Project management software vendors are increasingly expanding the scope of their offerings. Part of this expansion includes software specifically tailored for agile project management methodologies, which focus on rapid execution and frequent iteration.
To learn more, Software Advice surveyed project managers on the top agile project management user trends, including what functionality and features of agile project management software have the greatest impact on a team’s efficiency.
This report will help those considering an investment in agile project management software learn more about how their peers use these tools so they can make a more informed purchase decision.
- Forty-eight percent of project managers surveyed use agile software primarily for projects not related to software development.
- Ninety percent of respondents say workflow tracking improves efficiency more than any other agile functionality.
- Eighty-eight percent of respondents say scrum boards and activity streams increase project management efficiency.
- Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) say the most common challenge of using agile software is training others how to use it.
- Workflow tracking is the most commonly used agile software functionality, used regularly by 95 percent of respondents.
Agile project management concepts first rose to prominence with the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, in which a group of software developers vowed to meet clients’ needs “through early and continuous delivery of software.”
These concepts became especially common among software development teams, whose need for constant iteration and innovation benefit greatly from this quick, dexterous approach to project management.
A growing number of project management and business experts are now recommending agile methods for teams beyond software developers. According to proponents, benefits include the ability to deliver on various projects and products quickly and more efficiently.
Agile project management software is specifically designed to accommodate agile methods. Typically, the software provides the ability to create “stories,” or descriptions of a user’s need that translate into a product or feature.
The software then tracks the development of those stories using visual representations that mimic scrum or Kanban boards. The degree of sophistication within these software platforms differ.
For this report, Software Advice sought to determine which functionalities of agile project management software (referred to as “agile software” henceforth) have the greatest impact on project management efficiency.
We also wanted to learn the extent to which agile methods are used in teams beyond software development.
To do this, we surveyed project managers in a variety of industries and responsible for a variety of project types. For the purposes of this report, improved project management efficiency means ensuring that projects take less time, effort and resources to complete while maintaining the desired quality of output.
Nearly Half Use Agile Software for Non-Software/IT Projects
While agile methodology is typically championed by software development teams, 48 percent of project managers in our sample say they use agile solutions for projects that aren’t software- or information technology (IT)-related. Although a majority of users are developing software and managing IT infrastructures, it is a slim majority.
Top Project Types Managed with Agile Software
According to Jeff Gothelf, an organizational designer, author and agile advocate, these results are a clear indication that agile software and methods are increasingly accepted in disciplines beyond software and technology.
“I think the agile mindset is growing and gaining traction,” he says. “That’s a trend that I’ve seen everywhere.” However, Gothelf notes that the degree to which our sample is using agile software tools for projects beyond software development is surprising, adding, “I’m amazed that the split is so even.”
Andy Singleton, CEO and founder of Assembla—an agile software development company specializing in continuous delivery—is less surprised by this widespread adoption of agile software tools.
“Agile methods do translate to any kind of project,” Singleton says. “One of the most common reasons for using agile tools, which can be as simple as a card wall*, is digital marketing, and only a small percentage of [digital marketers] are writing code—yet they all have rapid delivery cycles for their campaigns.”
It’s not surprising to see, therefore, that marketing and advertising is the next most common project type among our respondents.
(*Note: A “card wall” refers to the common practice of writing tasks out on cards and pinning them to a large board in one of several columns that indicate the level of completion. These are commonly known as “scrum boards,” which are referenced throughout this report.)
Workflow Tracking & Story Mapping Boost Efficiency for 90%
Agile project management methodologies emphasize speed, iteration and waste reduction, so we next wanted to learn which specific functionalities within these systems are most effective in accomplishing these goals.
We asked project managers to rate several common project management software functionalities by the impact each has on efficiency, once implemented. (Again, efficiency here refers to completing projects more quickly, with less waste while maintaining quality of output.)
As evidenced in the chart below, many functionalities have an extremely positive impact. Workflow tracking is among the most effective: 90 percent of respondents say it makes them “somewhat” or “much more efficient.” Story mapping is also ranked most effective by 90 percent, while analytics rounds out the top three at 89 percent.
Impact of Agile Software Functionality on Efficiency
While story mapping—which builds visual representations of project steps—rates highly for improving efficiency overall, it is ranked “much more efficient” by a smaller percentage (42 percent) than those who say the same for analytics (61 percent) or workflow tracking (57 percent).
