On the cover of every business magazine is a CEO who wants to make their company more adaptive and innovative. In every boardroom is a consultant from the Big Three talking through slides about an agile transformation. From every executive’s memo, you’ll learn how important it is for their organization to operate in an agile way.
Agile is everywhere, from IT functions in tech to HR in healthcare, in startups, and multinational corporations. And it’s being touted as the solution to virtually every business and technology problem you can think of.
But is it? With all that talk about agile, it’s only natural to wonder… is it here to stay, or is it just another management fad?
How Agile Started
The agile movement began in 2001, when a group of 17 software development thought leaders got together on a ski retreat in Snowbird, Utah. Snowed in by a blizzard, the members of the group met in a conference room with a whiteboard and started sharing their ways of work. Discovering many commonalities, they wrote and signed The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.
Though the weather report from that day suggests otherwise, the story goes that they got snowed in and, with nowhere left to go and not much skiing to do, they gathered up in a room with a whiteboard and started talking about how they built software and worked with clients.
“I have been in many, many of these kinds of meetings throughout my career,” software engineer, book author, and one of the co-creators of the agile movement Jim Highsmith, recalls in an interview for The Atlantic. “This one was really special.”
The more they talked, the more they found that their software development approaches and project management ways were strikingly similar. Inspired by these similarities, they wrote down four statements, which we now know as The Agile Manifesto, on the whiteboard:
“We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.”
At the time, “agile” was simply a word in the dictionary that meant “able to move quickly and easily.” Software projects were mostly managed using waterfall methods. A company would make a big bet on an idea for a software system for its customers or employees.
The company would then assemble a team of programmers, analyze all requirements early on, plan out the project from start to finish, and assign someone to project-manage it until the big day of the release came — and the new software system was finally ready to use.
Getting to the big day of the release often took months. Sometimes, it took years. Keeping projects on schedule and budgets on track was difficult and occasionally impossible to do. When the big day of the release came, and customers or employees got their new software system, it often turned out that many features were missing or didn’t work as they were supposed to.
The Difference Between Waterfall and Agile
Waterfall is a linear and sequential project management. Agile is iterative and incremental. A waterfall team plans out their project end-to-end from its beginning. An agile team works in short time blocks to deliver value incrementally. Whereas waterfall is effective in predictable and regulated environments, agile is better suited for environments with a high degree of uncertainty and change.
Waterfall project management works well for construction projects, where 99% of what needs to be done can and must be designed, defined, and planned upfront.
Construction, after all, is a linear and sequential process. Secure funding. Acquire a site. Hire an architect, engineers, consultants. Complete the design, get the permits, appoint a contractor. Hand over the site and monitor construction until done. Undergo inspections until the building is ready to occupy and the spaces within it to sell or rent. Transition into building operation and maintenance.
Waterfall is an excellent project management methodology when you’re walking the beaten path. Humanity has been constructing buildings since its early days. Every day, new buildings are built all over the U.S. and the world. The process for doing so is known and regulated, and changing a plan mid-project is financially expensive and legally risky.
Think of waterfall as a map. If you know the territory with a high degree of precision, you can use the map to navigate your way from Point A to B with a high degree of confidence. A map is useful for someone moving through a city and useless for someone discovering a rainforest.
Agile project management is more like a compass. It helps you tell which direction you’re headed in, but it won’t tell you how to get there. Agile projects are as much about creating things as they are about discovering reality. They’re all about exploration and experimentation.
Instead of coming up with an idea for a software product, assembling a team, planning it all out from day one, and waiting until the day of the big release to get everything simultaneously, agile proposes an alternative way of working.
Agile is an iterative approach to managing projects. An agile team does work in small and consumable increments of time. If they know that they have 60 days to build a product, they will break these 60 days down into six increments of 10 days each.
The team’s plan then becomes to work in 10-day cycles and deliver a small and working piece of the product at the end of each. That helps them focus on getting things done while getting feedback from the product’s customers early on, allowing them to learn lessons and adjust their plans.
Whereas waterfall focuses on how to complete the project by planning out and sequencing all of the work from the beginning, agile focuses on breaking down the time into short and repeatable time blocks that allow the project team to iterate and learn as they deliver work and get feedback from customers.
How Agile Looks Like Today
Agile started as a manifesto for software development that 17 people wrote down on a whiteboard at The Lodge hotel in Snowbird, Utah.
With time, the agile movement spread across the software development community and grew into the de-facto way of building software products in startups and big companies alike.
Today, agile is an industry by itself. Organizations like Agile Alliance, Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, and others are promoting agile development concepts by training and certifying practitioners of agile and agile frameworks.
Like a football game, an agile framework sets the roles, rules, and events that help teams and individuals work in agile ways. Like Scrum, some of the most popular frameworks today were created by the signatories of The Agile Manifesto. And some of the most prominent organizations that train and certify agile practitioners were co-founded by them and their peers.
Even the Project Management Institute (PMI), the organization that practically invented waterfall project management in the enterprise and wrote the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) that defined it, has started to train and certify project managers in agile with the PMI-ACP credential.
Agile project management led to the emergence of an entire niche of software companies that build agile collaboration tools. Some of them, like Atlassian and Asana, have now gone public on the stock market and sell their software to hundreds of thousands of customers worldwide (according to Atlassian’s website, the company has more than 150,000 customers).
In recent years, some of the biggest consulting firms in the world like McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company have taken the core principles of agile and scaled them to the entire organization’s level. Most companies are going through agile transformations as they try to build networked teams that work independently and self-sufficiently towards common business goals.
Agile had humble beginnings. The agile movement spread quickly and, in the past decade, turned into big business. And, if history shows anything, it’s that big business can go both ways.
Is Agile Just Another Management Fad?
It’s still early to tell if agile is here to stay, or if it’s just another management fad. Two decades since it started, the movement grew outside the field of software development and has become the most modern way to structure and manage organizations across industry verticals. However, history shows that new management concepts emerge every 20-30 years, spreading quickly to eventually replace existing ones.
Every two or three decades, someone creates a new way for how organizations are structured and how work is done. That way gets picked up by their industry, then spreads beyond it, until it gets replaced by a newer and supposedly better model.
In the early 20th century, Henry Ford produced the first Model T and Frederick Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management.
Taylor believed that organizations could become more efficient by identifying the “one best way” of performing important tasks and making it repeatable. Ford proved it by mass-producing cars for the first time thanks to the top-down control of the supply chain and the division of labor. This gave way to a new kind of corporation aimed at maximizing efficiency and performance. Then came Japanese manufacturers and their lean approach to management.
In the 1920s, A&W Root became the first franchised restaurant chain in the world. This simple and scalable business model helped build some of the biggest restaurant companies on the market today like McDonald’s, Subway, and KFC. In the 1960s, Sam Walton, building on his previous experience as a franchisee, opened the first Walmart. He used a new strategy that no one in retail had used before: low prices and high levels of customer service. Today, Walmart is the biggest brick-and-mortar retailer in the world. Then came Amazon.
In the 1970s, American computer scientist Winston Royce published a paper that described the ups and downs of the waterfall approach to software development. Though Royce was clear about his critique of the model’s deficiencies, waterfall quickly spread across software developers and IT functions to become the default way of building software. Then came agile.
As Mark Twain allegedly once said, history doesn’t repeat itself — but it rhymes. It’s only natural that one day, someone somewhere will create a new approach to building software and managing projects, and it will start to take over the world just as agile did in the early 2000s and waterfall did in the 1970s.
I don’t like to make predictions, but, looking at the past, it seems like we still have a good decade or so to go until something else comes along.
So let’s make the most of them.