, so that any issues or inefficiencies may be found and eliminated early on.

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