Overcoming the challenges of Agile adoption

Agile really began making its mark in the software industry just over 20 years ago when 17 developers got together in a room. They had a long chat about their ideas and different lightweight frameworks that they were already using, such as extreme programming and feature driven development, soon after the Agile Manifesto was established.

However, were these 17 developers really the brains behind Agile or just reimagining what already existed in other industries? If we take a look back there are some examples of ‘’Agile’’ being used in other industries. The biggest example being Toyota Production Systems in the 1950s which had the concept of eliminating all waste and a just-in-time system, they later began implementing Lean Manufacturing in the 1990s. In my opinion, Agile is an umbrella term of ways to improve and make processes lean and more adaptable to change.

In the early 2000s, the majority of businesses were underpinned by technology and organisations started to realise that to stay relevant and competitive, they need to pull their finger out and invest in their technology game. This is really when software development picked up pace. Many tech startups saw this as an opportunity to take on the big businesses and started looking for a way to disrupt the market and bring value to customers quicker! Once the Agile Manifesto was in place and the 12 principles of Agile were established this began the age of Agile transformation.

Even after two whole decades to get it right, some organisations still have difficulty making Agile stick. Most are bought into the idea of Agile transformation with the goal of releasing value to customers quicker and more frequently, allowing them to be more competitive as a compelling reason to change. This is alongside the other perks like predictability, transparency, adaptability and greater collaboration. We can all see it’s a great idea so what’s the issue with making it stick?

Could it be that there are no strict guidelines on how to undergo an Agile transformation, so organisations spin up their own ideas around what Agile means to them. This generally isn’t a bad thing, I think some aspects of Agile will stick for some organisations but others it will not, and they’ll drift into different hybrid ways of working – with horrible terms such as ‘Wagile’.

There are many reasons Agile transformations vary in their success. We could spend days listing these reasons but if an organisation looks at the below and does all it can to avoid them, they have a much higher chance of success:

  •  Bottom up vs top down approach to Agile transformation
  •  Organisations haven’t put culture at the heart of the Agile transformation 
  • People are asked to perform roles that they don’t have the right training or experience to do well in
  • Most organisations still sign up to deliver projects that have a deadline and a budget</li>

One thing I’ve noted during Agile transformations is the difference between a bottom up vs top down approach. There are good and bad points for both but for an Agile transformation to succeed and stick the entire organisation needs to be bought into it and understand why and what benefits it will bring. 

Taking the bottom up approach often sees a guinea pig squad introducing Agile ways of working, which is often seen as the preferred approach as it’s a quick way to prove the benefits of Agile. But as this is happening, leadership need to be onboard and have a plan for rolling out the Agile transformation across the organisation. If they aren’t, then here lies the problem. 

Leadership needs to lead and standardise the Agile transformation, bringing in Agile ways of working that will be implemented across all teams, allowing for cross-team reporting and future scaling. Leadership also need to think about having the right training and tooling in place to enable Agile working. And finally, it’s the leadership’s responsibility to set the strategy and goal for the Agile transformation and align everyone to this goal! 

I think the best approach to take here is a hybrid approach. It’s a great idea to get a pilot squad up and running, see what works and what doesn’t and adapt as needed. Once they are seeing some success, start rolling this out across the organisation, but remember to establish consistent ways of working and provide a clear steer on what the end goal is! 

One of the core values in the Agile Manifesto states “individuals and interaction over processes and tools”, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that people should be at the heart of any Agile transformation, but this is often why organisations struggle to make Agile stick. You have to remember that some people have been at the same organisation for 15, 20, 25 years or even more… if you’re going to fundamentally change the way they’re expected to work, then you need to bring them along the transformation journey. 

A good idea is to nominate some Agile champions who understand Agile and the benefits it brings but also understand the goals of the organisation’s transformation. These champions, who work alongside the rest of the teams, can help spread the knowledge of Agile, answer any questions and shut down any doubts.  

If you don’t make steps to win over your people, then you’re always going to face resistance to the change and its much easier to have a successful transformation when you have people on your side! 

Here’s another problem for you, people getting asked to perform a role within an Agile squad, yet they still have their actual day job! This is some kind of hybrid Agile transformation: people need to give the squad their full attention and also be given the right training to do a good job in their new role.

If the squad is expected to adopt the Agile ways of working, then the people within the squad need to be given the time and training to perform the roles well, or else they won’t be motivated, team morale will drop and the squad will have limited success. 

Any form of transformation needs to have people at the heart of the change, they need to understand why the change is happening and how they will be impacted for the better, and what they can expect in the new world. Again, tying into the culture! 

You can’t expect a Project Manager to suddenly change hats and become a Scrum Master or Product Owner without any exposure to Agile or relevant training. 

A top tip here is look into investing in some Agile coaching, or hire an experienced Scrum Master/Product Owner who can share their Agile wizardry with the teams and spread the knowledge. 

In my experience, one of the main reasons why Agile isn’t sticking is because big organisations still need to deliver projects, and these projects have a budget and a deadline. So as much as the teams can work in an Agile manner, they can’t get away with saying it will be ready when it’s ready, it has to be ready in time for the customer’s deadline. And in order for that to happen, the team needs to understand the requirements up front and provide a rough plan of when things will get done. 

This doesn’t mean that the team can’t work in an Agile fashion, they can still complete the work using Agile methodologies and deliver work incrementally, as long as they are delivering the value promised by the expected delivery date. 

There are a couple of problems though, Agile teams are thought to be self-organising, it’s a good idea to have a Delivery Lead involved in this type of scenario to make sure deadlines and budgets are adhered too. I’ve often seen Agile teams go well over budget due to a lack of management or progress reporting. So check in often with the teams and make sure they are on track!  

After all this, I don’t think there is a right answer to getting Agile to stick, there are always things organisations can do better, and the one we should all be focusing on is people and culture. Leadership need to up their game and sell the vision and goals of the Agile transformation, ensuring they transform the culture of their organisation alongside their ways of working.  

Agile isn’t a one size fits all approach and you may find parts of Agile work for your organisation and parts of it don’t, and I think that’s okay! As long as you are delivering value to your customers, bringing in the money and your employees are happy, then I would say its working for you. But don’t be afraid to adapt and try new things, that’s what Agile is all about, you never know, it could always end in even better results! 

A blog by

Melissa Kirby

Senior Consultant