The OG of Agile

History shows how best to manage high performing teams

5 min readOct 31, 2019


The term A-players is a way to describe high performers that are smart, take action, adjust quickly, and get things done. The first A-players I saw were on a TV show back in 1983:

“If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… the A-Team.”

A team of renegades, on the run from the government, managed to escape the most impossible situations with crafty thinking and execution at blindly fast speeds. Nothing stopped the A-Team.

Last week I wrote about Skunk Works, a team led by Kelly Johnson, chief engineer at Lockheed. While there were no death-defying stunts or cartoonish violence involved, what Kelly’s team was able to accomplish was amazing for its ingenuity and speed.

In the course of his 50 year long career at Lockheed, his team managed to produce the most cutting edge and iconic planes ever created. This included the Electra, P-38 Lightning, Constellation, P-80 Shooting Star, F-104 Starfighter, C-130 Hercules, U-2 Dragon Lady, Jetstar, A-12 Oxcart and the SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft, which still holds the record for fastest air-breathing manned aircraft.

While recognized as a brilliant engineer, perhaps Kelly’s most impressive accomplishment was how he led his team of renegades. He had 14 principles known as “Kelly’s Rules” that defined his management practices for Skunk Works.

When you read through these, it reads like Agile. The Agile Manifesto and the twelve principles behind the manifesto seem highly aligned to Kelly’s focus on high functioning teams, strong customer partnership, and removing barriers.

Getting the right team in place was a critical element of Kelly’s success. These small, tight-knit teams collaborated freely among each other and with their military customers. Take the second and twelfth rules for example:




Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