As the use of agile techniques has become more common, many organizations are deciding to take the plunge into agility to see what it is all about and how they too can reap its benefits. Unfortunately, some of these organizations are unprepared for what comes after that decision to try agility and struggle as a result. As with anything, there are many ways for agile transitions to fail, but in my experience the following three failure modes are among the most common. Avoiding these won't guarantee success, but it will put your transition effort on a good path forward and greatly increase your chances of attaining the promise of agility. T
Agility as the Goal
This failure mode is driven by the ever growing volume of agile success stories that lead organizations to jump on the band wagon without realizing where they are jumping. Becoming agile for the sake of becoming agile is an awful goal. Nothing good will come of it. It all but guarantees failure because we have not defined what success is. Agility is about organizational improvement. What are we trying to improve? What problems are we trying to solve? What is really holding us back?
VersionOne's latest state of agile survey shows some of the most common reasons organizations are adopting agile techniques. But for our agile adoptions to succeed, we not only need to very clearly understand what we are trying to improve; we also need to understand how we will know we are making progress. If better alignment between the business and IT is your goal for instance, how you will determine progress? What would you expect to see when the business and IT are better aligned that you are not seeing today? Without these targets and measurements we cannot adequately assess our progress and our agile transition boat remains rudderless, prone to drift with the prevailing tides.
Focusing on Practices
Many agile transitions start out focusing on practices. Those new to Scrum for instance, frequently focus almost exclusively on daily stand-ups and working in iterations. From an IT point of view this practice focus is honest and natural. We are problem solvers and many of our solutions lay in processes, controls and tools. It is easy to tweak a process and feel good that we have done something to "solve" the problem. Looking at the first value statement of the Agile Manifesto, "Individuals and Interactions over Process and Tools", however should help us see that this practice focused approach leads us in the wrong direction. Agility is more about behaviors than it is practices. When we start down an agile adoption path we therefore need to focus more on changing behaviors than changing practices. Scrum defines the practices that it does because they generally lead to the team behavior we want, but just going through the motions of the practices will not get us there. The difference is a young child looking back at playing house as the model for running her household as an adult. Play "agile" if you want, but don't expect anything long lasting to come out of it. Agile transitions need to be about behavior change to gain any long term effects.
It's Just for the Development Team
Agile transitions appropriately start at the team level encouraging more collaborative ways of working. Too many transitions also end there. Isn't that actually saying all the issues and challenges within an organization are at the team level? Fix how those pesky teams perform and our organization will be perfect. Is that what we really believe? Starting an agile adoption at the team level is planting a seed. At first what that seed needs from the organization is protection and nurturing. As that seedling grows and flourishes it begins to need more from the organization. Much of what we learn at the team level is that there are genuine impediments in the organization that constrain the effectiveness of our teams. We do reams of documentation not because it helps the team complete its work, but because that's what we do. We take weeks to answer questions not because they are complex, but because we are unfocused. We demand precise estimates upfront not because we really believe them, but because we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. New behaviors at the team level must be supported by comparable behavior changes in the broader organization. If that doesn't happen the agile transition will not only stall, it will revert back to business as usual, only this time with a more disillusioned work force. They have seen a better way and now know it is not possible in their current organization.
Avoid these traps. Understand organizational improvement goals; know how you will recognize progress toward them. Focus on changing team behaviors. Recognize that maturing agile teams have different needs and expectations from their organizations. Agile transitions are not for the faint of heart. They require a sense of purpose and an evolving willingness to put the status quo aside in favor of new beliefs. Master that, and your agile transition will flourish allowing your organization to join the ever increasing number of enterprises reaping the benefits agility has to offer.