Reasons and Symptoms of Agile Failure


Businesses have started to realize the intrinsic benefits of having an agile workforce. In their “13th Annual State of Agile Report” (The Report), respondents identified that their top reasons for adopting agile were productivity increase (51%), project cost reduction (41%), morale improvement (34%), and project risk reduction (28%). As each entity looks to navigate this organizational change, many challenges starts to emerge and a lot of questions are raised. In this article, there will be an emphasis in understanding some of the reasons & symptoms of agile failure. This is a two part series covering general (P1), sprint (P2) & ceremonies (P2).

Reason #1: Mindset

The Report identified that the second biggest challenge to the adoption and scaling of agile is “general organization resistance to change” (48% of respondents). “Organizational culture at odds with agile values” was identified as the number 1 challenge to the agile movement and adoption. Agile often requires a shift in mindset and for some, this shift is easier to do than for others. A resistance to this shift at any level of the hierarchy (team, management, leaders) can have a direct impact on how efficient and successful an agile implementation/ team is. For companies that are just starting the transition, prototype agile teams should be set-up with ‘Agile prone’ employees, assuming resource structure allows. When resource allocation is limited, emphasis in training & lead/ Scrum Master support is essential to long-term success. There are also cases of agile-prone individuals without the skill sets the team needs. In such cases, stakeholders (e.g. management, product owners) need to assess team expectation in light of the circumstances.

              Symptoms – A lack of: ownership mentality, respect, collaboration, value delivery, customer-centrism, adaptability.

Reason #2: Experience

              When a team does not have members with agile experience, it is often a good idea to either train and/ or hire agile coaches to help steer the team and leadership in the right direction. This process often requires assessment, training and post-training reassessment to ensure teams are successfully implementing an agile mindset. Different teams and companies may require agile coaches to create tailored solutions to ensure that the process aligns with the job/ structure of the teams. The end goal may be the same, but the experience teams will go through may differ, which is why tailoring solutions can be critical to success. Individuals should also be encouraged to read and understand more of what agility can bring to them and to keep an eye on pitfalls that team members might be falling into.

              Symptoms – Agile coaches that are unable to connect to their audience are also likely to have less success in helping lead the transformation, team with little to no agile experience are likely to encounter more hurdles, weak ceremonies or no ceremonies at all usually means a disengaged/non-agile team.

Reason #3: Communication

              Communication is often a key piece to the success of teams and organizations that instills collaboration and knowledge sharing among team member – The Report identified that 24% of respondents saw this as a problem to adopting and scaling agile. It allows for an increased flow of information that guides individuals to perform at a higher level than they would do otherwise. In agile environments, great communication comes in the shape of open channels of communications that are driven by simplistic, yet direct, interaction between parties. Leads/ Scrum Masters often take a center role in the communication process by facilitating and guiding the team through their hurdles. The structure and culture within agile teams are also a key environment where challenges can be tackled more efficiently. Communication should be perceived as a key trait of any agile team and individuals should take a proactive stance in incentivizing open and clear communication.            

                   Symptoms – Overpowering personalities overshadowing other team member’s ability to communicate and lack of trust between team members. 

Reason #4: Team Stability

              Agile teams are often expected to increase team performance and effectiveness as they work alongside each other throughout iterations. However, when a business segment has a high degree of turnover it often disrupts the team’s ability to remain at the same efficient state. These disruptions have to be taken into account when defining the structure and expectation for the teams.

              Symptoms – Inconsistent metrics (e.g. burndown), disengaged personnel, limited growth opportunity, misaligned incentives, and stress.

Reason #5: Tight Deadline for Teams to Evolve into Agility

              When tensions are high, and the expectation of quick results are in high demand, teams may be hard pressed to use shortcuts to deliver results. These actions can often lead to inefficient agility, manipulation of results, lower quality of output and dissatisfied employees.

              Symptoms in Sprints 1-3 – Leadership pressed for results, increased micromanagement, odd unexplainable irregularities to burndowns and other reporting tools, shortening ceremonies with the hope to ‘save time’ for tasks.

Reason #6: Understanding Roles and Processes

              In agile teams, understanding your function, the processes and expectations allows a person to contextualize the team and customer’s needs to better optimize outcomes. In The Report, “lack of skills and experience with agile methods” was identified by 40% of the respondents as one of the problems to adopting and scaling agile. Afterwards, the aim should be to understand and appreciate the roles of Scrum Master, Project Owner (PO) and other specialists in the team. This improves team cohesion and allows, for example, a Scrum Master to provide better support to team members, for POs to better understand what can or cannot be done for a client within the stipulated time, scope and quality expectancy.

              Symptoms – Simpler tasks don’t seem to be coming out on time, issues and challenges are not raised to the team before it becomes a problem, no or limited follow up is provided to issues that are raised.

Reason #7: Leadership Support

              Organizational change is often an expensive undertaking. With an increase in cost associated with training, disruption and others. There is often an increased pressure to deliver quick, measurable results. When a solution requires cultural change, it is often better to incrementally implement it or to advise leadership that results will come with time and that in an agile environment, leaders will also need to change their own ways. For example, an agile leader will look to empower and engage teams as opposed to micromanaging their actions. Agile leaders will look to ensure that the company’s culture changes to align to an agile mindset and that they are part of the change too. In their “13th Annual State of Agile Report,” CollabNet highlighted cultural issues as one of the top 3 impediments for businesses to adopt and scale agile. Further, The Report identified “inadequate management support and sponsorship” as one of the top 3 challenges to adopting and scaling agile.

              Symptoms – A culture that conflicts with an agile mindset, a disengaged leader, micromanagement, jokes about agile teams or their attempt to switch.

Reason #8: Customer Focus

              Agile teams often preach a customer focused mentality to their projects. This then translates to listening to feedback, prioritizing, planning, measuring and executing according to the customer’s (expected) need. When customer needs (implicit or not) are not prioritized, resources are often wasted in vanity projects, teams are less focused and the quality of goods and services decline or stall in comparison to competitors. Customer focus often requires prioritization structures that are driven by data, follow consistent criteria of decision making and work with a prioritized timeframe for rollout and completion.

              Symptoms – Lack of prioritization, lack of structure and guidance. Has the team created a culture of asking and/or perceiving things from the customer side? Is this mindset engrained throughout the iterations? If the answer is no, some work may be needed.


              Agile is a shift in the business, the teams and individuals’ mindset in relation to work. It touches some of the fundamental pillars of a business and this can increase the odds of agility being derailed. Although there are challenges to this shift and the process can be arduous, the benefits are often tenfold, helping to create a resilient, client driven business that is up to the task of a 21st century, technologically driven society.

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