Is Agile Like the Steam Engine?

Is Agile Like the Steam Engine? I recently participated in a LinkedIn discussion in which the author of the discussion made a statement that “Agile is by definition a software development methodology”. I didn’t agree with that statement at all…Its unfortunate that the word “Agile” has acquired that connotation in actual usage by a number of people but that’s just sloppy use of terminology (similar to the sloppy use of the word “Waterfall” that I’ve talked about) and its also somewhat narrow thinking.

The author of that discussion defended his statement that “Agile is by definition a software development methodology” by saying that “The Agile Manifesto starts with these words ‘We are uncovering better ways of developing software'”. That statement doesn’t work either in my opinion – I’m sure that was a key motivator behind creating the Agile Manifesto but that was in 2001 which was 12-13 years ago and our concept of what Agile is has grown significantly since that time.

I was trying to think of a good analogy to illustrate this point and somehow I thought of the steam engine. The steam engine was originally invented in 1698 by Thomas Savery who was working on the problem of how to pump water out of coal mines. Thomas Newcomen improved on the design but it wasn’t until Scotsman James Watt improved on the steam engine in the second half of the 18th century that it became truly a viable piece of machinery that helped start the industrial revolution. Even though that started the industrial revolution across the whole world, very few people in the 1700’s would likely imagine that that was only the beginning and the same principles originally used to use to pump water out of coal mines would have a much broader usage in the future including powering nuclear power plants.

(Source: http://americanhistory.about.com/od/industrialrev/p/steamengine.htm)

I think Agile is very similar…

  • The roots of Agile go back a lot further than 2001 – you can very easily trace the roots of Agile to TQM and Lean Manufacturing long before 2001 and the evolution of iterative methodologies like RUP certainly also had an influence. The period prior to 2001 was probably equivalent to pumping water out of coal mines
  • Learning to apply The Agile principles to software development in the Agile Manifesto in 2001 was a real breakthrough that is probably similar to James Watt learning how to apply steam to operate industrial machinery that started the industrial revolution across the world. It had major impact, but that was only the beginning
  • Just as James Watt probably never envisioned the use of steam power in nuclear power plants, the signers of the Agile Manifesto probably never fully envisioned widespread implementation of those principles in many other areas beyond software development

In common usage, some people think that the word “Agile” only applies to software development; to other people, the definition is even narrower and you’re only truly Agile if you’re doing Scrum and doing it strictly by the book with no variation. in my opinion, this really is just sloppy use of terminology and narrow thinking in how the word “Agile” is being used. Our understanding of what “Agile” is is still at a very early stage probably very similar to when James Watt learned how to apply steam technology to operate industrial machinery and limiting our thinking about what “Agile” is may prevent us from imagining new applications and ways of using Agile principles and practices that no one has even dreamed of yet.

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