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The History of Agile Project Management

By ILX Team | 4 September 2017

Who invented agile project management? Well, agile is not a trademarked term, but rather a set of ideas.  Therefore, it’s hard to place a single name or firm date on its creation. The best way to understand agile’s origin, is to piece together the major breakthroughs that informed it.

1910s-1940s: Lean/flexible manufacturing

One of agile’s goals is to improve the speed and quality of value delivery. This was also a goal of scientific management from the early 20th century. Frederick Taylor in 1911 told managers to analyse workers' suggestions. Then, if they make a marked improvement, managers should adopt them as the new standard. Agile and Taylor both oppose doing a job inefficiently out of habit.

Toyota in the 1940s also pioneered lean manufacturing. Visiting America, they were unimpressed by the assembly lines from the likes of Ford. It was only when visiting the supermarket Piggly Wiggly that they found their inspiration. The supermarket had a ‘just in time’ method of replacing items as soon as they’re needed. This helped shape Toyota’s low inventory approach to decrease waste. This, combined with their other concepts, has helped shape agile as well as Toyota:

  • Jidoka – intelligent automation. Machines detect abnormalities and stop until the root cause is solved. Automated testing is now a staple of agile environments.
  • Andon – a signal or alarm. It orders immediate help, hopefully avoiding stops in the production line. Agile’s flexibility and adaptability all owe a lot to Andon.
  • Kaizen – continual improvement. In Toyota’s case, this means stopping the production line when necessary and for all personnel to suggest improvements. This likely proved the value of collaboration and rapid feedback to agile’s pioneers.

1950s-1960s: Iterative development

Incremental/iterative development goes back to the 1950s. Gerald M. Weinberg claimed to have done incremental development in 1957 at IBM. At the same time, Motorola’s Herb Jacobs developed a technique Weinberg calls “indistinguishable from [extreme programming] XP.”

These people worked on Project Mercury, the United States’ first human spaceflight programme. There, they developed software with half-day iterations. Many people think of agile concepts as new when they’re actually part of the earliest and most important software projects.

1970s-1990s: Agile takes shape

By the 1970s, there still wasn’t a term for this pattern of working. Evolutionary Project Management (Evo) supported early agile concepts. These included early and frequent releases with small incremental improvements. IBM was an early adopter of Evo. The momentum grew and, by 1994, US Department of Defense explicitly supported Evo and agile standards.

Software developers in the 1990s also wanted to break away from waterfall methodologies. They felt burdened by heavy regulations, planning and micromanagement. This decade produced new methodologies like DSDM, XP and Scrum.

2001: Manifesto for Agile Software Development

When you search for the term ‘history of agile’, the first results you often see are about the Agile Manifesto. This was actually written in 2001, years after agile frameworks emerged. The Agile Alliance were the manifesto’s authors. Individually, they developed methodologies like Scrum. As the Agile Alliance, they mostly codified the common themes and established some basic principles. By doing so, they popularised the term ‘agile’. What could’ve been a buzzword was now tangible and accessible to newcomers.

Since then, agile’s popularity continues to grow. It’s now integrated into all areas of project management. AgilePM, an approach that uses DSDM, is built to work with other project frameworks. In 2015, AXELOS released PRINCE2 Agile. Two years later, they went further and made agility a core focus of their 2017 update. If you’re interested in these or other courses, see our full range or contact us with any questions.

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