We Are Using Agile - Why Are Things Getting Worse?

Anthony Mersino
January 16, 2017

Most IT organizations today have adopted some flavor of Agile.  Some use it across the board and some use it for just a few projects.  The question I frequently get from leaders and managers is why are things getting worse now that we are using Agile?!?  If this describes your experience, here are 5 questions you can use to better understand the results you are getting.
#1 - Are You Seeing Problems You Have Always Had or Are They New Problems?

Agile and Scrum can serve as a mirror to help you reveal problems in the organization. So for the first 6 months or year that you begin to apply Agile and Scrum to your work, you may see a lot of problems. Most problems were already there though they were masked by long cycle times and ineffective processes. The shortened cycles and transparency of agile makes the problems you always had visible. To the extent you have the courage to attack those problems, Agile will help you to address them and improve how you work. 

On the other hand, any new problems being introduced by Agile should be examined. It helps to have short feedback loops; leaders should be communicating continuously with team members and customers to have a sense of how things are really going.

#2 - Did You Add Agile Practices without Stopping Other Practices?

Things may be worse if you simply added Agile practices on top of your existing practices. Agile helps to eliminate unnecessary work, documentation and processes but only to the extent you don't keep doing what you have always done. Are you still having weekly project status meetings, or worse, do your teams have a daily standup that lasts more than 15 minutes and is run as a status meeting? Do you still produce all the SDLC documents that were required with your waterfall approach? You may be suffering from the worst of both worlds.
#3 - Are You Working Within the 12 Agile Principles?

The Agile Values and  Agile Principles are a framework that define what it means to be Agile. Many organizations do things that they call Agile that unknowingly violate the Agile Values and Agile Principles (see list below). Leaders promoting Agile for their teams should lead by example by internalizing and living the Agile Values and Agile Principles rather than simply prescribing them for others.

As an example, there is an Agile Principle that speaks to technical excellence and good design. Technical excellence often comes in conflict with management's goal to deliver a set of functionality by a specific date. Leaders that pressure teams to take on more work than they can deliver will leave teams with no choice but to take shortcuts, as illustrated in this Dilbert cartoon. This reduces agility and sets the organization up for future problems.

Technical Debt - Dilbert by Scott Adams
#4 - Are you using your new Agile practices correctly? 

People frequently underestimate the difficulty with implementing Agile practices correctly. If you are using Scrum, do you have qualified Scrum Masters or Coaches teaching and coaching the teams and the product owners? Or did you simply assign the role of Scrum Master to your existing project managers (see question #2). Without someone on board who really understands Scrum, there is a high likelihood that you are not using the Scrum framework correctly. Or is it that you've taken the bits and pieces you like or understand from Scrum or XP or Kanban and then added it to your existing process? How good is a recipe that simply throws together ingredients from a bunch of recipes? How likely is that approach to produce a tasty dish?
#5 - Are you actively embracing change in the organization? 

Surveys show that several of the barriers to Agile Adoption relate to the culture of the organization, and manager's support for change (see chart below from the latest VersionOne Annual State of Agile Report). As you introduce Agile approaches, are you active as the Agile champion within technology and business? Are you aware of how your current culture supports (or attacks Agile) and what you need to do for Agile thinking and practices to flourish? 

Maybe You Are Exactly Where You Should Be

Needless to say, change is never easy. All change initiatives go through a predictable cycle of things getting worse before they get better. The diagram at the top of this article is based on the Change Process Model from psychotherapist Virginia Satir. It shows a repeatable and predictable pattern - the J curve. Leaders need to actively lead the way through change and continuously cast vision for why they are pursuing Agile. Not everyone is going to agree with the change and most will feel threatened or at least disturbed by the introduction of new ideas and new ways of working.

If you are seeing chaos, resistance and despair, it could mean that you are on the right track for those improvements you are seeking. You might be exactly where you are supposed to be.



About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.