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7 Agile Frameworks Explained by Experts

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If you are preparing for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam, then you need to know this: Half of your PMP exam questions will be on agile frameworks.

And if you are preparing for the PMI Agile Certified Professional (PMI-ACP)® exam, then of course all your questions will relate to the different concepts and frameworks in the agile landscape.

In this article we’ll answer your next question: what are the different agile frameworks?

You don’t need to be an expert on all of them to pass the exam, but you will need to know enough about the types of agile ways of working in order to successfully address a range of scenarios, both hybrid and ‘pure’ agile.

As you can tell, that makes understanding different agile frameworks a critical part of your exam preparation. The PMI-ACP exam simulator has questions on all the relevant agile frameworks so you can be sure you are preparing for your test with up-to-date information.

By the end of this guide, you will have a high-level understanding of the main frameworks. We’ve got some expert advice from certified professionals who work with agile and have successfully passed their certification exams. You’ll also find some tips for further improving your knowledge ready for your test.

Ready to get started? Let’s dive into a list of agile methodologies.

Agile Frameworks to Master for Your Exam

Agile has been around for a long time, and there are many different ways of deploying it in an organization for the purposes of project delivery and product development. The PMI-ACP® Exam Outline covers a broad range of topics, concepts, themes and approaches underpinned by agile values and principles. Those values and principles are common across agile frameworks and provide a way to support delivery.

Here are the frameworks we are looking at in this article:

  1. Scrum
  2. Extreme Programming (XP)
  3. Lean Product Development
  4. Kanban
  5. Feature Driven Development (FDD)
  6. Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
  7. Crystal
Let’s see what the experts have to say about each of those.

Scrum

It’s particularly important to have a good understanding of Scrum. In our experience of hearing the stories of hundreds of students, Scrum is one of the key focus areas for the PMI-ACP exam and you can expect many situational questions based in a Scrum environment.

So what exactly is Scrum?

“Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems,” says Abid Patel, CSM, CSaSP, CSPO, PSO I, TKP, PAL I, PSM II, CLB, SPS, SM. “Scrum is simple to understand but difficult to master. It is unique because it introduced the ‘empirical process’ with the pillars of Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation.”

Abid points to some of the other reasons why Scrum stands out as the method of choice for many teams. “It uses the real-life progression of any given project to plan and schedule production releases,” he says. “It doesn’t rely on the best estimate or uneducated prediction. This is why it allows value delivery in a short period.”

Abid says that Scrum is commonly used in development projects. As a collection of values, team roles, events, and artifacts, it is used to create iterative product increments. However, Scrum has broken out of the confines of IT and can now be found in a wide variety of disciplines and environments. “Scrum began its journey in the software industry and since then it has been accepted in various work environments including automobile, defense, education, and many more,” says Abid.

While there is a lot that makes Scrum different, it also has similarities with other agile frameworks. “Scrum is a framework that allows for more effective collaborations among teams working on complex projects,” Abid says, highlighting the core principle of collaborative working. “Agile and Scrum are similar with a basic key difference: agile promotes leadership, while Scrum promotes cross-functional teams.” If you can remember that, you’ll be a step ahead in your exam preparation.

Learn more: Listen to a curated selection of podcasts on Scrum.

Extreme Programming

Extreme Programming, more commonly known as XP, is another framework you need a solid understanding of. Again, it’s a hot topic on the exam and you should expect to see situational questions relating to teams using XP - even if you don’t see the term’ XP’ in the question itself. You will need to be able to recognize this framework and choose the most appropriate answer.

So what is XP?

XP is an agile software development framework. It enables teams to develop software to a high level of quality while balancing that with a good working environment for the team. As it’s specifically for software development, it’s the framework that is the most appropriate for software teams and it is the most ‘technical’ as it doesn’t translate well for use in non-IT projects.

“The practices and roles of XP are important for the exam,” says Jonathan Hebert, PMI-ACP, PMP. “The exam really tests your understanding of the Agile mindset which is explained in the principles and value of the Agile Manifesto.”

XP, like Scrum, has defined its own set of values which include respect and courage. These values are core to the way that agilists using XP engage stakeholders and ensure the team members have everything they need to be successful. The other XP values are communication, simplicity and feedback.

XP is good for software development projects where you have:

  • Projects that must deliver a new technology solution within a defined time frame
  • Requirements that change dynamically and can be managed in small releases
  • A small team of resources all based in the same location so they can do pair programming
  • Testing tools that allow you to do automated unit and functional testing.

