How Revolutionary is Agile?

I’m starting a project of going through the Agile Practice Guide, which was created by the Project Management Institute (PMI) in conjunction with the Agile Alliance to provide an understanding of the various agile approaches now available to project managers.

The first chapter is a general introduction, and gives the justification for PMI coming out with the Agile Practice Guide as a companion to their flagship publication, the 6th Edition of “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge” or the “PMBOK® Guide” for short.

The title of this post is based on a term paper assignment I received many years ago from my high school history teacher.   The question he asked was “How Revolutionary was the Revolutionary War?”   The idea of the assignment was that you were to consider how much was changed by the Revolutionary War vs. how much stayed the same as before the war.    Was it a totally break from the previous cultural and political situation (which would make it “revolutionary”) or was there some degree of continuity between the pre-war and post-war situation (which would make it more “evolutionary”).    Were the changes incremental or exponential?

I remember that assignment to this day because when I was reading the primary and secondary sources in order to prepare the paper, I had to view them with the lens of both of those paradigms.    The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document in the sense that it based the case for independence not solely on grievances about a set of historical circumstances (although Jefferson did in fact list these grievances in the document), but more fundamentally on universal principles of human rights that were derived not from a particular political compact but from the very nature of the condition of being human (so-called “natural law” theory).

But after independence was won, the government of the new United States took shape incrementally, based on elements that were already existent in the political life of Britain (such as the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches).   So I concluded that some aspects of the Revolutionary War were indeed revolutionary (i.e., they replaced what came before), and some aspects were evolutionary (i.e., they were extensions or rearrangements of what came before in new and novel patterns).

I think the same could be said of agile, that is at once both revolutionary and evolutionary.   It was born out of the forces behind the fourth industrial revolution, which according to Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, are “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres, collectively referred to as cyber-physical systems.”  They are based on the effects of digitization and artificial intelligence enabled by the transition to cloud computing.

As it states on p.3 of the Agile Practice Guide, “updated applications, infrastructure and platforms are released into the cloud in an iterative and incremental fashion, keeping pace with improvements to technology and evolving customer demand.

What is revolutionary about the fourth industrial revolution is that is transforms the entire systems of production, management, and governance.    What is evolutionary is that it takes it those already existing elements that are products of the first three industrial revolutions and links them up in new and novel ways.

Because of the faster and faster development cycle based on changing customer demands and advances in technology, the traditional or “predictive” model of project management was seen as inadequate to cope with this new environment which has a lot more high-uncertainty work as opposed to definable work projects.  So agile is revolutionary in that it was a response to revolutionary forces in technology and in society unleashed by social media and the Internet.

However, when you look at the Agile Manifesto, created by thought leaders in the software industry in 2001, you will see that the new values of agile do not totally eclipse the old values of traditional project management, but rather shift the values towards the new ones.   So in that sense it is evolutionary, because it extends, but does not totally replace, the system that existed before it.

To understand this, let’s take a look in the next post at the four values of the Agile Manifesto and how they explain the “agile mindset.”