Wed Nov 22 2023
The blog addresses the often overlooked question of the disadvantages of agile and Scrum methodologies, including input from several Agile experts.
What are the disadvantages of agile and Scrum? I’ve been asked this question a few times over the last few years and frankly, I’ve not had a good response.
Those who asked me the question say that you can only be objective about an approach if you can name its advantages and disadvantages. And while I can certainly name the benefits of agile, I struggle to come up with agile disadvantages.
This blog is an attempt to provide a good answer to that question. And I’ve invited help from some agile experts and fellow coaches to create a better answer than I could alone.
Agile Delivery Leader Elena Fridman agreed with me that coming up with the disadvantages of agile was challenging. She said that she views agile as an approach to life.
Organizations often use Agile as a scapegoat for all the troubles they experience. Things such as lack of leadership, lack of alignment, or the inability to prioritize what is important. If “Agile” is introduced in this type of an organization, it can serve as a cause of further distraction from real problems. Expecting that “Agile” is your silver bullet is not realistic and will cause significant disappointment leading to a consensus that “We are special and that’s why Agile does not work here”.
Agile Coach Tom Cagley says that though there are many benefits of agile, there can be downsides. And that includes conflicts between agile and existing rewards systems in organizations that tend to focus on individual contribution:
Strong teams and teamwork is an essential element in all agile frameworks. Organizations that continue to incent individual heroics while adopting agile will struggle and generate a lot of frustration.
Similarly, Anjali Leon notes that many organizations focus on individual efficiency which is downplayed in agile:
Some may see the sacrifice of efficiency (at least initially) in favor of effectiveness as a disadvantage. This sacrifice can be very uncomfortable and unfamiliar for those who strive for efficiency and don’t yet recognize that, as Peter Drucker has said, ‘there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency, that which should not be done at all.
– Anjali Leon, Agile and Product Leadership Coach and Trainer
Randall England notes that agile can be a buzzword that creates a distraction while the underlying processes don’t change.
The term Agile has become so mainstream that everyone uses the term even when they do not know what it really means. Companies want to be “Agile” so much that it has become a negative term in some companies, mainly because management uses the word, but the process never changed.
– Randall England, Agile Coach, Broadcom Inc.
Badass Agile Coach Bob Galen wrote a short blog on the topic of the disadvantages of agile. He agrees that Agile can provide benefits when used correctly. Unfortunately, it isn’t always used properly:
[Related: Read my review of Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching]
Organizations may use agile in a half-hearted way, not following the “rules” or lacking a willingness to do the “heavy lifting”, but expecting good results. Or, leaders thinking of them as Silver Bullet solutions for organizational or systems dysfunction and challenges.
I am grateful for these insights from recognized agility experts. Before I get to my own list of the top 10 disadvantages of agile, I think it is essential to consider the lens we use for this question. When we think of disadvantages, we should first consider the disadvantages of agile over what alternative? Second, disadvantages for who? The disadvantages of different roles are different.
What are the disadvantages of agile compared to the alternative approach? I can see a few different options for organizations that are not using agile – waterfall and chaos.
Waterfall would be the most common non-agile approach that is being used today. Waterfall work is often characterized by the following:
The disadvantages of Agile over Waterfall would be:
The lack of certainty in agile approaches was something Anjali Leon also noted as a disadvantage:
With Agile, you will not know everything up front. You have to become comfortable with ambiguity.
– Anjali Leon, Agile and Product Leadership Coach and Trainer
Traditional approaches improve certainty by relying heavily on documents and specifications. Those same documents are minimized in agile approaches and often skipped.
A few more disadvantages of agile over traditional approaches center on the disadvantage of creating interim work products or iterations. Traditional approaches like waterfall are sequential in nature and step by step resulting in a final delivery at the end. They don’t spend time on early versions or interim work products like the popular Minimum Viable Products which are not production-ready and could potentially alienate customers.
I recall a conversation with stakeholders about the use of the Minimum Viable Product. She was quite clear that her customers didn’t want to see a skateboard and we should not waste time on anything but the final solution.
