Introduction

In a paper (presented as an overview to his completed doctoral thesis) titled An investigation into the prevalence of modern project management by means of an evolutionary framework”, Dr. Jon Whitty deals with the application of evolutionary principles to the domain of project management. He explains at the outset that:

Evolutionary principles can be applied to cultural matters too, in the sense that the practices, artefacts, beliefs, concepts and ideas we find around us today are there because they too have been selected (allowed or enabled to survive and reproduced) by individuals (because by using them or taking them on board benefits the individual is some way) or by organisations (because individuals acting for the organisation select them because of perceived benefits to the organisation).

This provides the foundational justification for comparing a seemingly biological process to a domain that on the surface seems completely disconnected from such discussions (and see my extended review of Jon Whitty’s paper here).

Discussion

Terry McKenna (whose earlier paper was reviewed here some time ago – see here and here) has collaborated with Jon Whitty to produce another thought provoking paper, titled: “Agile is Not the End-Game of Project Management Methodologies“.

The paper sets out to challenge the common perception, held by many (and admittedly by me as well), that the Agile movement represents a revolutionary movement, i.e a movement introduced as a counter measure to its surrounding environment and not as a by product of it (by which means it would be seen as an evolutionary movement).

Proving this point, one way or another, can only be done by exploring methods and ideas used in the past and then evaluating whether these methods and ideas have been replicated into an accepted method and ideas within the area of Agile thinking. To explore this question the paper makes use of the concepts of Memes and Memeplexes.

For those unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins‘ ‘The Selfish Gene‘, a Meme (as define in Wikipedia) is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.” In the context of Project Management, concepts and methods like the Gantt Chart, CPM and the WBS could be seen as Memes that over time established themselves as acceptable ideas within the project management community, as summarized in the paper:

For our purposes, a ‘meme’ will likely equate to a specific project management method, tool or artefact which is sufficiently recognisable as representing a discrete ‘idea.

A Memeplex (again, according to Wikipedia) is a “group of Memes that are often found present in the same individual. Applying the theory of Universal Darwinism, Memeplexes group together because memes will copy themselves more successfully when they are ‘teamed up’.” In the context of project management, a project management tool like MS Project could be looked at as a Memeplex as it is a collection of Memes that copy, or replicate, more effectively together. Or, as summarized in the paper:

a ‘memeplex’ can be seen as a means to facilitate conjoining or interacting of these memes to their greater good (i.e. survival and propagation).

The paper, meticulously, demonstrates how the thread of Memes that started with the Taylorism and the Scientific Management movement, through the creation of the Gantt Chart, the establishment of the ’4-step training process’, the creation of the Process Charts and work Simplification (and a few other processes and movements) have culminated, in the post WWII era, with the Toyota Production System (TPS) and the Lean Software Development. And on another evolutionary path, and another thread of Memes – resulting in the Iterative and Incremental Development – is a culmination of processes that started with the American Air-force in the 1950′s, through NASA’s Project Mercury, the Iterative approaches to modelling and Iterative enhancements, all leading to what is currently known as incremental development.

Based on the above analysis the paper concludes that

‘agile’ approaches are by no means ‘new’, but rather are result of a selection process

[...]

the current state is an accumulation of memes and memeplexes, chosen to suit environmental circumstances.

With that in mind the paper posits that the evolutionary nature ascribed to the formulation of the current set of agile methods suggests that this evolution is far from over and that further changes are likely to emerge in the future.

Some concluding notes

The paper provides a solid and compelling argument regarding the evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature of the Agile methods. Indeed, the methods themselves and the memes within which they are wrapped are not new. The paper mentions the fact that these various methods (and memes) have been incorporated into agile memeplexes and while it acknowledges the fact that in some contexts a memeplex can also be seen as being a meme in its own right – as the group of memes making up the memeplex become a unified idea that attract an independent evolutionary cycle – a greater importance could have perhaps been attributed to the possibility that while the memes have been around for quite some time it is the memeplex, i.e. the grouping and collection of these methods and ideas, that should be the center of this investigation and as such its creation is a less obvious or trivial occurrence and thus it does represents a somewhat more revolutionary idea.

The paper is also a timely and important reminder to the fact that a lot of what we see, hear or read around us is a result of or a spin off past actions. This is fantastically illustrated in the Everything is a Remix series and, when taken in context, is a timely reminder for placing our egos and achievements in the appropriate context of those who preceded us.

Think about it!

Print Friendly

4 Comments

  1. The best blog post EVER. Thanks for contributing to an important and poorly understand concept

    Reply

  2. Hi Shim,

    Thank you for this excellent review of Jon’s very interesting work.

    Unfortunately all too many people make claims about ideas without being fully informed of the history of those ideas. Jon’s work is a salutary reminder that not just Agile, but pretty much every “new” idea out there has antecedents. As Ambrose Bierce said: “‘There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know.”

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    Reply

  3. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of February 17 – 23 | The Practicing IT Project ManagerThe Practicing IT Project Manager

  4. Shim,

    Many thanks for the acknowledgement of this work. And I’m really pleased that you’ve managed to articulate the key points so well. Your summary points beg many interesting questions.

    I also wanted to point out that this theme of research work on Agile and production ideas is driven by Terry McKenna. I just stand very much in the shadows and supply the evolutionary framework. Terry is the Project Management Archaeologist that has done all the hard yard on both these papers. His knowledge is bordering on encyclopaedic on these matters, and I’m always fascinated to hear about the various people (many in their twilight years) who have approached Terry with their knowledge of how and when these various production ideas were actually practiced, adapted, and spread.

    Best,

    Jon

    Reply

  5. Pingback: Agile in Non Software Projects | quantmleap

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: