Nothing exists in a vacuum. Every great idea is sparked by another great idea before it, often going far back into the mists of time. Agile is no different. Most people track its origins to 2001 when 17 technologists drafted the Agile Manifesto.
But the truth is that Arie van Bennekum, Jeff Sutherland, Jon Kern, Ward Cunningham, and their fellow technologists stood on the shoulders of giants, like the late Stephen Hawking. The history of the Agile method goes back to before software development, or computers were even a thing.
Sutherland admits it in a Harvard Business Review article. He penned it with Darrell Rigby and Hirotaka Takeuchi. They wrote that some people trace the Agile method back to when Francis Bacon first described the scientific method in 1620.
But they also suggest a more recent origin. Walter Shewhart started applying what he called Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles at Bell Labs in the 1930s. He looked at product and process improvement, and his ideas developed over the years. Eventually, they resulted in the Agile Manifesto and what we now consider the Agile method.
The Agile Manifesto
This history shows that it’s possible to see Agile as something that isn’t only relevant to software development. However, the Agile Manifesto focuses very much on that area because it comes from the work of Sutherland and his colleagues.
In truth, though, the 12 principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto are open to far wider application:
1. Customer satisfaction
Modern software is designed to be modular, which lends itself to piece-by-piece delivery. Agile teams deliver working pieces to the customer for review at regular intervals and testing. Doing this makes the customer feel they’re involved in the process and in control.
You can do the same with projects by breaking up the larger project into small chunks. Each one will have a deadline and at least one functional deliverable to show progress.
2. Welcome change
Everything is always changing. Whether you’re developing software or running a project, you need to be alive to that reality. Instead of resisting change, the Agile model encourages you to embrace it as an opportunity to learn and adapt.
If you welcome customer feedback, you can make little adjustments throughout the process that help to improve the final product.
3. Deliver working pieces, often
Giving customers working pieces to review and test along the way means they can give you continuous feedback. It also offers an opportunity to adjust priorities based on changing needs.
Breaking the work into small, manageable chunks means your team can maintain a steady pace and change course more quickly when needed.
4. Collaborate with customers
The constant review and feedback process invites collaboration between your project team and the customer. It allows your team to gain a deeper understanding of their needs, be transparent about the process, and validate your assumptions.
Regular contact with your customers also helps you build trust, improve communication, and ensure the final product is what they want.
5. Build projects around motivated individuals
One thing that sets Agile apart is energy. If you give your team members an environment and the support they need, they’ll be motivated, feel empowered, and put a lot of energy into the project.
This approach promotes trust and autonomy. It also equips your team to make sound decisions, solve problems, and deliver high-quality results.
6. In real-time and face-to-face
Covid changed the world and made video conferencing a common communication method. But it doesn’t work that well on projects — at least not all the time. Face-to-face is the most efficient and effective method of sharing information within a project team.
Agile values face-to-face communication because you can clarify things instantly. It also helps you make decisions faster and strengthens relationships between team members.
7. Working product measures progress
The biggest problem on any project is to demonstrate progress in a way that satisfies the customer. With Agile, the continuous delivery of working components acts as the main measure of progress.
The model also keeps your team focused on delivering working pieces. That process lets them continuously assess their own progress and make sure they’re still giving the customer what they want.
8. Promote sustainable development
Sustainable, in this sense, is all about momentum. The Agile principle requires you to keep up a good pace throughout the project. It also means that your team needs to guard against overburdening specific team members and avoid technical debt.
It's also how your team can deliver high-quality deliverables consistently and remain productive over the life of the business or project.
9. Continuous attention to excellence
The whole Agile approach makes it easy for you to uphold this principle. When your team works on small pieces at a time, it can more easily achieve technical excellence and follow good design principles.
With software development, this means your team makes use of practices like code refactoring, continuous integration, and automated testing. Excellence in project management means meeting the customer’s needs and delivering on time and within budget.
Keeping things simple is also relatively easy when using the Agile approach, and for the same reasons excellence is so achievable. The model encourages teams to seek out the simplest solutions that meet the needs of the business or project.
Doing that reduces complexity and helps your team deliver value faster.
11. The best outcomes
Every business or project has problems. It’s inescapable. But you’re much more likely to get the best outcomes if your team is motivated, empowered, and, above all, self-organizing.
And the reason is the expertise and collective intelligence of self-organizing teams. Such teams can make decisions, allocate work, and adapt. They take full ownership of their work and evolve organically to produce the best outcomes.
