Who Is Most to Blame for Agile Failures?

I’ve interviewed countless agile experts over the years, and one of my favorite questions to ask each of them is, “Why, with the benefits of healthy, agile development so widely documented, why is it so difficult to create the workplace culture that agile needs to thrive?” The answer is often short, and begins with a sigh.

“Because change is hard.”

Initially, this answer sounds woefully inefficient, or at best, lazy. But if you’ve been a part of a waterfall software development team, you know all too well that change is hard—especially a change to agile. A practice that, thanks to the mantra of continuous improvement, doesn’t even have an end.

But, so what if it’s hard? Don’t these teams of developers and testers understand the rewards at stake? This is an effort to become “a learning organization, one that is capable or improving continuously over time.”

Fear not, dev/test teams; this isn’t an attack against you. What if the problem the whole time has been management?

Just as we’ve long known culture to be a common culprit for agile failures, we’ve also heard time and time again that management must also be “on board,” and that everyone needs to be “all in” for agile to work. But Bob Gower at PandoDaily goes deeper when he says that agile also requires “a shift in leadership behavior.”

I think we’re onto something here.

Eric King wrote a recent piece for the Scrum Alliance, scathingly titled, “Functional Managers and Executives Are Failing Agile Teams.” How?

…With the best of intentions in mind, managers and executives often fail the very Agile teams they have created, which, in turn, causes a demoralizing shift in the employee base…

…Many of today’s functional managers and executives do not possess the spatial awareness to know that something is inherently wrong.

Of all of King’s suggestions for how management can reverse this trend, his suggestion that leadership “should be pushing Agile methods into HR, sales, and marketing” is outstanding. Agile has more than proven effective in these areas, and how better to create a genuine culture than by welcoming as many members of an organization as possible into it.

Another way that management can directly impact a healthy, positive culture is to reward the behaviors of agile teams, and not their results. Software test lead Shaun Bradshaw and I spoke earlier this year about his belief in incentivizing behaviors—not bounties.

Behaviors like collaborating with the developers, or the business analysts, or the customers to ensure that every aspect of the project is as clear and as defect-free as possible.

We’re not far away from VersionOne’s “Annual State of Agile Development Survey,” which means the results have likely already been collected. It would be nice to see a decline from last year’s results, where more than 30% of those that reported agile failures in the past year blamed a lack of management’s support.

I can only assume that if you were to ask those managers why they’d failed to support their teams, “because change is hard” would be a common answer.

Let’s all do better in 2014.

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