Jorgen Hesselberg, the author of Unlocking Agility and co-founder of Comparative Agility, notes that although agile is an effective antidote to rapidly changing business conditions, there is a cost to the required agile interactions:
Let’s be honest – Agile adds overhead. Instead of simply deciding what to do and get it done, agile ways of working encourage us to check-in and ensure we’re still on the right track – and course-correct, if necessary. This constant feedback loop requires slack, frequent interaction between team members and empiricism, which takes us away from doing the “real work” – hence the overhead.”
Jorgen Hesselberg, Author and Co-Founder
The collaboration that Hesselberg describes will be even more challenging and costly if you have distributed team members.
The second most common non-agile approach I encounter could be called no process, or chaos. There are actually organizations out there that don’t follow a specific process for getting work done. Some of the common characteristics of this might include:
The disadvantages of Agile over Chaos or No Process would be:
Now that we have looked at the disadvantages over traditional/waterfall and chaos or lack of process, let’s look at the disadvantages from the different affected parties.
We might also look at this question from the angle of “who” is being disadvantaged. Is it for the organization? The managers and leaders? Team Members? Let’s explore each of these to see if there are different “disadvantages” of agile from each of those perspectives.
There are a few relatively easy-to-identify disadvantages at the organizational level. In addition to those overhead costs that Jorgen Hesselberg identified above, there are other costs that need to be considered.
Moving to agile is going to require some training and perhaps coaching to adopt it. Second, you will probably need to hire or train someone to take on the Product Owner and Scrum Master accountabilities. You will have to figure out career paths for Scrum Masters and Product Owners and decide what to do with your existing project managers.
There is also the inevitable thrashing that can place as people try to adopt new ways of working. I try to manage expectations down during the first few sprints pointing out that learning may be the only deliverable during this time. I have heard other coaches say that it will take 6 months for organizations to hit their stride after adopting agile.
You will also need to treat the introduction of agile as a program of organizational change. Which means an investment in communication about the change, why you are doing it, and how it will benefit the organization.
Managers and leaders may find that a disadvantage of agile is a weakening of their positional power. After all, agile promotes self-organizing teams. This can set up some level of conflict in organizations where managers and leaders are held accountable for results. It can lead to questions of who is really in charge and who should be held accountable.
I recall a specific manager in an organization I coached years ago. He constantly intervened in team Scrum events, including pulling people out of a Sprint Retrospective to ask non-urgent questions. He told me that his performance review was based on getting results and he couldn’t afford to leave that to self-managing teams.
Another disadvantage for managers and leaders is the very real threat of loss of job. A frequent side effect of adopting agile and self-managing teams is the reduction in management ranks.
With agile, people are put into teams and each team has a set of priorities listed in the product backlog. Performance reviews are frequently shifted to peer reviews. The need for managers to oversee all those employees tends to go down which can be very threatening to those that have worked hard to achieve a management position.
For individuals, there are some disadvantages of agile.
An obvious one is that the job will change. Employees will need to learn and apply new skills and ways of working. Learning may not be perceived as a disadvantage; being forced to change may be.
Individuals that are specialized may feel pressured to take on other roles in a cross-functional team. For employees that have deep expertise and certifications in a technology, being asked to develop secondary skills or test other people’s code may be a negative.
Capable individual contributors may hate the meetings and forced engagement with teammates, preferring to be left alone to simply code.
Project managers are one specific type of employee who may find agile diminishes their value. While their value is evident in a traditional environment, project managers may struggle to be relevant and contribute in an agile environment. And many agile and Scrum enthusiasts are openly hostile toward project managers and the value they bring.
Another disadvantage for all employees is the potential for agile to be used against them. Bob Galen points out the potential for agile and scrum to be weaponized:
Leaders and organizations may weaponize agile to drive and measure team behavior.
I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve seen too many managers in organizations gather and abuse measures like velocity, estimates, or how often the team fails to deliver their sprint “commitments”. Who wants to be asked for a commitment to something as challenging and unpredictable as technology solutions?
