Alexis Ternoy
Alexis Ternoy 21 July 2015

Frank Lloyd Wright Knew About Agile Long Before You Did

Agile represents a revolution taking place in the way today's businesses are run, but its roots are based in theories put forth over a hundred years ago.

Agile represents a revolution taking place in the way today’s businesses are run, but its roots are based in theories put forth over a hundred years ago.  Beloved American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Falling Waters home is studied by art history majors all over the world, designed his buildings using the very same concepts that drive Agile – he had it nailed long before even our grandparents were born.

Take a look for yourself and see if the parallels between Wright’s Prairie School of architecture and the principles of Agile don’t amaze.  Viewing this historical context of Agile helps shed light on why so many believe it to be the way of the future for not only the way I.T. is run, but also any business on earth.


Architecture, Agile, & You

Right now in business, there’s a paradigm shift taking place. It can best be described as a crumbling of the traditional management structure, making way for a lighter, faster, more responsive, organic and connected style of doing business.

Of course, you know it as Agile.

If you’re not yet familiar with Agile, or if you’re still learning about it, then perhaps a view through the lens of architecture might help you see things clearly.  After all, famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright was designing buildings based on the same concepts as Agile and that was more than a hundred years ago.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School of Building Design was Agile

Frank Lloyd Wright designed his buildings to co-exist with their surroundings.  Based on the landscape of the prairie, they were flat, expanding outwards rather than upwards.  Indeed, they were built in stark contrast to the dominant new trend of his day: skyscrapers.

Mr. Wright and others who built in the Prairie School of architecture felt a need to counterbalance the dehumanizing effects of modern production: the assembly line and mass production.  Their buildings reflected a respect for the artisan, the hand-crafted aspects of architecture.  Their open floor plans and use of indigenous materials highlighted emphasis on the interconnections of its inhabitants as well as the inhabitants with their environment.

You could say all those things about Agile.  The practice of Agile also has a horizontal mindset: rather than functioning under the oppressive weight of all-powerful management and higher-ups who dictate company culture and how things get done, employees in an Agile environment are meant to thrive, grow, and share in the outcome of the business, having an authentic stake in how things turn out.

Both Wright and Agile believe in organically responding to their environments rather than dominating them

One reason Agile works is because it’s highly responsive to the changing business environment.  Agile-structured businesses are customer-centered, which is partly why they’re successful. Customer-centric policies plus the ability to adapt to consumer demand are key strategies in Agile.  That means being in tune with your surroundings (the market) is key. Compare this to the inhabitants of a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who are totally in tune with their surroundings because they live in homes designed to work with nature, not against it.

Furthermore, Wright’s respect for the craftsman and the individual is much like Agile’s emphasis on teamwork and drawing the best from every employee.  It’s a respect for the power of the individual…empowerment, you could say.  Self-organizing teams run the show in an Agile office, whereas in traditional management it’s all about power and rules from above.  Employees are mere cogs in the wheel of production, the very thing Wright and other Prairie School architects were against.

Skyscrapers represent traditional management…neither one is responsive to the environment or customer-friendly

Just as the Prairie School was a response to a style of architecture viewed as hierarchical, dehumanizing, and completely negligent to environmental concerns, so has Agile been a response to management described in the same way.

Skyscrapers are not built of indigenous materials and of course dominate the skyline, changing it  forever.  This is much like the old powerhouse companies like IBM created their own markets, dictating what consumers could buy, creating their own skyline, so to speak.  New companies, on the other hand, respond to customer demand and produce what the market demands.  Like a low-slung prairie home, they blend in and connect with their environments, or their customers.

A focus on customers requires a dynamic workforce that’s involved at every level…that’s Agile.  It’s also in line with the ideals of Frank Lloyd Wright

Traditional management requires a workforce that’s subdued and ready to follow orders with minimal platforms that allow for employee input. That could be considered dehumanising…think of how many people in the corporate world hate their jobs.  It’s a hierarchical bureaucracy and for about 150 years, it worked. Of course it’s symbolised by the skyscraper structure, which houses its execs on the top floor, well away from both the workers and the consumers on the street level.

Wright celebrated the artisan and hated the assembly line method of production. His horizontal structures encouraged participation with the environment on a human scale, not an industrial scale. That’s Agile- participation of networked teams who are totally in touch with their customers and with each other.

Frank Lloyd got it right almost a hundred years ago – a horizontal world that focuses on the ecosystem (customer) is better than a vertical dynamic with a controlling ideology any day.  Now let’s see if more businesses can’t see it this way and change course.

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