Why Agile is failing

Now that Agile is mainstream and that most, if not all, organisations are implementing agile methods, I am hearing more and more voices raising concerns and warning about how poorly those organisations perform afterward. Most often cited causes are management obstruction, poor discipline in the development team, local mutations of scrum and so on.

Photo by Sandis Helvigs on Unsplash

They are wrong, they got the root cause wrong plain and simple.

I let that notion sinks in.

Right now you are probably suspicious, maybe a bit angry. But at least I got your attention and I can get to the message:

It is not the organisations that fail Agile, it is Agile that fails organisations. I guess that most agile practitioners are just pissed off now, but please, keep reading. I am a convinced XP practitioner myself, and I feel sorry for the mess I see around me, I am just trying to do my bit. The problem is that Agile is not yet enterprise friendly:

#1 Having happy customers is not the actual goal of any commercial enterprise

Its goal is usually generating value for its shareholders. Of course, having happy customers is the proper approach for that.

#2 Money does not flow directly from the customer to the project team

The typical structure will be that it is some customers’ representative that will pay the project team management, most of the time some manager or some other part of the organisation. That represents a bunch of people that are not involved in the project, and who do not care about agile at all.

#3 Agile methods emphasis local objectives

Due to fast iterations, decisions are taken locally to the project without any interference from top management or other part of the structure.

This makes Agile a sure path to project success, as measured in customer satisfaction. But it also generates stress by keeping the rest of the organisation, especially top management at a safe distance from the project. Therefore, the organisation reacts by trying to control Agile, making sure projects stay aligned with the enterprise strategy; or it remains hostile, or simply fails to provide adequate support. And it just kills any benefits.

The good news is that it can change. Agile can change to register itself in the enterprise strategy. Gojko Adzic‘s Impact Mapping is a promising tool to integrate strategy and increase the relevance of projects by ensuring a shared and clear goal is established early on. On the other side of gap, Jurgen Appelo works on what he calls Management 3.0 aims at bringing Agile in the management world, completely transforming how teams must be managed.

So, please read the work of those great guys, and raise your awareness about enterprise topics if you want to help Agile succeed.

And in the meantime, stay disciplined and keep up the good work.

15 thoughts on “Why Agile is failing

  1. Saying that Agile fails is like saying that a hammer fails. Makes no sense.

    Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It’s not the processes and tools that fail, it is the people and their interactions that fail to properly understand which tools to apply in which cases, and what their limits are.

    Thanks for promoting my work.


    1. Well, Agile is not a tool, it is a method. I get your point and of course it is a matter of people more than anything else. But I wanted to shock a bit and get reaction, and I am writing down what I start to hear and read elsewhere; it is not new, and it means we are entering a disillusion phase.
      All I want is to see Progress in how we work, some lasting progress!


  2. Hi,

    I think the main problem with Agile is now hype, and over-expecations. Agile is not a silver bullet (As Johanna states in her republished post here: http://www.pmhut.com/agile-is-not-a-silver-bullet ), but rather a set of best practices. The healthcare.gov debacle added more to that hype, where every editor for every major newspaper claimed that they should have used Agile (so now everyone who’s not using Agile now thinks that he should).

    I would really love to republish your post on PM Hut, where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.


  3. Agile is a set of “common sense” principles to create value in mainly software products (but some people have used it in other domains like car innovation cf wikispeed).

    It’s not a silver bullet .Scrum is just an implementation and yes you can do crappy things with it, especially when you don’t give a shit about the underlying principles. In fact, you could use a short “programming motherfucker” process with smart people and organisation and it will do the same.

    “Having happy customers is not the main goal of any commercial enterprise”
    Ok, so you live in an IT department when the main goal is to burn cash, see cost, not value creation, plays a game of thrones… You’re totally right don’t ever use Agile! For the sake of people who’re trying to make some software development succeed.
    For example, I work in IT department when there is no more dev ! Even in IT of mobile telecommunication firms ! The joy of using only contractors to think you are reducing your cost and your risk.

    “main goal is generating value for its shareholders”
    Good old business of the 20th century. A lots of business school are trying to change this outdated vision to have organisation which are generating value for their stakeholders. Generating value only for the shareholders is a zero sum game and will make the firm die sooner or longer.

    “Money does not flow directly from the customer to the project team”
    Totally right, in a game of politics, money comes from your lord not your customers and doesn’t depend if you’re doing the right product or doint it right.
    In this case, stop Agile, read Machiavelli it’s really a better sets of principles.

    “Agile methods emphasis local objectives”
    Yep Scrum is tailored for small teams (5 to 8 peoples). I am not sure but http://scaledagileframework.com/ or maybe, even more, Kanban can be better tools for organisation.
    But change “methods” by “principles” and Agile is a good set of principles for organisation, local implementation, not really.