Most of the current Agile Lifecycle Management (ALM) tools tout management reporting as a benefit. A common example of this weaponization is using tools that track the variance between actual and planned performance. Misuse of team data can cause fear and will usually backfire as teams then game the system to avoid punishment. Individuals that are being measured on variance will tend to make those two numbers the same, either by inflating the estimate to ensure they can hit it or by manipulating the actual to fit the plan.[See my related post: Want High-Performing Teams? Stop Measuring the Wrong Things]
Now that we have heard from the experts and looked at disadvantages from the perspective of what we are comparing it against and who might be perceiving the disadvantage, let’s look at the general disadvantages of agile.
Here are my top 10 overall disadvantages of Agile:
#1 – Agile Enables You to Do the Wrong Thing Faster – When priorities are not clear or correct, agile teams may simply deliver more of the wrong thing faster. This is sometimes called the feature factory, where teams push out more items that don’t add value or are not a priority. (See Melissa Peri’s great book on this, Avoiding the Build Trap).
#2 – We Are Sprinting Sprinting Sprinting – On a related note, teams that use agile may be working in 2-week sprints and focused on the work immediately in front of them, thereby missing the big picture. It would be like you are on a long hike but you are looking down at your feet and only focused on your very next step.
Plus, most agile teams are taught to push back on any work that is not part of the current sprint which can lead to internal and external customer dissatisfaction.
Jonathan Lee points out that Sprints also force teams to deliver something that works even if the overall solution won’t be delivered:
Especially for new adopters of agile, Sprints can be viewed as distractions and overhead as a team has to go through the entire implementation cycle to provide a working solution by the end of each iteration, even if the solution will not be deployed at the end of the iteration. Thus iterations can be viewed as a waste of time and resources to organizations that practice traditional approaches.
Finally, sprinting can be exhausting. Team members may feel there is little to no respite or that they are barely keeping their heads above water.
#3 – You Need Dedicated Teams for Agile – Another disadvantage is dedicating specific teams to products or customers. Most agile proponents use teams as the basic building block and that can cause inflexibility.
In a traditional environment, managers direct employees and are able to shift workers to areas with the greatest need. When using agile, most organizations choose dedicated teams that are aligned to specific products, customers or value streams. Those dedicated teams may not be focused on the highest priorities organization-wide. And they may not be easily re-directed to work on what is most important to the enterprise.
Dedicated teams tend to restrict the number of projects or initiatives that are being worked on simultaneously in organizations that use other approaches like the project or matrix approach. This can leave internal and external customers fuming as they wait for their project to be prioritized and worked on.
#4 – Way Too many meetings – As noted by Hesselberg earlier there is overhead with agile approaches. Agile frameworks like Scrum include a cadence of mandatory recurring meetings. Some meetings are once a sprint (Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective), and others occur multiple times a sprint, like Backlog Refinement and the Daily Scrum. That is a lot of meetings.
In fact, about 20% of an individual’s time can be tied up in just these Scrum-related meetings. That doesn’t include any other meetings that each person needs to attend for company communications, administration, and coordination. Meetings are expensive. If those required Scrum meetings are facilitated poorly, they not only waste everyone’s time, they can turn into counter-productive bitch sessions.
Those meetings also create headaches for those teams that are distributed across multiple timezones. Forcing team members to attend all those meetings during off-work hours leads to difficult scheduling choices. Inevitably someone loses. Or the team members try to ‘share the pain’ across the team.
Why share the pain when you could avoid it by not meeting?
#5 – Self-Organizing Teams Tend to Alienate and Sideline Managers – As noted above, agile can alienate or threaten managers. Most agile frameworks exclude managers and leaders or struggle to explain how teams should interact with managers and leaders. The Scrum Framework has clear responsibilities for the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Developers but is silent on the role of managers and leaders in Scrum.
The push for self-organizing teams with autonomy can create an adversarial atmosphere. When those managers and leaders are knowledgeable about the customers or have strong developer skills, we are taking some of our best players out of the game or creating friction between employees and managers.
