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What are the top Agile tools today for my projects?

Great question, let’s go back in time a bit. It is 2008, and I was working at Microsoft as a project manager in their Information Technology department and my job was to bring Agile into IT on its first project. I might have told this story before, but it is good, and worth repeating and also, it is very relevant to this article. In 2008, Agile was just 8 years old, and Microsoft, like most other companies, was still new to it.

When we first started in Agile, we really did not know what tools we needed, and there were certainly not the tools back then like there are today. We actually had VSTF back in those early days for our Agile projects, which was good for its time, but the software today is so much better.

In my current role, we use a bit of Agile, not a ton, but frankly, it is more Hybrid, than pure Agile, which is where most companies are these days as well. To be honest, I don’t think a ton of companies are running pure Agile, most are running Hybrid projects.

Hybrid tools such as Smartsheet or MS Project allow for project managers to run Agile development projects while still maintaining traditional end-to-end project schedules. So, those two products, for example, are really offering the best of both worlds. Those traditional project management tools (Project Planning, Gantt Chart…etc.) are still going to be needed unless the company is running pure Agile projects, and does not have a need for an end-to-end project schedule.

So let’s dive into this Agile tools topic, because I love Agile, I love talking about Agile, and am excited to share my thoughts and experiences.

Wait… Wait before I get too far into this Agile Tools topic, check out my Agile video here. I think you are going to love it.

YouTube player

What did you think? Great, let’s keep going on this article now.

Ok, before we dig into this, I want to give you one more piece of advice and that is to treat this whole effort like a project. Selecting Agile software for your company is a project, so treat it like one. You will thank me later, but you are most likely a project manager already, or have some skills in that PM space, so my greatest advice is if you treat it like a project you will give it the rigor and structure it needs to be successful. Treat it like a project, run it like a project, report on it like a project, and this formality will help you in the end.

Heed my advice… 😊 Ok, let’s keep going.

What are the most popular Agile Project Management Tools today?

When you think about the ever-changing landscape of project management tools, think about all the top tool providers in this Agile space. Especially, over the last 5-10 years, it has been crazy how many companies have popped up. Now we seeing these software development companies adding AI to their products, which is going to start really advancing the project management space, especially on Agile projects. It is not easy to manage Agile projects, so to have a tool that can help with that process is critical to your success. 

Let’s look at the top software companies out there for Agile Project Management software:

  • Jira
  • Trello
  • Asana
  • Slack
  • Microsoft Project
  • Azure Dev Ops
  • ServiceNow
  • And on, and on, and on….

I could go on all day with this list, and I am just showing some of the products, of course, this is not the entire list. If you want to keep researching and understanding what tools are out there, just call on our friend “Google”. Notice too, I never said what is the best Agile tool, I said what is the most popular, best is in the eye of the Agile team. There is no such thing as best Agile project management tool because “Best” can mean so many different things to so many different people. 

Feature list for Agile Tools

Some features of these Agile tools include creating and prioritizing tasks, track progress, and collaborate in real time as you execute on your projects. Some tools also include features for sprint planning, backlog management, and burndown charts, which are all essential components of Agile project management. Make sure you have a clear feature list for your Agile software selection, and don’t get sold on all the bells and whistles the products will have, which remember, your company may not be mature enough in the Agile space to even use.

Ultimately, the choice between Agile project management tools and traditional project management tools depends on the specific needs and preferences of the team, the nature of the project and your management/leadership expectations. Some teams may even use a combination of both types of tools to manage different aspects of their projects.

Costs, Trials, Ongoing Costs

As you start this journey of looking at Agile software, there are several factors and considerations to consider. These include:

  • Ongoing costs vs. onetime costs
  • Do they have trial software? Can you install the trial and then when you want to purchase, can you just add a license key based on that existing installation?
  • Do they have free trials? Are they timed trials? 30 days, 60 days?
  • Is it cloud or SAS based? Do you need any virtual servers?
  • What is the client-side install?
  • Do you need an administrator? Have you factored in someone in your organization to do tool administration?
  • What are the ongoing license costs? Do you have ongoing budget in your organization to pay for this software?
  • Is it a cost per seat, cost per organization? What happens when someone leaves the org, does the license go back into the queue?
  • Is there a base product vs. adding on additional features at an upgraded price?

Selection Criteria for Agile Tools 

One of the key components of selecting the right Agile software for your organization is having the correct selection criteria. That criteria are going to be generic in nature, because it would be what any PMO would use to select other types of software as well. Here are some things to include in your selection criteria:

  • Size and complexity of projects
  • Resource Management 
  • Gantt Chart capabilities 
  • How does th tool handle multiple projects? Can you see across the portfolio? 
  • Release cycle (Agile workflow) – Does your Agile software allow for weekly sprints, monthly sprints, a custom sprint cycle?
  • Technical considerations? Are you trying to use Mac software in a Windows environment?
  • Agile Features (see below)
  • Budget and costs
  • Ease of use?
  • Support contracts
  • Training Available? Ongoing training needs/support needs?

These are just some of the many considerations when selecting an Agile tool, but the important thing here is to have a set of agreed upon criteria for software selection. You need to go into this with agreed upon criteria in place and then stick to it as closely as possible. There will always be another shiny object. Resist the temptation to fall for it and use the criteria you agreed on to select your tool.

Agile Features – Embracing Agile with tools

When you think about Agile development projects, you think about fast, lean, quick, and failing fast. That is what Agile is all about, right? Well, what are some of the features you need that should also be part of your selection criteria?

