Agile Adoption Is Not Agility

Only 4% of Respondents to a Popular Survey Say that Agile Practices are Making Their Organizations More Adaptable. How Can We Implement Agile in a Way that Lives Up to Its Name?

Illustration by Joan LeMay

A few months ago, I read a glowing case study about an organization that achieved Agile adoption at scale. Using a popular scaled Agile framework, they were able to reorganize their entire product function into small, cross-functional teams led by newly minted product owners. These teams were kept in close alignment through transparent and well-understood company goals. It was a well-told story with a happy ending: a legacy organization fully transitioned to an exciting new way of working.

The funny thing is, I actually did some work with this very organization a couple of years ago. And while their Agile transformation may look like a by-the-book success on paper, it looked very different on the ground. Those newly minted product owners? Many of them were former “business analysts” who had been given a new title with zero information about how their responsibilities had changed. Those transparent and well-understood company goals? They were still secondary to inconsistent short-term mandates coming from management. Titles, reporting lines, and meeting names had changed — but the underlying issues remained exactly the same.

This case study, like many I’ve encountered in the last decade, positions the adoption of a particular tool, technology, or methodology as a successful outcome. This is not a huge surprise, given that such case studies are often written by the very people selling those tools, technologies, and methodologies. It is easy enough to conflate the successful adoption of a given tool or methodology with the successful realization of that tool or methodology’s stated purpose— but is it accurate?

The 2018 VersionOne State of Agile Report offers a fairly stark answer: only 4% of respondents to the world’s largest Agile survey reported that Agile practices are enabling greater adaptability to market conditions.

A striking statistic from VersionOne’s 2018 State of Agile Report

For a bit of context, this would be like reading a survey of yoga practitioners in which only 4% report an improvement in their physical or mental well-being. The whole point of Agile practices is to make organizations more adaptable to market conditions. If it’s not doing that, then what is it doing?

The answer, in far too many cases, is that Agile is changing the appearance of how work gets done without changing the substance of how work gets done. In my book Agile for Everybody, I call this the “Frameworks Trap”: a self-perpetuating cycle of superficial change that fails to address underlying organizational issues.

The Frameworks Trap, from Agile for Everybody

This is not just an Agile problem. This same trap often presents itself to organizations undergoing “Lean transformation,” “Design Thinking transformation,” or any transformation that can be measured by the adoption of a well-documented set of rules and practices. Many organizations see the adoption of these rules and practices as a surefire recipe for success, without stopping to ask what “success” really means, and what about their current approach has stopped them from achieving it.

For organizations looking to cultivate true business agility, this means recognizing that the work ahead is messier and more complex than drawing a few lines on the org charts or giving a few people fancy new titles. Indeed, the beauty of the Agile movement is that it compels us to embrace the uniqueness and individuality of our colleagues and our customers, and to accept the inevitability of constant change. The adoption of Agile practices at the expense of Agile principles all but guarantees that organizations will see the benefits of neither, and will ultimately find themselves right back where they started.

Indeed, the most rewarding experiences I’ve had working with Agile are those in which teams and organizations embrace both Agile practices and Agile principles — and are willing to do the hard work of keeping them aligned towards achieving specific real-world outcomes for their colleagues and their customers. Taking this holistic approach to Agile requires keeping careful track of three things: why we are looking towards Agile in the first place (principles and values), how we are changing the way we work to enact those principles and values (Agile practices), and — perhaps most importantly — what is actually happening to our colleagues and our customers as we implement these practices (real-world outcomes).

A holistic approach to Agile principles, practices, and outcomes, from Agile for Everybody

When we take this holistic approach, we can no longer blame practices alone for failing to deliver better outcomes — nor can we blame principles alone for being too vague and aspirational. Any well-documented framework or approach, “Agile” or otherwise, makes for a great starting point if we are brave enough to honestly assess what is and is not working, and adjust course as needed. Similarly, any well-documented framework or approach is destined to fail if we value an abstract set of rules over real-world outcomes.

It is, and should be, shocking, that 96% of respondents to the world’s largest Agile survey believe that the practices they have implemented are failing to deliver on their titular promise. But, so long as organizations are looking for silver bullet solutions and paint-by-numbers examples to follow, who can blame them? The Agile leaders and coaches I’ve worked with who drive substantive results are those who resist easy answers, and empower their teams to change the way they work if it is not helping them to achieve their goals. As Manifesto signer Andy Hunt put it, “Agile methods ask practitioners to think, and frankly, that‘s a hard sell.”