XP does have defined roles, but they are very broad. There is a customer, and everyone else is a ‘developer’. One of the practices of XP is the whole team approach, so it’s important that the developers represent a cross-functional group who have the skills to get the work done and are able to work collaboratively to achieve the project’s goals.

While it’s common for XP teams to sit together, it’s worth knowing what might happen if that isn’t possible. “For the exam, know that high-touch low-tech approaches are favored,” says Jonathan, “and what to do when you have virtually or non-colocated teams to permit good collaboration, like using web video conferencing.”

Some teams may have a coach, especially if the team is new to using the framework. Some teams may choose to have someone taking the role of tracker if there are metrics to be monitored and reported on each week.

Learn more: Test yourself with a free PMI-ACP exam question on XP.

Lean Product Development

Lean product development is an Agile framework based on principles adapted from lean manufacturing by Mary and Tom Poppendieck.

“The principles highlight the need to focus on the flow of work by reducing waste, speeding up delivery, and delivering customer value,” says Shane Drumm, PMP, PMI-ACP, CSM, CSPO. “To put it simply you focus on building the right thing fast, the right way and learn through feedback.”

How is lean product development unique amongst all the different ways of agile working? “Lean puts the customer first,” says Shane. “It’s unique compared to other Agile methodologies which are centred around software development teams and processes.”

Shane believes that a lot of those software development processes such as daily stand-ups are great to increase communication but have their challenges. “I have found though working at large enterprises, that teams are more interested in burndown charts and hitting sprint goals than the business outcome achieved,” he says. “This isn’t the team’s fault as this is how their success is measured. They are just a small cog in a big machine.”

Shane has avoided this issue when working in a start-up by working in teams that have full end to end accountability for delivering business outcomes. “The product and tech team are actively reviewing data to make decisions to help deliver the outcomes,” he says. “Coupled with a deployment pipeline we can release frequently and gather feedback regularly. Having automated release processes, we have reduced considerable engineering time of manual builds and testing. Having short feedback cycles is essential for a start-up as they need to move quickly but there is a growing trend of larger organizations adopting this approach too.”

Learn more: Test yourself with a free PMI-ACP exam question on lean product development.

Kanban

“Kanban is arguably one of the simplest and most flexible methodologies available to a project manager wanting to adopt an Agile approach,” says Peter Gross, an independent consultant with many years in senior IT roles. “Originating in post-war Japan as a tool for efficiently managing car assembly lines, it has since been adopted as a popular method for managing a variety of projects.”

Peter says that the method is often best used where the goal is to maintain oversight of parallel activity throughput where there are expected common capacity constraints within the delivery workflow.

In other words, where you have lots of things to do, you don’t want any work to get ‘lost’ in the system, and there are constraints around how many tasks people or teams can take on at any one time.

“The system is visualised as notes for each project deliverable on a board with multiple columns representing the key stages each deliverable must pass through,” says Peter. Example stages for a software development project could be:

  • To do
  • In development
  • Ready for peer review
  • Ready for QA
  • Ready for release.

Kanban is very flexible and you can adjust the columns to fit your team’s workflow and process.

“As a developer becomes available to work on their next deliverable they pull the associated note into the appropriate column,” Peter explains. “This visual approach makes it very easy to see the progress of deliverables as they traverse across the board and equally as important to see where bottlenecks build up as deliverables stall in one of the columns. Modern software tools such as Trello and Jira provide a wealth of functionality to help teams manage Kanban boards.”

Peter has used Kanban to manage projects ranging from developing single software services to managing throughput of global portfolios of hundreds of concurrent projects. “Even in my personal life I’ve also used it for managing home renovations and even as a way to make the most of a touring holiday with my family - it was more fun than this makes it sound!” he says. “Kanban is a true Swiss army knife in the Agile PM’s kitbag.”

Learn more: Listen to an introduction to Kanban in this podcast.

Feature Driven Development (FDD)

Feature-driven development, as the name suggests, is driven by features. But what does that actually mean?

Agile evangelist Priya Patra explains. “It is driven by the overall domain model, planned by features, designed by features, and developed by features,” she says. “It is a development process focussing on features that are of value to the customer.” The key thing to remember about this framework is that FDD mixes best practices that are all driven by what is important to the customer.

