I've long become used to agile being referred to as "the next new management fad" or something similar. I don't agree with that assessment. When you focus on project management for a good portion of your working hours, you become familiar with the history of project management methodologies. You start to see it as a continuous evolution in the theory and understanding of how people work together. Agile practices have their roots that go back before the second world war.
However, when I hear someone who is credentialed by the "Project Management Institute" say this it makes me wonder. Don't they teach about the last century of management change? All practices have their roots somewhere. Current practices are just a snapshot in time.
Before the 20th century, products were largely created by craftspeople. Things like carriages were made by hand, assembled out of parts that were not too interchangeable. This all started to change in the early 20th century with the assembly line and "Scientific management" (or "Taylorism"). I wrote about this a month ago:
Back in the early days of mass-production, when companies like Ford were discovering the efficiencies of assembly lines, the theories of Fred Taylor were being applied in factories. These theories were based on the idea that complex jobs, such as assembling a Model-T car, could be performed by relatively unskilled and cheap labor if each step in the assembly line was broken down to a simple job that could be standardized. Workers were considered to be interchangeable cogs in a large machine.
Though “Taylorism” has been discredited, many management practices are still based on the idea that as long as a well defined process and set of tools exist, then the work that can be done by a group of people can be predicted and defined up front. Workers are considered “fungible” or replaceable and anonymous on a large project plan that attempts to predict what each part of the whole will take a worker to complete. Managers find comfort in this. As long as people and hours are are interchangeable, then we can play with the amounts of each to achieve predictability.
Taylorism had been largely discredited before and during World War 2 by people like W Edwards Deming who taught that project management needs to facilitate workers to bring their thinking and passion to their job and focus on the whole system, not just their one part. Deming proved his work in the US during the wartime manufacturing expansion. Unfortunately many of these principles were abandoned in the US after the war. Deming found himself in high demand in Japan however and spent time there teaching these principles to Japanese industry after the war.
For the next three decades, much of the innovation in project management came from Japan and the results show the proof. Agile has it's roots in the practices developed at Toyota, Honda, Canon and other successful Japanese companies. Western companies such as Boeing, Ford and Volvo are still catching up with many of these practices (such as Lean production methodologies).
Software development in the west has been at the leading edge of applying these lessons to their products. One of the roots of Scrum is from a paper written by two Japanese business researchers in 1986. XP was built on Scrum practices as well.
Sure, there are a numbers of flavors of agile out there. Each week it seems as though someone else is branding their own methodology or misusing the term agile. Some of these are even more fleeting than fads.
In many cases some managers call agile a fad as a way to brush off the challenges of changing their mindset about how people best work together and what their role is in a knowledge focused organization. Perhaps they still think it would be better to manage 100 creative people through a Microsoft Project Server database from their desk.
Alternatively, don't just drink the Kool-aid and bet your company on agile. Step 1 is to learn more. This book is a great start.