Using Agile to build London's Eiffel Tower

I ran a session at PMI's PMO Symposium called Agile in Practice for PMO Professionals. During the session, an attendee asked about using Agile in the construction industry. I've delivered projects and managed PMO teams in a variety of sectors, but I have never worked in construction, so I must confess I was not able to offer much in the way of guidance. Recently though, I discovered an interesting example of Agile in the construction industry that almost lead to London, UK having a tower to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower was designed by French engineer, Gustave Eiffel. It was built from 1887–89 as the entrance to the World's Fair in 1889. Despite initial criticism, it quickly became something of a cultural icon. The tower is 1,063ft tall and was the tallest man-made structure in the world - a title that it held onto until the Chrysler Building in New York was completed 40 years later. The tower was also successful from a financial perspective and remains the world's most visited paid monument in the world to this day. 

Anything Paris can do, London can do better.

British Member of Parliament and railway magnate Sir Edward Watkin decided London should have a tower to rival the tower in Paris. He organised a design competition (you can view the entries here), before settling on a design that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Paris tower - but 300ft taller. 

Watkin's motives were not all nationalistic though. His railway company, The Metropolitan Railway, was expanding its network into outer London. Watkin believed that the tower would attract day trippers to travel on his railway, and would help sell housing on the land adjacent to the railway. 

Iterative and Incremental Delivery

Work on the tower and the surrounding area began in 1891. Watkins designed a sizable pleasure garden, with the tower being the centerpiece. The park contained soccer pitches, a cricket ground, a running track, bandstands, a golf course and a theater. 

The tower and park were not funded by the public purse and Watkin's company needed a steady cash flow. Therefore they chose to deliver in a way that would be familiar to modern-day software-developers and Agile evangelists. They went for an iterative and incremental approach, delivering value as early as possible, and releasing additional features over time. With this in mind, the park opened while the park was still being constructed with what we would call an MVP - the Minimum Viable Product.

The MVP - Minimum Viable Product

MVP is defined as is a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development. For Watkin, this meant opening the park for soccer matches. In October 1893, as soon as he was able, he opened the park to cater for soccer matches on Saturdays. Watkin's team gradually expanded the gardens whilst work continued on the tower. By taking this Agile approach, Watkin was able to realize value early and capitalize on the public interest in the project. 

Watkin's Tower - the first Iteration

In 1895, the first phase of the tower was complete. Sticking to Agile principles, Watkin decided to open the partially completed tower to the public. This approach allowed visitors the opportunity to climb the first part of the tower and experience views over London. The tower stood at 154ft high at the time and attracted 12,000 visitors in its first year. 

The End for the Tower...

Unfortunately the tower was never extended beyond this first iteration. The foundations were found to be unstable and there were issues with subsidence. The project was killed off and the construction company that had been created for the sole purpose of building the tower was placed into voluntary liquidation. The tower was declared unsafe the following year, and was eventually demolished in 1904. 

...But not for the Park

While the tower was not a success, the park and pleasure gardens continued to be popular. Rather than sticking with the original business case, Metropolitan Rail learned from their MVP and decided to expand the sports facilities. They added cycling and rowing facilities and ice skating in the winter months. By 1918, there were over 100 sports clubs using the facilities at the park. The park was selected as the site for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 and the 125,000-capacity British Empire Exhibition Stadium was built over the foundations of the ill-fated tower.  The stadium later became known as Wembley Stadium.

Map of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The Stadium was built over the site of the tower.

Map of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The Stadium was built over the site of the tower.

Wembley Park continues to attract huge crowds to this day for both music and sporting events at Wembley Stadium. The park went on to host the 1948 Olympics, and the stadium was again used as a venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The modern-day stadium at Wembley Park.

The modern-day stadium at Wembley Park.

 

Lessons for today's Agile Projects

While London never got its tower to rival that of Paris, the project makes a good case for taking an Agile outlook. By releasing an MVP, the site owners were able to determine what was popular with visitors. When the tower ran into difficulty, the Metropolitan Railway Company were able to take the learnings from the MVP and apply them - ensuring the park delivered value as a popular sporting venue.