The Forces Behind the Agile Revolution

The second chapter of the Agile Practice Guide, a publication put forth as a collaboration between the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Agile Alliance, introduces agile by showing how it originated.

The first concept, discussed on p. 7, is “definable work vs. high-uncertainty work.”

Definable work projects are characterized by “clear procedures that have proved successful on similar projects in the past.”   The processes involved in the production, let’s say, of a new car, are pretty well understood.   So the level of uncertainty and risk in the execution of a project are relatively low.

New types of design that have not been done before require a lot of problem solvers coordinating their approaches and coordinating their work towards solving those problems in order to create a solution.   An example of this in the history of the space program is the creation of  the Apollo Lunar Module by Grunman Aircraft.    Thomas Kelly, the chief engineer of the spacecraft, related in his book Moon Lander:  How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module how designing a vehicle that could explore unknown territory in space that his company had to navigate through a lot of unknown territory in terms of engineering and the politics of contracting with NASA.

It is a quintessential example of a high-uncertainty project, that had high rates of:

  • change
  • complexity
  • risk

The traditional approach to project management is predictive, in that it attempts to determine the bulk of the requirements up front and to control changes through an orderly change request process.

Such a traditional approach is not well-suited to high-uncertainty projects, and it is this need for a new approach that would be more suited to the more volatile nature of such a high-uncertainty project that led to approaches that would explore feasibility on shorter time cycles and be able to adapt quickly based on evaluation and feedback from the customers or stakeholders.   These approaches have been come to be called agile, and in the next post, I will relate the first movement towards agile methods, which was the publication of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development created in 2001 by thought leaders in the software industry.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development will be the subject of my new post.