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Agile can be used to describe athletes or Jeopardy contestants. A person can be an agile shortstop or have an agile mind. Or both. But agile has become a business buzzword too, as in “agile project management,” a decision making process applicable to HVAC contracting.

The term agile project management comes from the software development industry where rapidly changing technology demands agility. Things can change so fast that assigning software designers a problem, a timeframe, and a deadline upfront just doesn’t work. The ability to make changes easily and quickly along the way is crucial. Agility is a necessity.

Agile project management is the opposite of what you might imagine when you think about big corporations getting bogged down in layers of management and complex approval processes. If project changes must be okayed by multiple people at several levels in various departments through seemingly endless meetings, the management method is not agile.

This traditional project management is sometimes called the waterfall method. It is basically the standard workflow process used in manufacturing and construction; a structured step-by-step or stage-by-stage approach. These steps are generally: conception, initiation, analysis, design, construction, testing, implementation, and maintenance.

With a waterfall project, the scope of the project is defined, and then teams with clear goals and deadlines are assigned. Each team completes its part and passes it on. Only the finished project is delivered to the client. The problem? The waterfall method doesn’t allow for change if something goes wrong during the process. If the third team discovers the first team made a mistake, it’s hard to go back. This type of project management requires a lot of upfront planning, and the client has input only at the very beginning.

With waterfall project management, there is usually only end testing and if that doesn’t go well it may mean scrapping the entire project and starting over. With agile project management, testing is done at the end of each phase of a project, keeping your customer in the loop and comfortable with the process.

But how does agile project management work? And can it work for HVAC contractors?

Small teams of people – sometimes called squads – with a variety of skills are assigned to the project. This team solves problems as they come up instead of letting problems cause them to get bogged down in departmental meetings. Being able to shift on the fly to ultimately make the best decisions – Isn’t that how companies really want to operate?

Let’s say your company is made up of design engineers, application engineers, project managers, fabricators, installers, welders, temperature control and energy management engineers, and testing and balancing technicians. Instead of a project moving from one of these groups to another, it would progress through a number of teams represented by one or two individuals from each of these groups.

There are pros and cons of agility project management. Here are key reasons agile project management is sometimes the better method:

  1. It’s easier to reach a decision when a question comes up because fewer people are involved. Fewer people = fewer egos. In other words, group dynamics don’t screw things up.
  2. A smaller team with a definite purpose means members take ownership of the project. Having a clear mission to accomplish a specific goal means more gets done by fewer people.

Because agile project management thrives on fast decisions that are made in close communication. It can save time … and provide a better outcome.

Everyone has experienced that customer. You know … the one who doesn’t know what he wants; only what he doesn’t want. Agile project management is effective when customers cannot clearly express exactly what they want at the outset. It’s also good if the project is large but the relationship with the client is new or on shaky ground; or if the general business climate is uncertain.

Problems are caught at the end of each stage and corrected, not at delivery. But agile project management may not be possible if the client isn’t willing or able to be involved in every step of a project.

If done right, agile project management can reduce waste, minimize cost and optimize time and effort on large design/build projects. We all know that any commercial, industrial or institutional HVAC project can be bogged down by unforeseen challenges that can pop up at any point.

So if you think being more agile could help your company, here are a few tips to get started:

  • This post is the tip of the agile iceberg. There are countless resources for learning more, including books, websites, and seminars. Learn as much as you can before determining if adopting this method would be beneficial.
  • If you decide to dip your toe in the agile project management water, carefully consider which particular projects and clients are most likely to benefit.
  • Choose your teams wisely. Since agile project management utilizes small teams of individuals each representing different areas, it’s crucial that the teams are made up of people who can work together well.
  • Take time to educate everyone involved – client and project teams – on how this project is to be executed and managed.

Any method of project management is simply a framework. Ultimately success depends on the quality of the planning, the makeup of the team, and the work that’s done. But thoughtfully choosing the project framework that’s the best fit for the contractor, the client, and the project can make for smoother sailing.

Have you had experience with agile project management? What were the benefits? Problems? We’d love for you to share your insights and opinions.

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