Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Trouble with Agile

I have been on a disturbing number of coaching engagements this year that ended in something less than complete success. Indeed, it would be more accurate to categorize these engagements as failures falling somewhere between dismal and catastrophic, depending on the engagement.

The storyline was disturbingly familiar in all cases, however. Every one of these engagements began with one or more standard Agile/Scrum training courses, which is always a good thing. The disturbing part was the degree to which the training revealed just how uninterested in Agile the organization really was. Attendance in the class or classes was by compulsion, usually to the extreme discomfort of the participants who typically received no reprieve from their normal responsibilities during the two or three days of training. That is always the first “uh-oh” moment in any training course. It doesn’t always end badly, but is certainly not a good way to start.

During the training, as I present the various principles and their related practices, comments from the class indicate where the entire engagement is headed. For example, when I talk about just-in-time planning, relative estimating done by the people doing the work, or working in Sprints and the implication of focusing on a single project for the duration, the responses usually fall into one of several categories depending on where we are in the failure continuum. If an engagement is in the “dismal failure” part of the spectrum, the participants’ responses fall into the realm of “That is so cool! Too bad we’ll never be able to do that here.” If, on the other hand, we’re in catastrophic failure country, the responses are more along the lines of “The PMO/management provides all of our deadlines/scoping/estimates/project matrices and there’s no way that’s ever going to change.” If such utterances emanate from a functional manager, Project Manager, or executive in the class, the needle hits the peg on the “Catastrophic Failure” side of the gauge. Ordinary working people express identical sentiments, but with a sigh of hopeless frustration. Either way, the result is inevitably the same.

Another fatal expression I hear during training sessions on doomed engagements is: “How can we change (insert Agile practice here) to fit with the way we work here?” Or, “How can we (insert company name here)-ize Scrum?” As a coach, you know you’re in serious trouble whenever you hear these statements.

All of these issues boil down to a failure to understand that Agile requires deep and sometimes difficult organizational and cultural change. There is no quick, easy fix, no veneer to overlay on top of a company’s current organization, culture, or processes that can fix their deep-seated dysfunctions.

The vast majority of these failed engagements break upon the rocks of the most fundamental Agile principles and practices: If a company is unwilling to change its organizational structure to break down functional silos so that real-live cross-functional product teams can come into existence, well, there’s simply no use in even talking about the additional layers of change that are required to move forward.

The trouble with Agile is that it is essentially an all-or-nothing package of principles and practices, that is, the rules of the game which must be followed. There is no picking and choosing among key principles and practices, and therefore no magic wand, no quick fix, no “Fix our quality/delivery/efficiency problems, but don’t change anything” solution. Executives, functional managers, Project Managers, and people on the front lines all have to be committed to changing their organizational structures, culture, and processes, sometimes in deep and potentially painful ways, if the company is to reap the full benefits of Agile and win in the market.

“Agile” is a hot buzzword these days and companies large and small (but mostly large) are hoping to jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, many companies are looking only for the quick, painless fix, the flavor of the week, not the kind of far-reaching change that is going to transform the organization into a powerhouse of innovation and adaptability. And that is the trouble with Agile.

All for now....