Let’s look at some of the features I think you should look for:

Visualization: See your project progress unfold with great burn down and burn-up charts. Visualization in these tools is a critical selling point to an Agile tool. When reviewing these tools, either make sure visualization is built in, or make sure it can connect to PowerBI or Tableau, so you can get great visualizations on team progress from either tool.

Prioritization: Agile tools have to have an easy way to prioritize the work of the sprint,  and therefore one of the key attributes of an Agile software tool is the prioritization process. Is it easy to prioritize user stories, for example? This is something I would look for in software and how that works. Changing priorities would be another feature example I would want to see in action in the tool.

Real-time updates: Stay up-to-date with changes and progress reports from your team members to stay on top of your project. Very few IT projects require a real-time status updates, but if your Agile tools have these features built in, then why not? I think you might have a hard time getting your team members to provide ongoing status updates. But, if they are done working on some items or making progress on others, and the tool provides those updates, that would be beneficial.

Enhanced collaboration: Look for tools that have great teamwork and communication features. To collaborate on projects has to be a key feature that anyone looking for an Agile tool strives for in their selection process. They could range widely from tool to tool, but those two features are important for Agile projects. As we continue in this remote environment, anytime we can do more cross collaboration, only benefits the team.

Improved decision-making: Project Managers and Scrum Masters hold the position of driving the decision-making process on the project. One feature to look for when selecting an Agile tool is how fast can you find the data to help the team or leadership make decisions. The slower or more cumbersome it is to find the data, the slower the decisions are made.

Transparency on tasks: Keeping everyone informed on project tasks (Task Management) and progress is a key feature needed in these Agile tools. As someone makes progress on a task, updates or completes it, then the tool should have the ability to send notifications or emails about those changes. Look for that kind of notification or email transparency feature in the Agile tool you are selecting, as these kinds of transparency features are really important.

I could keep going but wanted to give you a series of features and functionalities that I would search for in Agile tools if I was looking today. You are going to hear a lot of different stories from these Agile salespeople, and that’s good, but you don’t really know if the tool will work for you until you try it. That’s why those trial versions are so important.

Agile Tools/Templates – Not the software!

These software products empower teams to plan, organize, and track projects in an iterative, flexible manner, embracing the core principles of Agile methodologies. They don’t call out the tools/templates you need to use daily on Agile projects. They might offer those tools/templates as well. I think it is also important to call out the differences between the features of a tool, and the templates you need to run an Agile project, regardless of the software you select.

Let’s see some of my favorite tools/templates and ones I have been using for years.

  1. Daily Scrum Process
  2. User Story Cards
  3. Product Backlog
  4. Agile Theme Calendar
  5. Sprint Backlog
  6. Sprint Planning Board (Agile board)
  7. Sprint Review
  8. Sprint Retrospective
  9. Burn Down charts
  10. Burn Up charts

I am sure there are more tools/templates out there and I bet you that some companies have even catered their Agile process to using these tools and more. But, if you are going to get started managing these Agile projects, and you don’t know where to start, this is a great starting point for you regardless of the software you choose to buy.

Was there anything about these ten Agile tools/templates that you noticed? These are just pure tools and templates. We could create them in Word and Excel. You don’t actually have to buy “Agile software” to use these tools. But, if you are looking at buying software, this is a great list to ask the product sales people if their tools can support creating or not.

Finding the Perfect Fit

Remember, there is no perfect Agile tool and no one-size-fits-all solution. You are going to have to pick the “best” tool for your company and use it. As you mature in your Agile project management journey, you can add on additional features to most tools, but worry about that later. Bottom line, don’t look or waste a ton of time searching for the perfect tool. It doesn’t exist.

No Perfect Tool

Agile Methodology Maturity drives the use/needs of the tool

One of the key components that companies have to consider in this process is how mature is the Agile methodology in their organizations. Once that is understood, then judge that understanding against what features are needed in the Agile tool. Many people overlook this aspect while shopping for tools, because they are drawn to all the fancy bells and whistles and don’t think about the process changes needed. However, if the utilization of those bells and whistles causes a higher level of maturity in your Agile processes than what you currently possess today, then you might end up purchasing a tool that your organization is not ready for and could have very low adoption.

When searching for the ideal Agile tool, it’s important to assess your company’s level of maturity in Agile processes before making any final tool selection. Of course, you need to think of the future, and buying a tool that is limited or slows down your Agile maturity is a bad thing, but you also don’t want to buy a top of the line tool, when you are just not there yet. So my advice is don’t buy a Rolls Royce, when a Honda will do! Trust me, I love my Honda!

Final Thoughts

As you start selecting an Agile tool for your company, remember the tool is just one part of the overall process, not the entire process! The real magic happens when your team embraces Agile and its mindset. The tools and processes are just the icing on the cake.

So, take some of the best practices and advice I have outlined in this article to guide you in your software selection. Use trial software, pilot with the tool, and make sure you are getting what you need out of the tool before buying. Rushing this decision will not work out well and could be very costly to your overall company.

What do you think?

If you like this article, you will love this one on the 10 critical steps to managing a project. Or this one on the top 5 project management communication tools for virtual teams

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the most popular tool in Agile? 

That is going to depend on a lot of factors, but Jira seems to be front runner. 

Q2. What are the three main frameworks of Agile? 

They include Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programing (XP)

Q3. Which one of those frameworks is most popular?

Scum seems to be the most used these days. 

Thanks!
Bill Dow, PMP

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