March 3, 2015

8 Common Causes of Failure in Agile Projects

Change is difficult. Agile represents change. It then follows that Agile is difficult. What makes Agile difficult as change is that it requires that we think about how we approach our work differently than we are doing today, than we have been doing for years. In order for Agile to succeed, we must redefine the way we think about ‘value,’ and we must align that definition with the goals of the business. We must then optimize the process for delivering that value.

It’s not an easy task, particularly for a large, mature organization. And no manager who initiates an Agile transformation is incentivized to want that initiative to fail. But sometimes Agile projects fail. For the manager, team member, or executive who is a proponent for Agile, it’s wise to learn from the mistakes of others. In an article yesterday on the VersionOne blog, Lee Cunningham shares the 8 most commonly cited reasons that Agile projects fail, derived from the 9th annual State of Agile survey. The survey included responses from “nearly 4,000” IT pros on a question that allowed for multiple responses.

#1 Lack of experience with Agile
44% cited this as the biggest reason. Lee writes, “Indeed, agile is first about how you think, but it also impacts what you do and how you do it. Teams that are deficient in the ability to apply basic agile practices tend to run into trouble.” The lesson here is that if you want your Agile initiative to be successful, it’s wise to invest in training and coaching to kick things off. An alternative is to ‘buy’ the expertise you need by bringing experienced Agile practitioners in-house.

#2 Culture is not aligned with core Agile values
42% said their company’s existing culture was too much at odds with the Agile way of thinking. According to Lee, “If your organization’s culture is either ignorant of or outright hostile to agile principles and values, the prospect of success beyond isolated pockets of agile teams are slim.”

#3 Insufficient support from management
38% suggest there wasn’t enough support from management to achieve success. To me, this one goes hand-in-hand with #2. As a former Army officer, I can tell you that we never talked about or tried to address ‘cultural issues.’ We called them leadership issues. Leaders drive culture by embodying the values they want the organization to possess. Managers report on things, they track things, they sum and tally things. Leaders create a vision for the organization’s desired future state, and work to define a plan to bridge the gap.

#4 Status Quo
“Another 37% of respondents answered that they found external pressure to follow traditional waterfall processes impeding their projects’ success,” writes Lee. In large enterprises, an Agile team can, and often does, exist under the umbrella of “traditional portfolio and project management (PPM) methodology, as opposed to the PPM methodology transforming to an agile approach.” This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. You need the Agile pilot to succeed in order to scale it out more broadly, but the probability of success for an Agile project is endangered by more traditional PPM thinking. Even more salient, traditional PPM is largely responsible for creating the definition of value that must be changed in order for Agile to succeed. Did the project finish on time? Was it on budget? Agile, instead, emphasizes the definition of value as seen through the eyes of the customer. This disagreement between an internal vs. external focus must be addressed.

#5 Little support for changing the culture
36% of respondents cited this as the biggest reason Agile projects fail. “Senior leadership holds the most leverage in facilitating the transformation of an organization’s culture to one that embraces agile,” writes Lee, “Tangible, active involvement at the executive level is critical to cultural transformation.”

#6 Organization or communication problems
33% for this one. All large, mature organizations have these kinds of problems, all over the place, so the respondents aren’t alone.

#7 Team doesn’t commit to following Agile
33% of respondents report they shot themselves in the foot right out of the gate. This actually happened to me back in 2003, about 6 hours after my howitzer battery had gotten into Baghdad. We had just moved into this abandoned walled compound, and while the leadership was working together to define next steps, a Soldier accidentally shot himself clean through his boot. We had the battalion surgeon with us, but he hadn’t had enough time to set up a proper aid station. I was a platoon leader, and even though this Soldier wasn’t in my platoon I somehow got dispatched to lead a medevac patrol across Baghdad to get him to the battalion aid station.

one small accident caused huge disruption that rippled across the organization, and endangered the overall goal. Don’t be that guy, or gal.

#8 Not enough training
30% cited this as the most common reason for failure. This issue is very closely tied to #1 on the list. According to Lee, lack of sufficient training came in one of three forms. Nobody got any training; Training didn’t extend to all those who needed the training; Quality of training was poor.

If you’re a manager, team member, or executive who is working on an Agile initiative, I think some lessons that can be inferred from this list. One is that at the team level, high-quality training and team commitment are critical to successfully implementing Agile. Another is understanding that any pilot team is only the kernel of a larger transformation effort, which also includes the way PPM manages Agile projects, as well as full buy-in from executive sponsors.

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