According to Singleton, it’s not surprising that workflow tracking and data analysis have the greatest impact on efficiency, as both provide valuable knowledge about a project.
“Data [analysis] is useful because it helps you identify … individual cases where you’re stuck,” he says. “The other thing that happens is that you’re having a discussion about the data. [Data] drives the retrospective, where you make an improvement to your development process.”
In other words, having consistent, clear analytics—typically on project timeframes and success rates—can help identify challenges in the early stages, before they become unwieldy and derail a project.
Gothelf believes many project managers tend to rely heavily on analytics, which typically involve time-tracking of some sort. This, he says, is because many agile proponents tend to place too much emphasis on speed.
“Can the team deliver more work in the same amount of time? That’s how a lot of teams and organizations are measured,” he says.
88% Rate Scrum Boards and Activity Streams As Efficient
We next asked project managers which agile software features have the greatest impact on efficiency. Eighty-eight percent say scrum boards and activity streams make them “somewhat” or “much more efficient.”
Kanban boards rank third, with 83 percent of respondents saying this feature has a positive impact on efficiency.
Impact of Agile Software Features on Efficiency
Scrum boards provide the benefit of a visual representation of a project. Tasks are assigned during a “scrum,” where team members get together to determine what needs to be done in the allotted time.
The board monitors who has been assigned to which task, and what the progress of that task is. Depending on the stage of completion (e.g., “not yet started,” “in progress,” “complete”), the task gets moved accordingly.
The benefit for the project manager is a holistic view of a project’s progress. Viewing all tasks at once allows them to quickly see which tasks are complete, which are lagging and whether the project is progressing along the prescribed timeframe.
Activity streams, which are similar to Facebook’s News Feed, allow project managers to get real-time updates on the status of tasks and projects while serving as a central repository for communication and updates. They allow project managers to have the most up-to-date information on any given project, even if the workers are remote.
Kanban boards function like scrum boards and have a similar visual appearance. They differ slightly in that timeframes are usually less of a factor, and tasks are more representative of an entire process, rather than a project within a process.
Their slightly lower ranking by respondents in our sample may reflect of the relative lack of emphasis on timeframes within Kanban methodology as opposed to scrum.
Because scrum tends to focus on hard deadlines, users may interpret scrum boards as increasing efficiency more so than Kanban boards. Those considering agile software who would like to be more iterative and deadline driven should thus consider scrum boards as an effective tool for doing so.
Nearly Half of Project Managers Struggle to Train New Users
Of the project managers we surveyed, 49 percent say that training others to use their agile software system is a common challenge they face. Coming in at a relative distant second is mobile incompatibility, which 27 percent of project managers find challenging.
Top Challenges of Agile Software
Some of the challenges with training new agile software users could lie in the greater challenge of adopting the agile mindset, as opposed to inherent difficulties with the software itself.
“Teaching people how to use the tool, at the end of the day, is not that hard,” says Gothelf. “[But] getting people to buy into the process and philosophy is two or three orders of magnitude more difficult than teaching someone how to use a program.”
While Singleton doesn’t believe that training challenges are unique to agile software—after all, most software requires some training that can result in difficulties—he does acknowledge that there is a necessary shift in mindset.
Traditional project management requires identifying the broad scope of a project and mapping it from start to finish, identifying several stages of completion along the way.
One department might take weeks or months to complete their objectives before the project moves down the line to another department. The scope of these projects can grow large and complex, with myriad tasks and dependencies muddling the outcome.
In agile project management, however, teams work simultaneously and quickly to complete an objective, without worrying about perfecting the outcome before delivery.
The idea is to complete the project, and then iterate on the outcome—constantly improving the process and the product. Such a methodology requires both collaboration across departments and increased accountability.
“One school of thought about agile is that it requires a culture change—that you get people to think [more] about what’s data-driven and less about planning, which is hard, because some people just like planning,” Singleton says. “I prefer to think that … if you give [people] a mechanical process that works, they’ll do it, whatever their culture.”
Mobile Compatibility an Issue for More Than 25%
When it comes to mobile compatibility, our results indicate that the agile software project managers are using has not performed as desired. This is obviously problematic, as more and more people use a variety of devices to do their jobs today.
However, mobile compatibility may be lagging in this market due to the fact that software developers—the original agile proponents—often work on desktops or laptops. In Singleton’s organization for example, which is comprised largely of software developers, the demand for mobile integration is relatively low.
