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Applying Agile Project Management to ISD

Friday, September 29, 2023

Agile Project Management is a method for managing a creative project process, one in which team members experiment and observe to improve a product as it is developed. Agile project management works well when the design and development involves creative and complex decisions, when the specifications may not be well defined, and when business needs shift. 

To handle all this change, the Agile project management approach builds deliverables in small increments, releases usable products frequently, and uses those releases to gather feedback. LLAMA—the Lot Like Agile Management Approach—is a modification of the traditional Agile technique to support instructional design and development projects. 

Why Agile?

Agile helps manage the time and budget invested in a project. It also helps project managers better target the deliverables required to meet the project’s goals. 

But why should we use a project management method derived from the information technology (IT) industry? To a certain extent the process of developing software and the process of developing training are parallel. They face many of the same types of project stakeholders: sponsors, subject matter experts (SMEs), developers, users, and learners. They also face many of the same types of problems: SMEs who aren’t dedicated, ever-changing business needs, and lack of clearly defined requirements. 

LLAMA makes some key adjustments to the mainstream Agile approach to account for the fact that training development is different from IT in some small—but important—aspects, notably: 

  • The syntax and structure of learning objectives differ from that of user requirements.
  • Instructional designers are more likely to work on multiple projects than software engineers. 
Agile and LLAMA work with any learning medium, whether you’re designing classroom instruction, virtual training, e-learning, m-learning, or learning platforms. Agile works best for projects with clear (even if they’re moving) start and end dates and deliverables. However, Agile does not work well with support functions, such as LMS help desk support, or the ongoing delivery of classroom curricula. 

Chunking the Work Effort 

In a process analogous to chunking knowledge to make it easier to learn, the next step—whether in the traditional Agile or in LLAMA—is to break the project down into smaller chunks to make it more workable. There are two parts to this step. 

The first part is to define and scope out the broad pieces of a larger project with an eye toward delivering pieces of the work quickly and frequently. There are a number of ways to do this: by importance, by audience, by language, by timeframe of when it’s needed, and so on. It’s important to break the project down into manageable pieces, with each piece having its own timeline. To create a timeline you will need to know the total amount of time that the organization considers reasonable for the project, the relative priority of each piece of the project, and how much work effort will be needed to complete those pieces. Splitting a project into small workable pieces involves taking each of the user stories within the project scope and breaking them down into the tasks required to complete them. 

Next, you’ll need to estimate the time it will take to complete each of the work tasks you’ve identified. This will be your confirmation (or lack thereof) of the broad estimates you and your team made at the project kickoff and, as such, it can provide an important validation point and opportunity to check in with the project sponsor before proceeding. 


Agile imposes some significant rigor on the estimating process, because it is at this point in the project when the individual team members begin to interact with the work to be done. On larger projects the entire team participates in an initial work estimate. On smaller projects the person responsible for completing the work is the one responsible for estimating it. If the person responsible for completing the work doesn’t have the experience to make an appropriate estimate, a more experienced or knowledgeable person can provide assistance. 

Plan the Work and Work the Plan 

With a defined scope, project sponsor timeline, and budget, as well as the estimated work effort for each task, you are now ready to plan the work—and work the plan. An Agile-based project is planned from both the top down and the bottom up, with adjustments as needed so that the schedule works for all parties. 

Top-Down Planning. You should develop a high-level plan for the top-down aspect of your work. The high-level plan takes into consideration the work estimate, the due date for the project, and the schedules of key people involved in the effort. Start planning by first noting any upcoming vacations, personnel changes, and project reassignments that could affect your team, then schedule the most work-heavy aspects of your project. 

You’ll then lay out a plan for frequent small reviews of the work, with sufficient time set aside for reviewers and SMEs to do their part. This is the broad arc of the project, and it is often organized by key activities happening each week. This high-level project schedule can be laid out next to the schedules for your team’s other projects. This will help you as the project manager, and your peers, assign team members to projects and avoid having too many similar tasks lined up all at once. 

Creating a visual schedule for team members and stakeholders will help keep your work present in everyone’s minds—and make it easy to make quick adjustments when needed. Whenever possible, keep this high-level schedule in physical format: cork boards, sticky notes, whiteboards, or even LEGO blocks. A wide variety of Agile project management tools can be used to support virtual teams, although these tools have the disadvantage of a limited screen size across which to display many projects at once.   

Bottom-up project planning aligns tasks, team members, and resources with the broad top-down project schedule. If the goal for the current week is to deliver a high-level storyboard to the reviewers, then each of the week’s tasks must support that goal. What’s more, the team members must have at least as much time available to work on a project task as the estimated time to complete it. If the task estimates are greater than the time available, you need to change the scope of the work to fit the team’s schedule, change the task’s deadline, or add more team member resources. 


Each team member should lay out her tasks on the week’s schedule based on the time estimates. Be sure to account for standing meetings, days off work, and other job responsibilities as tasks are allocated. If there are tasks that don’t fit within the week’s schedule, put them in a pull-ahead pile so that if work is completed faster than estimated, everyone knows what should be worked on next. Write out the weekly tasks on a board for each project, with columns for the team members and rows for the days of the week. If using online tools, assign team members and dates to each task. 

These detailed weekly project plans are updated each week based on the work completed in the prior week and input from the project sponsor regarding priorities and changes. During the weekly update, changes are made to the high-level project plan are made to ensure that the two plans remain in sync. 

With an Agile project management approach, it becomes very easy for team members to track their hours spent on a project at a task-by-task level because they are already doing this with work estimates. This supports allocations within organizations or direct billing by vendors on an hourly basis. 

Daily stand-up meetings are also held with all members of the project team—including SMEs and project sponsors when appropriate. During the meeting, team members quickly report on the tasks they completed the day before, the planned tasks for the day, and any help they need from others. Each person’s report should be very brief, allowing the entire team to get an update on statuses and activities without being too time-consuming. 

This article is excerpted from the TD at WorkAgile and LLAMA for ISD Project Management” (ATD Press, November 2014). In this TD at Work, you will learn how to:

  • Identify business goals that will help you align your project accordingly.
  • Leverage the LLAMA approach to define the scope of a project.
  • Select a primary learner persona (PLP) for your project. 
  • Break your project into easy to manage tasks.
  • Use iterative development to refine a project’s deliverables.


About the Author

Megan Torrance is the chief energy officer of TorranceLearning, an e-learning design and development firm outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has spent over two decades knee-deep in projects involving change management, instructional design, consulting, and systems deployment. Megan thrives on design excellence and elegant project management. And coffee. She and the TorranceLearning team have developed the LLAMA project management approach, blending Agile with excellent instructional design techniques. TorranceLearning projects have won IELA and Brandon Hall awards, and the 2014 xAPI Hyperdrive contest at DevLearn.

Publications include “A Quick Guide to LLAMA: Agile Project Management for Learning,” and “Agile and LLAMA for ISD Project Management,” a TD at Work. Megan has written for TD magazine several times, including the article, “What Is xAPI?” in the February 2016 issue. 

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