12. Review regularly
The most important principle of Agile is the constant search for improvement. After every important milestone, team members gather to look for things they could have done better. This is the culture of continuous improvement made famous by Toyota.
But it does more than just produce better results next time. It also fosters a learning culture where team members can adapt and grow.
Defining Agile values
The 12 Agile Principles above inform the four guiding values of the Agile method. These values reveal the mindset and philosophy behind Agile and what pushes teams to deliver high-quality projects and software that meets customer needs.
What they are and why they’re important
A main benefit of the Agile model is that it allows you to respond to change more effectively. Because it recognizes change as inevitable, it will enable project teams to stay ahead of the curve and deliver outcomes that remain relevant to the changing needs of customers.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
The first Agile value prioritizes people and communication. It recognizes that collaboration is key to the success of projects. The interaction empowers team members to make better decisions, leading to better outcomes.
By valuing individuals and their interactions highly, Agile teams can adapt quickly to changing requirements and deliver high-quality projects.
A successful project over comprehensive documentation
The Agile Manifesto says, “working software over comprehensive documentation.” But we’re looking at projects more generally, which can be heavy on documentation when they use the Waterfall method.
By contrast, the Agile model prioritizes the delivery of functional components that can add value for customers. That doesn’t mean there’s no documentation. Not at all. It still has its place, but it’s not the only way to demonstrate progress.
Agile teams understand that the ultimate measure of their success is a working product. They also believe documentation should support the project process, not make it more cumbersome.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
This third value from the Agile Manifesto calls for active customer involvement in the project. Agile teams know that working directly with their customers helps to understand their needs, preferences, and expectations.
And when you involve your customers in decision-making, it allows your team to align its efforts with those needs, preferences, and expectations. It also gives customers a sense of ownership and accountability because they now have a vested interest in the project's success.
The natural result of that is greater engagement, commitment, and satisfaction from the customer. It also means there’s less chance of a contractual dispute.
Responding to change over following a plan
Project plans are a very necessary and critical part of any project. But a project plan in the Agile world isn’t cast in stone. It is, and it must be, flexible. This brings us to the fourth and final value from the Agile Manifesto.
Agile teams understand that change is inevitable, and they prioritize the ability to adapt and respond to it. By constantly reviewing and adjusting their approach, they're able to deliver projects that stay relevant and valuable from beginning to end.
A modular approach
The Agile project management model is renowned for its modular approach. This modularity is so useful in software development that almost all modern software is designed and created this way.
The focus is on building program elements as self-contained modules that interact with other modules. These are easier to test and, when changing requirements demand it, easier to adapt because, usually, only a few modules will need to be modified.
Similarly, in project management, wherever possible, the different components of a project are designed and implemented as modules. And for precisely the same reasons.
This approach allows project teams to imagine and manage change more easily by breaking a project into independent functional chunks that are intended to be interchangeable.
Stakeholder teamwork is key
In traditional project management teams, a distinction is often made between stakeholders and team members. Usually, the stakeholders are the decision-makers and subject matter experts. The team members are usually the technical people lower down the chain of command who do the actual work of the project.
But when using the Agile framework, everybody is a stakeholder in the project. This is partly because the teams are smaller and focused on short sprints. But it also comes back to one of the core ideas behind Agile: collaboration and teamwork.
A fundamental principle of Agile is the belief that the best outcomes emerge from self-organizing teams. In traditional project management and software development disciplines, processes are typically dictated by project managers or subject matter experts. There is little or no capacity to cater to input from mere team members.
However, when using the Agile model, team members are empowered to take ownership and make critical decisions. The idea is that those closest to the coalface are best equipped to decide how the work should be done.
Continuous improvement as a strategy
The idea for continuous improvement in manufacturing, for example, is often credited to Toyota. But few people realize it originated with a man named W. Edwards Deming.
He took Shewhart’s PDSA cycles to Japan after World War II, where the automaker hired him. His first job was to train Toyota’s managers to use the iterative and incremental development methodology. Over time, his work resulted in the now world-famous Toyota Production System.
That same continuous improvement strategy is a key strength of the Agile model. It results in robust and very high-quality project outcomes.
Agile values underpin it all
Today, technology lets you use Agile methods for project management or software development initiatives. With the right tools, you can ensure that your team can deliver their projects to specification, on time, and within budget.
For example, consider Motion’s AI-powered calendar and task scheduler, which doesn’t just help you manage and organize your tasks. It also prioritizes and adds tasks to your schedule to ensure you complete everything by the deadline.
No more to-do lists. No more siloed project management tools. Way more work is getting done. Try Motion for free now with a 7-day free trial.