As Gothelf notes, however, “It’s absolutely critical that these programs work on whatever device people have at their disposal. You need really good design and designers to make that happen.” Part of the challenge with mobile integration, he adds, may lie in the design of these tools.
Ensuring a tool has the right mobile functionality will depend largely on the user: Different project managers want different things from a mobile app. However, based on our survey responses regarding improved efficiency, those seeking agile software with mobile compatibility should ensure that the mobile version has sufficient and clear workflow tracking and analytics reporting.
Going back to the results of our survey, 23 percent of project managers say they’re not getting enough—or the right—data (those who list “insufficient tracking/analytics”).
An additional 20 percent believe lack of interface customization is a challenge. It may be that the two are connected: Among other things, a lack of interface customization can make it more difficult to access the data one wants, such as how many tasks are in progress versus completed.
As we’ve seen, project managers believe having the right data, whether in the form of activity stream updates, a scrum board or analytics, helps projects run more efficiently.
Being able to customize an interface to access this data in its many forms is important to project managers. They want the “right” data, but they define this in different ways. Users must verify that the software they choose reports on and provides effective visuals of the data they want.
95% of Project Managers Use Workflow Tracking
We next surveyed project managers on which agile software functionalities they use most. The vast majority of respondents use each of the functionalities we asked about, which suggests that a typical agile project management solution will see few functions go unused.
The most-used functionality among our sample is workflow tracking (chosen by 95 percent), which aligns with its effectiveness in increasing efficiency.
Most Used Agile Functionality
Custom interfaces—the ability to manipulate the software interface to provide the appearance and navigation a user wants—and analytics are close behind, with usage rates of 93 and 92 percent, respectively.
It’s no surprise that workflow tracking and analytics are among the most used, as project managers we surveyed cited these as most adept at improving efficiency earlier in this report.
Customized interfaces typically allow for a better user experience, and also allow project managers to locate the information they want and need more easily.
We also asked project managers which specific features of agile software they use. Eighty-nine percent report using activity streams, while 88 percent use task boards or scrum boards.
Most Used Agile Features
Importantly, only one feature—Kanban boards—has an adoption rate of less than 80 percent. This isn’t that surprising, as our respondents say Kanban boards also have the least positive impact on efficiency.
The best course of action for those seeking agile software should be to examine the differences between scrum and Kanban, and make their decision on which methodology (and complementary software) to implement accordingly.
Nearly 75% Still Use Spreadsheets for Project Management
While agile methodologies have recently gained more widespread adoption, our survey results indicate that agile software is still used less frequently than a variety of other project management tools, including manual methods.
Respondents were allowed to select more than one response, and based on our results, it’s clear that many do use multiple methods. The most popular of these manual methods are spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel, and email, such as Microsoft Outlook.
Users’ Current Project Management Methods
It is significant that 40 percent of our respondents report using agile project management software, as many still assume that agile software is a niche project management tool used almost exclusively by software developers.
It’s also worth noting that agile software is just one of several tools in the arsenal of project managers. As such, prospective buyers seeking to implement an agile software solution should understand that the system they choose may not be their only project management tool.
For example, many respondents say that ideation is often captured manually, through whiteboarding and physical note-taking, and is sometimes discussed via email before implementation and task assignment.
However, for the bulk of a project’s lifespan, it probably makes more sense to rely on one method to ensure that documentation, data and communication are centralized and easily accessible.
As such, project managers should thoroughly consider how they intend to use the agile software to ensure seamless integration with any other tools they also plan to use simultaneously.
While the use of agile software is catching on for managing projects outside of software development, it seems that agile software may not be the most popular tool available to project managers today.
Yet, in today’s increasingly global and software-driven economy, companies may consider adopting an agile mindset, which stresses speed, flexibility and iteration.
“Any business that seeks to scale in a 21st-century world is going to be a software-driven business,” says Gothelf, referring to the increasing reliance on software of all stripes in today’s business environment. “To thrive, compete and survive in a software-driven world, you have to build organizational agility into the process.”
To find the data in this report, we conducted a seven-day survey of nine questions to people around the world who identified themselves as project managers, and screened our sample to include those who say they use agile project management software. We gathered 174 unique responses to each question. Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Results are representative of our survey sample, not necessarily the population as a whole. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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