The Age of Agile

The History of Modern Organizations — PART VI.

Patrick Heller
6 min readJul 26, 2023


People have been working since the dawn of our time. Whether it was hunting or gathering, farming or nursing, warring, or leading, work has always been there. But, work has changed over time. With the discovery of fire, the creation of tools, and the ever-increasing complexities of our societies, labor has evolved for most humans.

Understanding the Why

If we would focus solely on today’s modern workplace — the one you are probably familiar with — we would be missing out on why things came to be as they currently are. To better understand the current, it definitely helps to understand the past. Thus, a brief dive into history, similar to the previous articles about psychology, will aid in comprehending psychological insights into the way things happen in your work environment today.

Let me be frank about the scope of this all-too-brief overview of the history of work. No doubt I will be skipping numerous significant influential persons as well as events, but these articles are not intended as an all-encompassing encyclopedia of sorts. I will touch on topics that I see as highly influential still to this day, and therefore important to understand.


While management by objectives and traditional project management put heavy emphasis on maximizing output, W. Edwards Deming (1900–1993) tried to steer leaders in the industries towards maximizing quality.

Deming has mostly become famous for his consulting work after the Second World War, in Japan, credited by many to be one of the inspirations for what is known as the Japanese post-war economic miracle, much like Das Wirtschaftswunder in Germany and Austria.

Deming championed the work of Walter Shewhart (1891–1967), including his statistical process control, a method of quality control that employs statistical methods to monitor and control a process, and what Deming called the “Shewhart Cycle”, more commonly known as the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Later, Deming provided his own version with the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, which, in the feelings of Deming, gave more poise to what Shewhart actually meant.

The observant Agile-minded reader has no doubt spotted the very modern-sounding cycle we see return nowadays in an Agile framework like Scrum. Planning, sprinting, reviewing, and then planning again, basically coincide with what we see in Shewhart’s cycle.

In 1982, Deming wrote Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position, in which he offers a theory of management based on his now-famous 14 Points for Management. Most notable among the points are the stress on constant quality improvement and the changing role of the leadership, from managing by numbers towards leadership that provides an environment of safety, constant training, and broken down barriers between departments.

In the eyes of Deming, people in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team in order to provide the best product or service. I find it pretty devastating that today, over forty years onwards, coaches like myself still find ourselves struggling to tear down completely separately working silos within organizations.


I deliberately want to end this series about the history of work with the Agile Manifesto. Not in the least because I wholeheartedly believe it to represent the right way of working in the twenty-first century.

Aptly, the Agile Manifesto was written at the very start of the twenty-first century, in 2001, by a small band of obscure techy smart-asses who were fed up with the then-current way of creating software, being traditional project management, with the stranglehold of the iron triangle, and with working in speed-obliterating vertical silos within large organizations.

These front-runners saw the limits to this way of working and its dire consequences if not acted upon. Moreover, they saw plenty of opportunities to cozy up with the customers of their organizations, in order to succeed both tech-wise and business-wise.

Here is what the Agile Manifesto looks like:

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

It is not to be underestimated what these words have changed in the last few decades, in light of all that has been taught and lived by before the above mantra was introduced. Much of it squarely contradicts the traditional way of conducting project management.

We find even more oppositions towards traditional project management in the twelve principles behind the Agile Manifesto:

· Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

· Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

· Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

· Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

· Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

· The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

· Working software is the primary measure of progress.

· Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

· Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

· Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.

· The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

· At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The Agile way of working completely negates the careful planning upfront and then carrying out the consecutive steps, within time, scope, and budget, to complete the predefined project.

Instead, Agile poses that the best way to deal with the ever-faster changing world, with its accompanying uncertainty, is to retrieve feedback quickly and regularly on how things are going from all angles, for instance, from end-users and customers to your own team members, in order to adjust your work and, or, your way of working, to better suit the demands, and thus be more successful with each iteration.

The Age of Agile

The effect of the Agile movement on organizations worldwide cannot be understated. As writer Steve Denning puts it via his 2018 book title, we now live in “The Age of Agile”. The subtitle of his book is, “How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done,” which alludes in different ways to the attention organizations of today should be paying to this way of working. The smart part hints at the suggestion that if you don’t work in an Agile way, you’re selling yourself short. You might even say that in order to survive, organizations will have to turn to an Agile way of working. The last part, of getting things done, refers to the dogma within Agile that says things are only valuable to the end-user or customer if they’re truly done. Agile practices a strict binary rule in this sense. The phrase that interests me most is the transforming part, for that entails more than merely the technical transformations, which are numerous and grand in their own respect, but moreover, the human transformations of thinking and attitude.

From a psychological point of view, Agile transformation is as interesting as it is complex. Beyond the technical and organizational consequences, Agile has brought about changes in thinking about work motivation and satisfaction, and even the moral landscape, of the business world at large.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores:

Book cover