Bry Willis points out that the expectation for self-organizing behavior is itself problematic since most organizations don’t have rockstar generalists able to perform multiple roles:
Self-organising teams have little to work with if everyone is a specialist. If I assemble a group of people to… perform open heart surgery and I employ Agile, assembling a team consisting of a heart surgeon, a nurse, an anaesthetist, and a custodian, and I asked them to self-organise. There is no degrees of freedom. Each will perform their speciality. The bloke with a mop is cleaning up. Full stop.
– Bry Willis, Disadvantages of Agile
#6 – Agile has Rigid Roles and Rules – The Scrum Framework is rigid and prescriptive. Sprint lengths are the same. Sprint meetings happen at the same time. Once planned, sprints cannot be interrupted. No one tells the Scrum Team how to do their work.
These rules don’t necessarily ensure that agile teams always work on the highest priority work. They can also be used as a shield for team members who are ‘just following the rules’.
#7 – Eagles Shouldn’t be Forced to Work With Turkeys – Another disadvantage of agile is forming those mandatory agile teams. In most organizations, that means putting all the technical contributors into cross-functional teams. Since most people will be on a team, the teams are going to be made up of a mix of skills, abilities, and talents.
That means you will have ‘eagles working with turkeys’ as a developer once told me. Those team members who view themselves as eagles may not want to be saddled with a team of turkeys.
They may perceive others as turkeys because they think they are less skilled. Or they may look down on them because of their particular skill set – testers come to mind here.
There is a famous quote from Apple founder Steve Jobs about A players and bringing down the average in an organization:
A players attract A players. B players attract C players.
– Steve Jobs
#8 – Agile is just Common Sense – Another disadvantage that I have heard is that it is an overhyped package of common sense. I’ve been told that it is better to avoid agile and simply hire smart people and encourage them to use common sense.
I won’t debate the importance of smart people and common sense.
In fact, if you have really smart people using common sense, you probably won’t gain much from agile and Scrum.
#9 – Follow the Money – Another disadvantage of agile is the expense of adoption. Sensing a need in the marketplace, service providers have popped up everywhere to assess, certify, train, coach, and transform organizations to agile. This has created the Agile Industrial Complex (AIC) which seems to have the goal of extracting as much revenue as possible from those organizations who want to understand and leverage agile.
And to add insult to injury, most of the certifying bodies require you to recertify every few years which is nothing more than a blatant money grab.
Disclaimer – Yes Vitality Chicago provides agile training and coaching and we are a small part of the AIC.
#10 – Your Pimples Are Showing – Another disadvantage of agile, and perhaps one of the biggest, is that if you use agile correctly it will make the flaws in the organization visible.
Does your organization tend to focus on a lot of pet projects? Are your teams forced to use antiquated version control tools that don’t support 2-week sprints? Is there infighting between your VP of application development and the VP of quality? Do you change priorities frequently, even daily?
Any and all of these will show up if you are using agile ways of working.
Agile is a mirror that will reveal some inconvenient truths that you may not be ready to deal with.
– Anjali Leon, Agile and Product Leadership Coach and Trainer
There is a reason people use the video filters in Zoom that ostensibly makes them look younger by slightly blurring their faces. And Instagram seems to exist because people who appear more beautiful than you seem to be having the time of their lives somewhere other than where you are.
My point is that we often try to wish away or gloss over our shortcomings. The transparency of agile will reveal those potential weaknesses you may prefer to ignore. Agile is not for those who ‘can’t handle the truth’ as Jack Nicholson famously claimed in the movie A Few Good Men. It takes courage to admit to those weaknesses, confront them and make a difference.
In the end, I believe that agile benefits outweigh the cost. Despite the disadvantages, it remains the best way to get things done in most organizations.
It reminds me of what Winston Churchill said about democracy.
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
– Winston S. Churchill
I hope you have enjoyed this article and I welcome any and all feedback.
I am extremely grateful for the excellent insights shared by various agile coaches and experts. If you are not already familiar with their work I recommend that you connect with them on LinkedIn and check out their LinkedIn profiles, blogs, and books.