Agile has been a buzzword in organisational performance for a really long time. But I am getting a sense that that era is slowly drawing to a close.
I’m sure my readers are no stranger to a product lifecycle curve, nor Rogers’ innovation adoption curve. Let’s look at the history of agile through these lenses to see how we are reaching a point of market saturation for Agile, signalling it’s heading into decline.
The innovators and introduction
Agile innovation didn’t start in 2001 with a meeting at Snowbird and the Agile manifesto for software development. It’s roots can be found in the same approaches that birthed the Toyota Production System, which lead to what MIT dubbed “lean”.
The true innovation stage for Agile began in the 1930s with Shewhart and Deming and their Plan-Do-Study-Act approach to improving processes. It evolved for 70 years, incubated within the manufacturing industry and eventually an emerging digital product industry.
The early adopters and growth
Sutherland and his colleagues at that historic meeting in the mountains of Utah were the early adopters of agile. And it’s important to remember their work centred on adapting the lessons coming out of Japan and the manufacturing industry to the development of software.
It also came in an era where software development looked a lot more like traditional manufacturing because of the cost of deploying the wrong thing. Software in 2000 wasn’t as ephemeral as the digital products of today (“There’s an app for that!”).
The early majority and growth
From the 2001 meeting for the next 10 or so years, Agile slowly grew in popularity. Then around the early 2010s, Agile exploded. According to Planview, by about 2015 over 50% of software development teams were using Agile.
In that same period, management consultants were picking up Agile and lean methodologies and applying it to just about any type of work. I found mentions of agility outside of software among McKinsey’s thought leadership articles from about 2009/2010.
The late majority and maturity
Right now, I get the sense the late majority is on board with Agile and we are seeing a peak of maturity starting to trend into decline. Agile (and often Scrum) can almost be assumed as the default method for software development teams. And it’s widely used by other teams. It’s also seeing lots of adaptations to things like Agile Procurement or Agile Finance. However, as it saturates ways of working across the board in enterprises, the limits of the method are starting to show.
Laggards and the decline
Certainly Agile isn’t everywhere. Nor should it be. In among the laggards are a large number of teams and organisations who will never adopt Agile because they realise Agile isn’t designed for their context.
Agile methodologies began with a useful process improvement tool (PDSA), which was applied to manufacturing processes (the Toyota Way/Lean), and then adapted to software (Scrum/Agile) and scooped up some other software methods under the same umbrella (DSDM, etc).
You can see these origins coming through in some applications of Agile: focus on making work visible, measuring throughput, inspection of artefacts, removing variability in the process.
But as work moves even further away from industrial manufacturing style contexts, the parts of Agile that harken back to these roots become problematic. We are already seeing new methods, like Shape Up, that could probably be called Agile but start to shift away from manufacturing-style processes.
As Agile wanes, something new will almost certainly replace it. Organisations need tools to organise their effort and apply it to shared goals. Maybe it’s time to go right back to the start with Plan-Do-Study-Act to reinvent a method of work that works for the next 20 years of work, not the last
HBR, Secret History of Agile Innovation: https://hbr.org/2016/04/the-secret-history-of-agile-innovation
Planview, The History of Agile: https://www.planview.com/resources/guide/agile-methodologies-a-beginners-guide/history-of-agile/#:~:text=While%20Agile%20took%20off%20in,began%20to%20accompany%20that%20story.
McKinsey, Reshaping IT management for turbulent times: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/reshaping-it-management-for-turbulent-times
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I created the Circle of Organisational Leadership back in 2001, and have been using it with our clients since then. It creates an ecosystem of leadership, not an egosystem. It creates all-around leadership, and a structure where everyone answers to something first, not someone. It allows for power and information to co-exist at the same table and organisations can flow like water to adapt to the ever-changing environments they find themselves in. It removes hierarchy and allows for coaches, not bosses.