But Agile Doesn’t Work For Us!

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard some variation of “Agile doesn’t work for us.” It’s usually followed by some statement explaining how their organization is so complex and their challenges are so unique that being Agile isn’t a viable option.

Most of their statements reveal symptoms of Agile failure, but the people detailing the symptoms rarely have any insight into the root cause.

Usually I listen and sympathize — while taking mental notes — but here is what I wish I had said in these instances:

In general, the primary reason for Agile failure, i.e. why you are not achieving the benefits of Agility, is because you’re following the form, not the function of Agile practices.

And yes, this is a generalization and yes, there are instances where this doesn’t apply, but I find it to be applicable most often. Honestly for an experienced Agilist it doesn’t long to diagnose this root cause, often merely through observation.

For example, it is remarkable how much insight, about the project and the organization, can be generated by observing any of the Scrum framework ceremonies. Even the 15 minute daily stand-up can be quite illuminating.

I’ve seen more than one project where the teams are following the form for the stand-up “correctly” but where the focus is on providing status reports to management and/or the clients.

One indicator I often use in my observations is noticing with whom the team member is making eye contact as he or she is speaking — the project manager, the ScrumMaster or a fellow team member. As an aside, when I am coaching, I often try to stay out direct line-of-sight so that team members aren’t tempted to focus on me 🙂

Another indicator is the topic of the updates — is it about the hours, the tasks, the user stories or about challenges experienced. Usually I’ve found that repeated mentions of burning down hours or the movement of task status indicates an environment where stand-ups are used as a status report tool. Teams where conversation focuses on completion of user stories or resolving problems tend to be more self-organized or value-focused.

Other stand-up indicators that can be helpful to observe include:

  • the expressions of the people who are not speaking — are they engaged? actively listening? or just waiting for their turn to speak?
  • any sidebar conversations? among the participants or observers?
  • what happens immediately after the stand-up? any paired or group follow-up discussions?
  • how may observers are there?

No one indicator is diagnostic, but combine the results of all of these observations during even just one stand-up (although ideally you’d want to observe at least three), and a great deal of insight can be generated. And of course, you’d want to validate these observations through further dialogue maybe through retrospectives or during coaching moments. But initial observations — as with first impressions — are surprisingly revealing.

So, look and listen to your next stand-up carefully to get new perspective on whether you’re meeting the form or the function of Agile practices.


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