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Project Management the Agile Way

~ By Larry Port

Businessman sprinter winning a track race

Agile project management has a lot to offer legal case management. Imagine you could continually wring out the inefficiencies in your law practice. Picture having the luxury to step back from the trees and see the forest.

It may sound crazy, and, in the case of removing every single efficiency, perhaps pie in the sky. But you can get close, and it takes a lot less effort and time than you think if you embrace something we software folks call a "Sprint".

What's a Sprint?

A Sprint is an iterative unit of time, typically a one, two, or four week period. The term and concept comes from project management techniques in the software industry. As is the case with law, software companies must drive forward highly complex projects with little or no room for error. Over time, controls and methodologies like Agile Project Management (and more specifically, the Scrum variation of it) arose to tackle the challenge of software creation.

Sprints allow teams to leverage incremental improvements. When a company decides to work in two-week Sprints, it has the opportunity to reflect, make adjustments, and plan every fourteen days based on events and conditions. Ken Schwaber, in the seminal Agile Project Management with Scrum, underscores the importance of the iteration, calling it "the skeleton and the heart" and that the entire Scrum system "hangs all of its practices on an iterative, incremental process skeleton."

Using Sprints is a disciplined way to pull back from the trench warfare of day to day activities and overlay much needed perspective on business. To understand exactly how law firms might employ Sprints, it helps to understand the core mechanics that comprise one.

How Does a Sprint Work?

The best way to understand the Sprint is to go right to the end of one. When a Sprint ends, the teams spend time reviewing the work of the last iteration. The Sprint review, as this meeting is called, need only be thirty minutes or barely sufficient time to go over the accomplishments from the previous two weeks. It's also a great time to review important metrics, such as new clients, leads, traffic to the marketing site, or other key performance indicators.

Immediately following the Sprint review is the retrospective meeting. During the retrospective, participants spend another thirty minutes asking themselves three questions:

  1. What should we start doing?
  2. What should we stop doing?
  3. What should we continue doing?

The retrospective, conducted immediately after the review, allows firms to take a look back over the past Sprint and look forward to the next. It is analogous to the team climbing a mountain together and meditating for thirty minutes from the 10,000 foot view of the practice. Should we tweak the client intake system? Should we schedule better reminders with clearer messages? Should we stop ordering Chinese food at three in the afternoon?

Bookending the far side of the Sprint are the review and retrospective. On the starting side is the Sprint planning meeting. In Sprint planning, the team analyses its resources and pending tasks. Vacations, upcoming travel, or other important commitments are reviewed to nail down available time for the next iteration. Once an understanding of available resources is reached, tasks are prioritised and assigned to team members. Typically, Sprint planning happens after lunch on the day of the previous Sprint's review and retrospective.

By regrouping every two weeks, the team pauses and reassesses its priorities. The firm becomes, as the name of the methodology implies, agile. Inefficiencies are weeded out, processes improve, and initiatives closely monitored.

The period of time between planning and review is your Sprint itself. And just as your work iterates every two weeks or so, each day the team checks in for a brief "standup" meeting, so named because the participants are required to stand to keep the meeting short. Each individual states three things:

  1. What they did yesterday
  2. What they're doing today
  3. What's in their way

You keep people accountable by hearing about "what they did yesterday and today", and you keep the ball moving by removing dependencies identified by "what's in my way." Then, it's up to group leadership to keep the team forging ahead by eliminating any obstacles.

Does "Sprinting" Really Work?

The nice thing about Agile Project Management is the prescriptive nature. It serves as a guidebook for how you operate and continually improve your business. Few of us are born with the intrinsic knowledge of how to steer a business, whether a law firm or software company, so a set of rails to follow greatly helps. It's used by thousands of software companies, large and small, internationally, and is supported by books, consultants, conferences, and training events.

Working in Sprints is a great way to get any business under control. All it takes, initially, is your first thirty minute retrospective meeting. For your first "what should we start?" question, answer with "let's start Sprinting!"


The article Project Management the Agile Way appeared on Lawyerist.com, the lawyering survival guide and leading law practice blog.

Larry Port is the Founding Partner of Rocket Matter the leading web-based legal practice management product. A speaker and award-winning writer at the crossroads of the legal profession and cutting edge technology, Larry writes extensively for legal publications including Law Technology News, Law Practice Today, ILTA's Peer to Peer, FindLaw, Chicago Lawyer, and others.


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