Top Reasons Agile Didn’t Work for Us: #2 Company Culture

Top Reasons Agile Didn’t Work for Us: #2 Company Culture

Last week I posted that I thought one of the most common reasons that people say Agile did not work for them was the inability to colocate teams.

Several people commented that they thought I missed the boat (which is quite possible) and that the most common reason that agile doesn’t work is that managers cannot change their command and control behaviors and create an environment where people can do their best work.  I agree.

I think an underlying factor here is the lack of understanding of what agile means.  Leaders and managers likely heard “agile” and thought that it meant a way to deliver faster or eliminate paperwork or enable changing requirements on the fly.  They didn’t bother to learn the 12 agile principles.

They did not associate the word agile with empowerment, trust, and self-organization.  They don’t realize that for agile to succeed in their organization, they need to practice participatory decision-making, collaboration, and servant leadership.

Surveys of people that are using agile support this view.  In the most recent “State of Agile” report from VersionOne, several of the top causes of failed agile projects are directly company culture and management support (see below).

I don’t know if you can summarize this as the leadership not wanting to give up power and control, but it certainly indicates a lack of understanding of what it means to be “agile”.  (Note:  VersionOne just published the results of their 10th Annual Survey – get your full report here.  Hat tip to my friend and fellow agile coach Kellie Morrell :))

Others point more directly at power and control as the underlying problem.  Scaled Scrum expert Craig Larman has an interesting take on this in what he calls his 4 laws of organizational behavior:

1. Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

2. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

3. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, “religion”, and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.

4. Culture follows structure.

Larman commented at a recent Meetup that he didn’t think you could convince organizations to adopt agile practices;  he felt they needed an existential crisis to come to the conclusion on their own.

Did you find that agile didn’t work for your organization because of the cultural and leadership issues mentioned here?  Or do you find that your organization is trying to do both – maintain tight control of the status quo and claim to be agile at the same time?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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