Origins of Agile

The tech world is alive with buzz words, but few are as often spoken as Agile. And it is not surprising. It is a word to conjure with.

A word with nothing but positive associations. Who wouldn’t want to align themselves with a term that suggests speed, flexibility, adaptability, and intelligence? A word packed with the promise of innovative solutions and speedy conclusions? But, in the rush to claim Agile for ourselves and our organisations, how many of us can say we truly understand its meaning or know how it might apply to us and our business?

In this article, I would like to go back a little in time, to uncover the origins of Agile. And by doing so, I hope to enlighten my reader as to the value and importance of Agile thinking and maybe encourage them to take a closer look.

Back in 2001

The term Agile, as it applies to project management, was first coined back in 2001. While the term has been around for approximately two decades, the problems that the creators of the Agile Manifesto were attempting to solve are almost as old as software development itself. A problem that was first identified in the early ’90s, and given the ominous title “application delivery lag.” To put it simply, in a world where businesses needed to respond ever more quickly to the changing technologic landscape and the evolving needs of their clients, software development was a lumbering giant. Projects routinely overran their schedules, in some cases by many months or even years. Budgets bulged and products either failed to live up to their promise or in the worst-case scenario, were never delivered or delivered so late that they were already considered obsolete before making it to market.

Many tried to solve this crisis by reaching even deeper into the existing project management skills toolbox, developing ever more elaborate and detailed top-down (also known as waterfall) project plans. Yet, no matter how meticulous the plans, they ran into the same problems time and time again, and even more frustratingly, every effort to add detail to the plan only resulted in it falling even more quickly. At this point, we queue the music and welcome the arrival of our hero The Agile Manifesto!

Simple game changer

What the authors of the manifesto came to realise was both simple and game-changing. Waterfall planning is prone to failure because the theoretical world in which it might succeed bears no resemblance to reality. It assumed that all the information needed to complete a project would be clear right from the beginning. That for the life of the project, both the world and the client’s needs would remain static and unchanged, and that human beings are simply more complex computers; requiring only the right input to consistently produce results, with no more motivation then fulfilling an instruction.

Given these unrealistic expectations, it is unsurprising that when complexity arose, or the client’s needs changed, the plan broke down. Leaving the planner either to push ahead with bullish determination or return to the drawing board and re-write the plan. Either approach would inevitably result in delays and missed targets, as well as an ever-growing pile of failed plans. And ultimately, no matter how beautiful the graphs, clients aren’t paying for plans, they want results.

Ability to recover

So, in a world where no plan is bulletproof, the writers of the manifesto needed to decide how to include the ability to recover from the unexpected. The conclusion reached was that rather than abandoning planning entirely, plans needed to be as flexible and adaptable as the world in which they existed. In a word: Agile!

In the end, the manifesto came down to a few simple statements:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

No plan is perfect

By accepting that a plan is never perfect, they open themselves to the possibility that the plan can change organically through a process of constant assessment and open conversation between the development team and their client. By only planning far ahead enough to tackle the client immediate needs, and by concentrating on delivering value in short working incremental, they were able to make the client a collaborative partner in the process and deliver working products immediately, instead of in the far distant, and often never arriving future. By accepting that plans fail and by assessing each potential failure quickly and efficiently, never planning further ahead than the next few weeks, they kept their problems small and their plan ever-improving.

Fast forward 20 years, with the manifesto as there guide, a new generation of management has expanded the Agile concept into complete working methodologies. Today, almost 86% of 101,592 international surveyed software developers use Agile in their work, and over 56% of manufacturers companies report that Agile principles are at the core of their business.

The take away from this? With twenty years of battle testing and expansion into complete and provably successful agile methodologies such as SCRUM, it is unsurprising that Agile projects have been found to be 28% more successful than traditional projects. Making starting your project management journey the agile way, a no brainer.

So, next time you are reaching for a plan, try an Agile one and learn why Agile is more than just a buzz word.


Thanks for the photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


liam manderson3

About the author

Liam Manderson is an experienced tech professional spanning 20 years in technical implementation for the marketing industry and software development. As a Scrum Master with Scrum Alliance his role at BBN Finland includes technical project consultation and team process development.

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