“FDD leverages practices from XP and Scrum but adds this to the Domain-Driven Design techniques,” Priya says. “The first process, which is developing the overall model, helps the team develop a deep understanding of the scope and the context of the project. “

That makes FDD a suitable framework for complex projects, in a way that some of the other approaches are not.

“With FDD, the risk is really reduced on a project,” Priya explains. “The fact that you have a deeper understanding of the requirements and the expectations, that we do small iterations and build small parts, one by one, helps reduce the risk.”

FDD is a good framework to choose when planning to scale your development to a long-term project with a large team. “It’s also suitable for ongoing projects,” says Priya.

Learn more: Check out the list of recommended PMI-ACP books.

Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)

DSDM is a framework that dates back to 1994 and is a proven method for addressing the whole project lifecycle. It balances business needs, risk mitigation and balancing return on investment while promoting iterative development.

“DSDM is a UK-developed Agile approach developed in a collegiate way by the DSDM Consortium, now known as the Agile Business Consortium,” says Dot Tudor, Certified Scrum Trainer and winner of 'Best Agile Coach / Mentor' at the UK Agile Awards.

“It is unique amongst Agile approaches because it acknowledges agile projects, and provides a framework for the governance of such projects whilst embracing other Agile approaches such as Scrum at team level,” Dot explains. “It also gives advice and guidance for business analysis in an Agile world, and looks at portfolio and programme management levels through an Agile lens.”

DSDM is used for both IT and non-IT projects and could be a good fit for your projects if you need to demonstrate clear understanding of the project scope and fundamental characteristics of the project before work begins. It encourages teams to have the basics in place before going too far with the project, which makes it a good choice for organizations with corporate governance frameworks that must be adhered to.

DSDM shares the principles of agile and the DSDM Consortium was represented at the creation of the Agile Manifesto.

Learn more: Read the DSDM Agile Project Framework.

Crystal

Crystal is actually a family of methodologies, designed to address implementation concerns while using Agile methodologies for different types of projects involving different team sizes. Created by Alistair Cockburn, each member of the family has the name of a color and can be adjusted to the particular setting.

The family is normally represented by a grid with team size shown on the horizontal axis and the project criticality on the vertical axis. The methodology you choose is based on the number of people on the team and the criticality of the project, which is determined by your assessment of how big the impact is from a defect found in the system.

Crystal is unique because it’s designed to be people and communication centric. “Tools, work products, and processes are only there to support the human component,” writes Alistair Cockburn in his book, Agile Software Development, The Cooperative Game (2nd Edition).

A restriction of this family of methods is that it is designed for co-located teams. “None of the distributed and offshore development projects I have seen would count as methodologically successful,” he writes.

Like all agile frameworks, it shares the goals of iterative development and reflection (through pre-and post-increment reflection workshops) for the purpose of continuous improvement.

Crystal was designed as a way of developing software, so it is best used for those projects and where the team is all based in the same location.

Learn more: See how the Crystal family compares to other frameworks.

What Do Agile Frameworks Have in Common?

All agile frameworks stem from the same core principles and values. The Agile Manifesto is a good place to start to understand the background.

There are common threads through all the frameworks, for example, making sure the workplace is conducive to supporting people doing their best work. Having an informative workplace is a core practice of XP, but other agile frameworks take the same approach. For example, transparent communication and the use of information radiators like white boards and collaboration tools are common across agile methods.

While there are commonalities between frameworks, as you can see, some approaches will work better for different types of projects. The skill is in choosing which project approach is going to be the best fit for the work you are doing.

Your Exam Prep

When it comes to choosing an Agile certification, there are plenty of options if you want to specialize. However, to showcase your ability to understand and operate in all of these agile frameworks, the PMI-ACP certification is a well-rounded stamp of approval of your agile credentials.

To prepare thoroughly for the exam, you will want to use an exam simulator. And when you read sample PMI-ACP exam questions, look for clues in the scenario to help you determine what ‘kind’ of agile the team is using. That will help you choose the correct answer. It might not always be clear, and in those cases, do your best to identify the answer using broad principles that could apply to any framework.

Understanding the different agile approaches will help you correctly answer all those questions on your test. More importantly, it will help you contribute more effectively at work because you will be able to make the right decisions about what tools and techniques to use in an agile environment.

When you’re ready to test your knowledge of agile, check out the PMI-ACP exam simulator! You might be surprised at what you already know.

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