It is perhaps more reasonable to trace the roots of agile back to the 1930s, when Walter Shewhart, a physicist and statistician at Bell Labs, began to apply continuous development cycles (specification-manufacture-test) to products and processes. In 1938, W. Edwards Deming further popularised Shewhart's work with the now well-known plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycle.
"The New New Product Development Game" - The roots of agile #1
In 1986, Ikujiro Nonaka and his co-author Hirotaka Takeuchi published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled "The New New Product Development Game". Studying manufacturers who were releasing successful innovations much faster than their competitors. The authors identified a team-oriented approach that changed the design and development process for products such as Fuji's Xerox copiers, Honda's car engines and Canon's cameras. Rather than following the traditional relay races of product development - a group of specialists handing off the completed phase to the next functional stage - these companies took what Takeuchi and Nonaka call a "rugby" approach, "where a team tries to go the whole distance as a unit by passing the ball back and forth."
Scrum - The roots of agile #2
In 1993, Jeff Sutherland was faced with a seemingly impossible task. In less than six months, the software company Easel Corporation had to develop a new product to replace its old offering. Sutherland already had a strong background in methodologies such as rapid application development, object-oriented design, PDSA loops and "skunkworks". He hoped to create a "skunkworks"-like culture at Easel's corporate headquarters, combining the benefits of separation and integration. At the beginning he learned everything he could about maximising organisational productivity. Reading hundreds of journals and interviewing leading product management experts sparked his interest in several provocative ideas.
One comes from an article on the Bell Labs Borland Quattro Pro team, which details how short daily team meetings dramatically increased the team's productivity. Three similar tips have also appeared in other material. But Sutherland became the cornerstone of Takeuchi and Nonaka's approach to rugby, despite its focus on production rather than software. Borrowing key ideas from a number of articles and incorporating concrete operational practices, Sutherland created a new method of software development and named it Scrum in homage to rugby. The Scrum framework allowed him to complete what seemed like an impossible project on time, on budget and with fewer errors than any previous iteration. He then collaborated with his old colleague Ken Schwaber to codify the approach, and in 1995 the pair first introduced Scrum to the public.
After Scrum, the Agile Manifesto
Of course, Sutherland and Schwaber were not alone in their search for innovative methods. The information age was exploding. Disruptive technologies were gaining an edge over slower-developing competitors... Start-ups were looking for better ways to adapt to an unknown and turbulent environment. Software has become an integral part of almost every business function, and many creative software developers have worked hard on better programming methods to increase adaptability.
In 2001, seventeen developers who called themselves organizational anarchists met at Snowbird in Utah to share their ideas. Among them were Sutherlands’ and Scrums’ supporters. The group also included advocates of a number of competing approaches and methodologies, such as Extreme Programming (XP), Crystal, Adaptive Software Development (ASD), Feature Driven Development (FDD) and Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM). All of these approaches were collectively referred to as "lightweight" frameworks, because they used fewer and simpler rules to dynamically adapt to rapidly changing environments. (Not many of the participants found the easy terminology flattering.)
A new name - agile
Although they disagreed on many things, the members of the group finally chose a new name for the movement: agile. The term was suggested by a participant who had read the book Agile Competitors and Virtual Organisations: Strategies for Enriching the Customer by Steven L. Goldman, Roger N. Nagel and Kenneth Preiss. The book offers hundreds of examples of companies - including ABB, Federal Express, Boeing, Bose and Harley-Davidson - that have developed new ways to adapt to turbulent markets. With this new name in hand, the participants forged a consensus, which they dubbed the Agile Software Development Manifesto.
The Manifesto set out four key values on which everyone agreed - such as "Software that works versus comprehensive documentation" and "Willingness to change versus slavish adherence to plans".
Later in the meeting, over the next few months, twelve operational principles were developed, such as "One of the key priorities of the agile approach is to strive for customer satisfaction through the rapid and continuous delivery of value-added products". From 2001, any development framework that aligns with these values and principles is referred to as agile engineering.
The rise of agility
After the Snowbird meeting canonised agile innovation, the agile movement began to spread rapidly. Signatories posted their document online and invited others to add their names as supporters. Most members of the original group, joined by a number of new believers, reconvened at the end of the year to discuss ways of spreading agile principles. All agreed to write and speak on the subject.
In 2016, a Harvard Business Review article "Embracing Agile" reported that National Public Radio had created new shows using agile methods, John Deere had produced some of its new machines, and Saab had produced the Gripen aircraft using agile methods. The Mission Bell Winery in California has applied these methods to "everything from wine production to warehousing to running a senior management team". Massachusetts-based OpenView Venture Partners has encouraged its portfolio companies to apply them.
Agile has since spread, although its complex genealogy sometimes provokes passionate debate among agile practitioners, two things are clear.
First, the roots and applications of agile go far beyond its uses in information technology; they apply to many different elements of the organisation.
Second, agile is likely to spread further. It was developed to help people break free from the clutches of bureaucracy - now more than ever, it needs the ability to rebalance bureaucracy and innovation.