I was very fortunate to enter the project management profession at the end of the 1970s, just as the first desktop computers were becoming available. It was an exciting time, with small groups of planners all over the country developing desktop-based project scheduling software to replace the laborious process of sending updates to a bureau for input to a mainframe. As a result, we were able to update our schedules in hours rather than days or weeks.
By the mid-80s, project ‘management’ software, as it had come to be known, was big business. Each new release added a host of new features you never knew you needed, but felt obliged to try. I vividly recall a full-page newspaper advert claiming that “SuperProject is the best project manager you’ll ever meet!”, accompanied by a picture of a box containing five floppy discs and a very thick manual on a Mastermind-style leather chair.
Since those halcyon days, I have seen many fads, fashions and anticipated ‘silver bullets’ come and go. At the time they are seen as the answer to all our project management woes: “With this approach, projects will really start to deliver successfully.” And yet here we are, with no end to the interminable flow of surveys telling us how many projects fail.
An almost sacred word
In 2001, a group of software developers had a now legendary meeting at a ski resort and devised a Manifesto for Agile Software Development. It’s a great document that crystalised a lot of the agile processes, such as concurrent engineering, that already existed in the wider profession and added structure and purpose.
Some years later, four of those five words have been discarded and the one that’s left has changed from an adjective to a noun: agile. It has become ubiquitous and, for some, an almost sacred word.
Proponents of agile see it as binary – companies and individuals are either ‘agile or not agile’ and, of course, all those who aren’t agile should be. They even invented the demon of ‘waterfall’ as a contrast that makes the bright light of agile seem to burn even brighter. There are echoes of the cult of ‘business process engineering’ in the 1990s (who remembers that now?).
Recently, I’ve seen a lot of debates around the theme of ‘agile is dead’. I suspect these are as much to do with sensationalistic headlines aimed at getting online ‘likes’ as they are to do with frustration that agile is not delivering the benefits it promised. Some of the original manifesto authors have sought to keep the bandwagon rolling with updates such as ‘Heart of Agile’ and ‘Agile 2’, but there is definitely a feeling that this particular wave has passed its peak.
So, is agile dead?
I would answer that by invoking Schrödinger’s Cat and say: “No! It will continue – both alive and dead.”
Going back to where I started this train of thought: scheduling software has not gone away. It’s there in the background for many types of project. It’s regarded as one of the tools in a good project manager’s armoury. It helps us understand what needs to be done and how we are progressing against plans. It isn’t seen as “the best project manager you’ll ever meet” any more and you certainly won’t see a full-page ad in a broadsheet newspaper for Microsoft Project or Primavera.
I also made the point that the Agile Manifesto ‘crystalised’ a lot of what already existed. Competent project management has always been about applying agility in a way that suits the context of each unique project. In time, I believe we will start to talk about agility rather than agile and recognise it as a continuum. Agile will be reabsorbed into the discipline of project management and cease to be a self-contained, distinct approach. Agile is dead, long live agility.
All we have to do, then, is wait for the next big thing that’s going to solve all our problems.