Why Agile fails when it fails

Why Agile fails when it fails

Agile is much more a culture than it is a method and that is the biggest challenge for organizations attempting to go on the journey of becoming Agile. Agile is a culture, driven by customer focus and efficiency. Agile is also a culture in which liberal delivery scopes are advocated. No tight controls, no strict budgets and no rigid plans.

So basically, Agile is a culture which goes against the most common established company cultures of top-down control over budget and delivery. Quite challenging and yet there are plenty champions of Agile which have grown fast due to their interpretation of Agile. Not by the book, not as a method. Agile as a culture to rule the markets.

Amazon is a clear example of that. Founded based on market and customer facts. In the words of Jeff Bezos, Amazon was founded as an online book selling platform because books offered the most items which could be sold online, and consumers appeared to be more interested in buying books online than in any other segment he investigated. At Amazon, that data driven customer focus is still the most important driver of the culture. At Amazon they even call it customer obsession and it is the first parameter on their Leadership code of conduct.

Amazon also continues to deliver in small self-controlled teams, to which I refer in my Agile Business Management courses as the ‘family pizza rule’. When your team can’t be fed with a large family pizza, your team is too big. Amazon is more than willing to test a new product or service to get customer feedback and drive improvements. As a Senior Executive once told me, Amazon is very proud that every failed product trial provides valuable insights and drives improvements of other products and services.

Amazon started as Agile company and continues to work Agile, no matter the size and growth. What allows Amazon to remain Agile boils down to three drivers. From day 1, their leadership strongly believes in the Agile culture and ensures that this continues to be at the core of development of the organization. Amazon developed its very own Agile culture, not driven by books or external variations of methods. And finally, Amazon drives Agile as a culture, not as a method or purpose.

Especially the latter element is crucial for the survival of the culture. When Amazon is building a new distribution center or its famous HQ2, nobody in the organization will even consider suggesting the ‘Agile thing’ when it comes to contracts and specifications for construction. The Agile culture kicks in when problems arise and need to be solved and takes over as soon as that new distribution center is put into operation. The strength of Amazon’s Agile culture is that they know when to use it, and when not to do so.

Microsoft also transitioned into an Agile culture on their own terms. Much slower and at entirely different organizational levels. Docked deeper into their product delivery and with less ‘freedom’. The Microsoft Agile culture focuses mainly on delivering new product features during the lifecycle of a product, and much less on generating a company wide culture. And it works very well for Microsoft. Once again because they made it to the culture that matches their environment and embrace it where it fulfills their needs, not the other way around.

And then there is Tesla and there is Elon Musk. ‘Once you buy a Tesla, you will never drive the same car for longer than a month’. New features as a feature. Tesla and Elon Musk have taken the short cycle and customer focus to a whole new level and are still working on the other side of Agile. Fast release cycles can lead to unforeseen issues. Tesla does still have ‘some’ organizational issues with sorting out and resolving those features that wend to market and caused customer issues. Solving Agile issues should be part of the Agile culture as much as customer focus should be.

Despite some of the remaining challenges, Tesla too created an Agile culture which is not based on books or methods or templates. It is a culture which is unique to Tesla and you won’t find elsewhere in any organization. And it is also a culture which is driven by its leadership, personalized in Elon Musk himself. Yet Tesla also had to learn to apply Agile where it can provide benefits and step away from it where there is no place for Agile’s features. For example, with the many safety systems in their cars. Those are thoroughly engineered and tested in the ‘evil’ waterfall structures. If not, there would be no Tesla vehicle roaming the streets of any country which has legislation on safety!

So, the success stories of companies and organizations which benefit from an Agile culture all have 3 aspects in common:

  • The Agile Culture is driven by the Leadership.
  • The Agile Culture is applied where appropriate.
  • The Agile Culture is an instrument, not a goal.

Failing Agile and Fake Agile

When we see Agile fail, we see it fail when Agile is used ‘by the book’ as a method, a purpose even. A subset of the delivery strategy. Not driven and lived by leadership, in most cases even docked far away from any leadership role. Isolated around teams that work on building software and products under pressure. Caught in the Agile Manifesto as the only way to deliver and release customer value. Without big picture. In most cases without a strategic plan.

Another common root cause in failing Agile is the so called ‘Fake Agile’, where the advocates of Agile cite from their slides but, lack any customer focus. There are even methods out their which hardly include the customer in their procedures. Slide after slide with steps and processes. A waterfall by themselves!

In 30+ years as consultant, coach and trainer, I have seen many failed and fake Agile ‘projects’ and cleaned up the mess for clients. Clients which have lost business because the label Agile was abused to skip fulfilling contractual obligations. Some clients even driven towards the edge of bankruptcy after fake Agile took its toll on the ability to really serve the customers and markets and fulfill the legal and regulatory obligations.

A client which lost their banking license which they had obtained after many years and high investments, because the false usage of Agile principles had them make one breach of regulations after the other. A client which lost their biggest long-term contract because the teams responsible for delivery preferred to develop new things instead of solving the known issues. A client which had to shutdown its most profitable subsidiary after disrupting business for their clients with horrible flawed products and services, which would be fixed ‘in the next iteration’ which never came. And more, much more.

27 cases of cleaning up the mess after fake Agile. 27 cases in which Agile was done the wrong way and caused lasting damages to businesses and their clients. 27 cases which demonstrated that Agile can be good for business but can also harm business in more ways than we realize. Agile is a culture which needs to be applied appropriately or not at all.

Analyzing these 27 cases, and experiences from fellow certified Agile Business Coaches, those flawed Agile journeys all have a common denominator. Somewhere along the line, and in most case along the entire line, there was this zealous Agile advocate. As a consultant, or as a coach, or as a trainer, or as a team lead. Preaching from a script, Agile is the way, the only way. They all have a collection of certificates in some variation of commercial Agile methodology. And books to cite from.

What they lack is hands on experience. Experience in leading change within an organization. Experience in responsibility for a budget and a team. Experience in cross-team and cross-discipline delivery in real organizations, with all the challenges that come with that. Experience in dealing with no because other priorities prevail. Experience with doing what has to be done, even when you believe there is a better way. They lack that experience and as a result are not able to handle those situations which are part of having responsibility in business life. In fact, they lack any experience in leading roles and that is where the Agile journeys fail even before they began.

Building an Agile culture in an organization is not about citing from a methodology and following a script from yet another commercial certification. Building an Agile culture in an organization is about changing mindsets, changing habits, and most of all about embracing change and the courage to do things differently. That takes Change Leadership!

About the author:

Dr. ir Johannes Drooghaag is an established Change Leader and certified Agile Business Coach. With 30+ years hands-on experience, which includes learning from failures and sharing experiences as consultant, coach and trainer.