The meeting with the customer did not go well. The prototype was not yet finished, and the customer wasn’t able to grasp the qualities of the  idea he was presenting. This project was already over budget, and there was no clear line of sight on its completion. By all measures, it was taking too long to put together, and the customer was getting anxious. He knew he was about to lose his job.

It was the end of 1546 A.D. and the project was the construction of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. It had started 40 years prior, and there was no sign of progress. Several architects had come and gone, and the customer, Pope Paul III was facing increasing criticism over spiraling costs and the endless delays. What was intended to be the symbol of all Christianity was not moving any closer to completion, and the Pope had not yet seen a clear plan to finish it.

The most recent architect, Antonio il Giovane (Anthony the Young), had spent the previous seven years building a gigantic, wooden model that would show in full detail the grandiose plan he intended to pursue.(1) He wanted to have a full representation of the finished work to get the Pope’s buy-in on every detail before beginning construction. He intended to fix every detail of the final construction and offer a plan to follow. This was standard practice for the times — no wonder cathedrals took 200 years to complete!

In the modern world, this would be called a waterfall approach. Imagine spending seven years creating a very detailed prototype covering all the specifics of the planned project, from the broad vision to the specific requirements of every little feature. And once you finally complete it, you find out that it does not satisfy your customer’s need.

What happened next is an example of agility and empowerment similar to the cultural shift taking hold today in companies around the world.

Tired of the delays, setbacks, and overall lack of progress, Pope Paul III fired the architect and called on Michelangelo for help. The Pope gave him full authority, empowering the new architect to make any decision on the design, prioritization of the work, and delivery of the project.

Michelangelo immediately discarded the wooden model built by his predecessor and threw away the existing plans. To remove some constraints and establish a more solid foundation for the building, he even tore down parts of the Cathedral that his predecessor had built. With the Pope’s full authorization, he set off to design a new concept for the largest church in the world.

In just a few days, he built a clay model of his new concept and shared it with the Pope. The model was a basic, rough representation of the whole plan, intended for quick iteration. He received feedback that the design seemed a bit dark, and Michelangelo promptly modified the window designs to allow for more light to penetrate inside. He again showed the new model to the Pope, and this time his customer liked the general idea.

Compared to a single, fully detailed wooden model like the one his predecessor had built, Michelangelo’s clay prototypes allowed for rapid iterations of building and receiving customer feedback. Because he did not waste time on every single detail, but rather built clay models for small portions of the cathedral at a time, Michelangelo was able to get the Pope’s feedback very quickly and avoid lengthy changes when something didn’t go well.

Today, we have only a handful of plans of St. Peter’s from that time. It’s not that they were destroyed over time, but rather that Michelangelo simply didn’t bother making detailed plans. He conceived, planned, and built a small section of the church at a time. Instead of detailed plans, he used prototypes. He built clay and wooden models that were easy to put together and adjust quickly as needed. When he realized that something was not right, he was ready to tear it down and conceive a new idea. He had an overarching vision for the final cathedral, and he was getting there one step at a time.

Michelangelo worked on Saint Peter’s for 17 years, until his death. In this time, he made much more progress than all other architects that had preceded him during the prior 40 years. In doing so, he provided us with, perhaps, the first example of how to employ agility from ideation to execution. And he left behind what is still today one of the world’s wonders.

Saint Peter's cathedral in Rome
Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome

Building the largest church in the world in the 16th century must have required a massive effort without the technology and machinery we have today. Yet, Michelangelo employed several techniques that resemble what today we call Agile, Lean, and iterative development. Rather than wasting time on a detailed, immutable, upfront plan, he built in increments, tested his assumptions, and then decided how best to continue. He pivoted when it was necessary.

In this way, Michelangelo was a great inspiration to today’s product managers. He blended technical acumen with a strong sense of design and the capacity to empathize with his customers to understand their needs and build a great product. Today’s methodologies are changing the way product managers approach their work. Agile, Scrum, Design Thinking and others let us ideate, plan, and execute new products at a speed and with a confidence that was never possible before. Because these methodologies are condensing the learning cycle and are putting product managers closer to their customers, they can help deliver what customers really need and reduce the risk of building the wrong product.

This article is from the book Deliver Great Products That Customers Love

(1) Mauro Mussolin et al., Michelangelo architetto a Roma, Silvana Editoriale, 2010.

Michelangelo the first Agilist?
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