So, you hired a Scrum Master, an Agile Coach and you’re Agile now. Congratulations, you’re not!

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A fairy tale about fake Agile, unsuccessful transformations and about what it takes to avoid ending like many companies

Agile movement has been gaining momentum for a few years now. In fact, if you look at a random company wherever in the world, they would probably claim they’re Agile. Why? Because Agile, like data-driven is currently THE way to be. And, just like being self-proclaimed data-driven, being a self-styled Agile has little to do with being agile.

When I hear from another company that theyre Agile because their teams work in 2-week iterations, I wonder whether to laugh or to cry. When I read about the next ‘Agile transformation’ because an organization hired an Agile Coach and started using DevOps, I wonder what is going on here? Everyone is now ‘Agile’ because it’s trendy. And who really is? Not so many companies at all. And you can quickly spot them, even when they don’t brag about it — by how these companies deliver value to their customers.

The whole business around Agile is booming and is getting bigger every year. And as long as the decision makers of large companies fall into the trap of “we must be Agile, because this is what the market expects,” so long will this market of fake-Agile thrive.

When you google ‘Agile Certification’, you’ll find dozens of institutes, schools, training centers and whatnot, offering hundreds of courses and exams that will allegedly confirm how agile your company is. When you start talking to a random C-level executive from a random company from any industry, they’d probably say something about being agile, transforming to agile or going digital and customer-centric (thanks to Agile). When you ask an employee of a random software company, for sure they’ll claim they’re Agile. They are certified, use DevOps, play planning poker…

And it’s not about those certifications or using planning poker, at all.
In fact, being Agile is all about this one thing:

Delivering value that your customers need and knowing what value they need from involving them in the process of creating it.

That’s it. That’s the whole definition of Agile by Kuba Skalbania. Feel free to share it and to copy it. That’s my gift.

Seriously you’re not. It’s nice that you have an Agile Coach, but there are better ways to waste corporate money. Do you do time-boxing? Cool. But why is your team not cross-functional and why does your boss need to approve every decision? Exactly.

The reality about the current state of Agile

Agile, as done by most ‘agile’ companies with whom I have worked for last 5 years, is a fake Agile. This is ‘Agile’ that harms, not Agile that delivers value. In most companies, which went through a ‘transformation’, being Agile is rarely something more than talk. They advertise their agility and they use some agile practices, but they still function as regular bureaucracies. Only now, instead of a boss they have a product owner; instead of a business analyst, they have a customer advocate; instead of a project manager, they have a Scrum master. And all of them work in the same way they always have worked, but now in shorter cycles: analyze, develop, test, deliver. And repeat every two weeks.
Ah, and don’t forget this: a decision needs to be taken by the team? Wait for their manager’s approval…

The reality is brutal — according to the latest Annual State of Agile Survey (https://www.stateofagile.com) Agile and DevOps are failing in most companies¹. And reason number one for this is that company culture is at odds with agile values.
As Steven Denning writes in his book “It’s not access to technology and data that makes the difference. The difference lies in a different way of running the organization that deploys technology and data more nimbly.” ²

Very often Agile practices are tried, but after a promising period the learning curve shows its power — the velocity of the teams decreases, the quality decreases, and time needed to deliver values increases.

That’s the moment when most executives start to put pressure to go back and follow traditional approaches. Instead, they should take a look at (prospectively) what stops the teams, why testing is executed in a wrong way and why this funny planning poker consistently allows for over-estimating.

Add one more thing to the equation — lack of real experience with Agile methods. Agile coaches, whom I had a chance to work with, were all identical in terms of their experiences — ‘experts’ in Agile who in fact never have had a successful engagement from the beginning to the end of a transformation. For different reasons, very often independent of them, they go to a company, train Agile, take part in 1–2 projects and leave, hoping that a company is now agile. It’s not always their fault — they are hired to quickly “train Agile” and leave. Hence, they have no chance to really see why Agile fails 2–3 months after they leave… I’m not even talking about those Agile ‘coaches’ who never finished any project, but finished tens of online courses about Agile instead. They are a real nightmare!

The answer is as simple as this:

becoming Agile is about changing the whole company’s culture and organization, not about employing Agile in a few departments, or cherry-picking of Agile practices…

…not even, when you use them supervised by a super-expensive Agile Coach from Big-4.

Plus, getting to Agile is a long journey. It requires a paradigm shift, a dip in productivity and a lot of missed deadlines.

That’s why it’s much easier for most companies to organize an “Agile training”, hire an Agile coach and claim they are agile. It’s trendy to be Agile, nowadays. To attract customers, investors and even new employees.

Examples of fake Agile

How often do you see a great, motivated team that finished their Agile training some time ago and yet they struggle to get any value from Agile? When you talk to them, you quickly realize that they have to wait with every decision for their bosses’ approvals (or their boss’s bosses).
Or, how often do you see other examples of fake Agile (including but not limited to):

  • An agile team whose members represent one functional domain and can’t deliver a product / value end-to-end?
  • A company that “tries” Agile in one department, but keeps management “as it is” in other departments, so that they don’t risk too much?
  • A company, at which an IT department doesn’t talk to business people or end customers, when developing a new product? (that’s my favorite one)
  • A board of managers who claim their company is now Agile, but the only thing they care is shareholders’ interest, and customer value not so much
  • A group of “it-has-always-been-so” managers who still want to control their teams and have impact on everything those teams produce?
  • An IT department who always knows better because “those sales guys don’t understand that we are now a software-driven company”? (yep, another real case from one of my customers)
  • A team of people coached by an Agile coach who requires them to “show a leader” in their team (yep, that’s a real case, too)
  • A team of software developers who employed all useful Agile practices and really “work Agile” but are surrounded by other teams that expect results delivered in totally different ways?

I‘ve seen a lot of those examples myself. The problem is that implementing Agile without changing the whole organization culture will FAIL. Sooner, or later, but it will. A lot of companies have already seen it and they blame Agile for that. Instead of doing a retrospective on what has not worked for them in their Agile journey…

Imagine a real-world company and a project for a moment (an IT project to make things easier). Now, go to the Customer Service Director from that company and tell her you will not deliver the full customer service system with call center and social media monitoring. Despite of what was promised to them and why they decided to invest in this initiative in the first place, you will now deliver an ‘MVP’ that will only allow their people to log support cases in the system (or replace logging cases with any ‘fraction of the promised functionality’). Once all employees will be learning the new system, you will deliver new features iteratively and incrementally, but for now you can’t tell exactly when they will be finished as you need to learn the team’s velocity.
I can make a bet, but two things will happen:

  • You will be thrown out of the door and/or out of the company (if you are a new vendor)
  • They will look at you like you were an idiot and they will go to another vendor who would be happy to “provide all that they want”

Congratulations! You just witnessed how Agile is killed in most companies. Even at those who claim to be Agile.

Without understanding that Agile:

  • is a long journey and if you get innovation right, will never end
  • will deliver worse results than your beloved waterfall for some time
  • will require you to make sacrifices
  • will show you many times that your company is badly managed
  • will require a huge shift in thinking, leading, testing, delivering
  • will need you to invest a lot of time and money into MVPs that might look like a piece of shit
  • will definitely slower your projects during the transition period…

…don’t even start your way to Agile because you will end up as one of those companies that are ‘Agile’ only in their customer and investor decks. Because it’s trendy.

Footnotes:
[1] https://www.stateofagile.com
[2] Denning, S. The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done. AMACOM, 2018.

Written by

Entrepreneur, Technology Evangelist, Co-founder of the most-awarded CRM integrator in Europe. University of Oxford alumni.

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