There are many different project management philosophies small businesses can use to succeed, but few are as tried and tested as the ones that have been breeding success in Silicon Valley since the 1940s. Companies like Varian and Hewlett Packard allowed employees to innovate without restriction and set clear team goals for which everyone was mutually responsible. They were some of the first to see that giving employees autonomy within a well-structured system would yield more innovative and efficient outcomes.1 Today, Silicon Valley project management philosophies like the “Agile workflow” give developers a collaborative work environment to iterate on projects little-by-little, allowing more opportunities for candid feedback, exploration and personal success.

For businesses across a range of industries, these approaches to leadership aren’t just a nice option for a boost in efficiency, they’re a necessary process to help to attract and retain top talent. While not every small business wants to match the telecommuting options or benefits packages at today’s Silicon Valley campuses, learning from their project management strategies can help get employees more engaged and deliver better outcomes to customers.

Agile Philosophy

At its core, the Agile approach is designed to help teams learn from failure and succeed when working under short deadlines. When understood as a philosophy, Agile can be harnessed by any work team. “Agile is not just a methodology, but a set of principles and philosophy,” said IT author Pearl Zhu in her book Digital Agility. “You can fail better only if you learn from failures. And then failing is something that prompts you to move ahead.”2

Within the Agile ideology, there are two main methodologies, scrum and Kanban.3 Here’s what’s unique about each:

  • Scrum: At the beginning of scrum projects, the product owner creates a wish list of features and functions called a “backlog.” Every few weeks, the development team picks several items from the top of the list and works to implement them in the design. This two- to four-week period of work is commonly called a “sprint.” During the sprint, each member of the team can work independently, but every day the whole team checks in about progress. At the end of the sprint, the team should have something new to show the product owner. Then, they begin again with the next items on the list, until everything on the backlog has been addressed and discussed.4
  • Kanban: Kanban project management involves a visualization of each phase of a project’s execution, usually on a whiteboard or something everyone can see at once. Along with listing each phase at the top of the column, the team will agree on a maximum number of projects that can be at each stage at each time. Then, each project or project component is written on a separate card or sticky note to show what stage of the workflow it’s currently in. Once a column is at the limit for the number of projects that can be at that phase, everyone on the team knows where the bottleneck is occurring and can chip in to alleviate it when possible.5

The Pareto principle

Cross-Industry Applications

Whatever your industry, the Agile approach has a lot to offer in the way of setting clear goals and expectations while managing teams made up of different skill sets. Agile can help small businesses execute marketing campaigns, or develop new products and services, or tackle one-time projects like the launch of a new company website. Whether you want to harness project management innovation through the daily check-ins and short-term deadlines of the scrum approach or prefer the more holistic view of project status offered by a Kanban board, here are some steps to help you adopt these practices where they make the most sense for your team.

  • Test Often: At every stage of project execution, Silicon Valley developers are testing their code and its performance. Though you may not have code to put through its paces, business owners in all industries can use stress testing to better guarantee success. For example, 60% of business strategy execution fails, according to a study by international business school INSEAD.6 Researchers Michael Jarrett and Quy Huy claim this could be resolved by more pointed scrutiny of the plans during early stages. Questions like “Does the strategy make sense even just on paper? Is it going to create value? Have we got the right customer base?” can help a business owner spot unseen risks to their strategic plan in advance.7 Testing can also play a role in perfecting customer service, through quality monitoring and regular analytics reports that measure both your recent initiatives and pre-established baselines for change.8 A/B testing can even help business owners do better marketing by directly comparing if two subject lines or email templates had different effects on consumers.
  • Use the 80/20 phenomenon:

    When understood as a philosophy, Agile can be harnessed by any work team.

    The 80/20 Principle, also called the Pareto Principle, or the law of the vital few, is simple yet important. This principle is named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who in the late 1800’s observed two totally different facts around the same time. First, he found in his studies that 20% of Italy’s population owned 80% of its land. Later, he noticed that 20% of the pea pods seemed to produce around 80% of the peas. From this, he made an observation: around 20% of effort produces around 80% of the results.9 Later, in the hands of engineer and management consultant Joseph Juran, the Pareto principle became essential to quality management.10 Armed with this insight, business owners and project managers can make more informed decisions. When focusing on your strategic plan, decide which 20% of risks are likely to catch you, and defend accordingly. When improving customer service, figure out which 20% of customers are top spenders and deliver them better results. Simply put, know where your 20% is whenever possible, and nurture it accordingly.11
  • Seek Tangible Outcomes: Agile teams of developers regularly get to see the code they’ve developed put to work for consumers. Depending on your industry, the projects you achieve with scrum or Kanban approaches may have less tangible results. Still, try to provide a sense of conclusion to each round of work by putting something new out for consumption, whether it’s a customer-facing product or service, or a new internal policy for employees.12
  • Document Everything: When considering new internal policies for employees, one of the most useful you could consider is that of rigorous process documentation. Projects across industries all face common challenges like organization and clear communication of both stakeholder expectations and project status. In fact, 44% of project managers said getting team members to consistently follow defined procedures was a challenge to project completion, and 42% said that getting reliable info was a similar barrier.13 By creating one centralized source of information about a project, and documenting one clear set of performance standards for everyone involved, business leaders or managers can address both these problems at once.


These are just some of the ways you can apply Agile workflow strategies to help tackle a variety of different business projects, from expanding into a new market to streamlining existing project management processes, and watch the change start to blossom. In Agile project management philosophy, leaders set small, attainable goals for either individuals or small teams to strive toward. Deadlines are inflexible, so the pressure to perform can sometimes intensify. However, when implemented properly, both the scrum and Kanban methodologies can leave employees of any innovative industry feeling more grounded and successful thanks to clear, attainable short-term goals and a structure that promotes candid but caring guidance from leadership.