Five Reasons for Agile Failure

We all want to make our projects more successful. We all want to “wow” our customers. We all want to improve the quality of our work. What do we do? We adopt an Agile framework such as Scrum or Kanban to address the process problems in our organization. Yet, despite our best efforts it fails. Why?

Here are five reasons why Agile transformations fail based on findings from the 9th Annual State of Agile Survey. Give this survey a read – it is full of key insights into the Agile movement.

1: Lack of Experience With Agile Frameworks

There are plenty of great resources out there to learn about Agile frameworks including classes (certified or non-certified), books (conceptual and/or practical), videos, articles, and ongoing learning programs. No matter how much one reads, watches, listens to, or participates in these resources or activities there is one element that must not be overlooked: practical experience in the field.

It is critical for experienced individuals to support, co-lead, and create innovative learning spaces for the Agile transformation to germinate and grow. Without these people, the transformation is lacking the wisdom of those that have “been there done that”, and that can provide guidance and story-telling as a way to build momentum.

TIP: Experience Agile practitioners are critical to get your transformation moving, co-create a transformation journey that makes sense, and help you navigate its peaks and valleys.

2: Organizational Culture is in Conflict With Agile Values

Sometimes leaders believe that an Agile transformation is just about processes and procedures. They believe that Agile is just another project management approach. This, alas, is not the case!

This whole Agile movement came from the Agile Manifesto: which refers to both the doing and being of Agile. These values such as “Responding to change over following a plan” and “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” are at odds with many organization’s beliefs and behaviors. What if your company always creates a business requirements document before anybody begins programming? This may be a problem for your Agile transformation. What if your company has strict rules on who must “sign-off” at each stage for a project to continue to progress? This will likely be difficult when moving through an Agile transformation.

A friend told me a story about a well-known consultant. He was hired to help an organization with a large change. Early on in the engagement, he noticed a large poster that read “Trust everyone”. He thought that this was a great public acknowledgment of one of their key values. Throughout the project, he noticed that this poster was not true. So he created a new large poster that read “Trust No One”. This may not be the best way to make visible the actual values held by your company. Stated values that differ from behaviours will adversely affect your Agile transformation.

TIP: Identify which Agile values will support your company culture and which won’t. Then decide with others how (and if) an Agile transformation could be approached in the most effective and valuable way for your organization.

3: Lack of Executive Management Support

The majority of Agile transformations begin through one of two ways. Either, this initiative starts from the ground up where individuals make small to medium changes in how they work together and complete projects. Then this work is made visible to middle management and executive leadership. Or, this journey starts from the top with a key executive (or executive group) deciding that their group or entire company will be now using an Agile approach. Senior management support is needed to weather the storm of seeing an organization’s weaknesses and challenges without any filters. This is a painful process and often derails the adoption rate of Agile.

At many organizations, a senior executive states with a loud and booming voice that “We are going Agile”. Managers and staff are usually impressed with this type of public statement and feel supported in their Agile journey. However, as the first teams being to work in this new way and start to question, or even challenge, the way that things are done – this often causes leadership to recant on their previous statements and promises. Executives must make the decision of whether to address the now visible problems in their way or take the easier path of turning a blind eye to the deep root causes of their company’s current problems. These need to be addressed for the transformation to advance and for the benefits to be realized.

TIP: Work closely with executive management throughout the Agile transformation. Let them be heard, co-create the journey with them, and support them as they also face the challenges of organizational change.

4: External Pressure to Bow to Traditional Processes

Change is hard. Change is really hard. Change is really really hard.

It is easy for us to tell others to change. It is easy to say that a team or organization is ready for a change. However, it is not until we are in the midst of a large change that our true thoughts and habits are revealed. This pressure may include: following the hierarchical structure for approvals, feeling comfortable in one’s assigned role, adding non-Agile pieces to an Agile framework (e.g. adding a “Sprint Zero” to Scrum), and reverting to risk-based prioritization instead of value-based prioritization of work. Each of these traditional processes (and much more) can adversely affect the company’s ability to transform and to experience both huge qualitative gains as well as huge quantitative gains.

For example, I remember facilitating a training a number of years ago for a small group. It was a two-day training workshop on Scrum. During the morning of the first day, one participant was very excited and telling all of his colleagues about the value and need for the company to adopt Scrum as their Agile approach. He spoke about the merit of short iterations and daily stand-ups. Part way through the second day he came to the realization that Scrum (and all Agile frameworks) strongly encourage cross-training of skills – this meant learning some parts of a new programming language to support the needs of his team. Once this realization occurred he became antagonistic to the whole workshop and to Scrum itself. He was a developer of a specific language and that was his identity – not a Scrum team member that contributes as needed to the goal of the team and the project. His traditional way of viewing the progress of his career and how individuals work on a project was in direct conflict with the Agile framework.

TIP: Become aware of your own and your organizations’ tendencies to follow and revert to traditional ways of working. Then actively engage others in discussions and action plans to address and, ultimately, remove these behaviours.

5: Lack of Support for Cultural Transformation

An Agile transformation is not just about processes and practices. It is much more than that. A true Agile transformation encompasses an organization’s culture as well as structure and process. One of the most difficult aspects of a large change is working with the people. These individuals have history, perceptions, beliefs, and behaviours that are usually aligned with the current culture. And it is rare that the current culture is aligned with an Agile approach or Agile culture. Tension will rise. Disruption will occur. People’s perceived worth and identity will be tested.

If executive leadership, human resources, and other key areas aren’t supportive through deeds (not just words) then the Agile transformation is likely to fail. How do these key areas support the transformation? What does it look like?

One organization that I worked with went above and beyond in their Agile transformation. We were engaged with the client to train all of the teams in Scrum. However, we decided to do a short series of sessions to analyze and determine for ourselves what were the key areas that we could provide the most value. Through this short phase, we presented to executive leadership that the biggest problems are the beviours and actions demonstrated by executive leadership. This was hard for them to hear. However, they agreed and we spent 2/3 of the engagement working with this executive leadership team. This resulted in them building great trust amongst each other, working together as a team each morning for a couple of hours, building interest and excitement for the whole department, and opening their teams to be willing and active participants in the transformation.

TIP: Be clear on what an Agile transformation really means and how it directly affects culture. Then be patient, provide plenty of time and space for people’s concerns and questions. And then finally, actively engage the entire group in walking on this path of cultural and organizational change.

Individually each of these reasons for Agile failure is difficult. Together they can seem insurmountable. It is important to get support early on in the transformation through internal executive sponsorship, internal champions, external coaches and consultants, and middle management that are all willing to work with the Agile teams and connected individuals throughout this transformation journey.

What reasons for Agile failure have you seen? Did you overcome them in a future engagement? What did you learn from the failures?

I welcome any comment, stories, and questions to help us all learn about this experience and path to becoming a truly Agile organization. Thanks and enjoy your journey with Agile values and Agile frameworks!
Paul J. Heidema


Originally posted on LinkedIn.

Warm regards,

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