    “keeping the rest of the organization, especially top management at a safe distance from the project”
    So communication in your Agile implementation has long been forgotten.

    Finally, you advice to use Management 3.0 principles and Impact Mapping tool but this two things are deeply rooted in Agile principles. Yeah they are not really based on a specific implementation … and this is good !
    But I assure you these tools will fail as much as “Agile” in your typical organisation.
    How to change the world from Jurgen Appelo shows how it’s hard to change an organisation. Putting some Scrum process in all your projects will not change your culture or make your firm more Agile. If you want to make it more Agile, change your culture.

    It’s the same for every good set of principles. If you don’t want to apply them, don’t try … do something else. If you don’t want to be more calm, zen or happy, don’t try to go to do meditation because some peoples are saying it will be better for you.

    If your firm wants to play politics, draining the value creation to maximise shareholders value, don’t want to make customers happy, don’t want to make your employee happy and really productive, don’t use any Agile related methods (or Lean startup).


    1. Yannick,
      Rome wasn’t built in a day. Thus, it sounds pragmatic to me to try to improve the way we are working, bringing value, collaborating, eating-changing the world, etc.

      Change management is a martial art 😉 and I’m the kind of guy thinking that lots of small steps in the good direction, even in “big-lame game of thrones organizations” like you talk about is worth trying, rather than just saying: “let them die in their laggards mediocrity!” (ok, I must admit that i’m kinda exagerating your view here, but it has a certain style, right 😉

      Of course, Cyrille and I fully embraces the principle of agility (at least since 2005). The point is not about that, it´s rather about how the ´scrum-agile consulting business’ is currently drowning the babies of good ideas, principles and techniques.

      As I alredy told on twitter, my concern is about the hangover we may ALL experienced, once the executive managers will discover the truth about some of those dream-sellers (“scrum will save the world” ;-), or if they decided to crush down all those eggs because they reallize they are not part (i.e. stakeholders) of this transformation.

      Are you wanna play with us and be an actor of this reboot-agile? (trying to fill the existing gaps)

      We will definitely need people like you!


    2. Only one level of reply … weird 🙂

      @tpierrain :
      do you really think you need to re-create another kung-fu when people wants to do boxing ?
      Do you think the next comic’s movie reboot will change what is a comic’s movie and what is its goal ?

      Design Thinking is trying to reboot Design !
      Lean Startup is trying to reboot Design thinking !
      Even DDD is trying to reboot good OO principles 😉

      Yeah I want to make the product right and, even more, the right product but the problem is not in the methods it’s in the culture of organisation. And the only possibility to change that is to beat them, show them we can do better and create more value for every stakeholders.

      I am not really fan of creating the next buzz word, even if it’s the perfect way to make money and sell certification on it after that.

      But we have to talk about it, maybe at the next Software Craftmanship meetup. If you are interested, I have the perfect presentation for that 🙂


    3. Hello Yannick
      first of all, wow, your comment is longer than the article, so thanks for writing with so much passion.
      You raise a lot of different points, so it is quite hard to address them all. I have a followup post in progress that will elaborate on the overall dynamic. It will also restate my objective: keep on transforming the way we work for a better one.

      I will restate the sentence you quote and try to make sure I am clear on what I intended.

      “Having happy customers is not the main goal of any commercial enterprise”: I think this one is pretty clear, but maybe I should have used company instead of commercial enterprise. I would love to stand corrected on this one, but I fail to think of any company whose primary objectives is not to earn money.

      “money .. flows…” I will address this in my followup, but the main message is that there are other pars of the organizations that do play an indirect role in the project, but a crucial one, they lay out the cash for the project to happen. I think that ignoring them is a major mistake. Even worse is being snippy at them!

      “Agile methods optimizes local objectives”: I mean that agile methods are very good at capturing and answering the specific needs of the product owner. But they do not welcome any ‘strategic’ requirement.

      Transforming into agile organizations is not limited to a culture transformation. New tools (I am not talking software here) need to be identified and used to make sure it succeeds.

      “keeping top management at a safe distance”: this comment relate to local optimizations from an organisation perspective. This is based on observation and it is a pretty logical dynamic: if the product owner has some objective that does not reflect the enterprise’s strategy,he/she probably wants this not to be known. And I am not talking about personal agenda here, it may just be that he/she thinks his/her approach is better. In any case, nobody likes top management to meddle in a project :-), whatever the method used.

      Finally: changing culture is not enough.

      By the way, I think SAfE is an over-engineered methods, with a lot of buzzwords. But once again, I may be wrong on that one.
      So I think we can identify the tools that will help drive the change. Wanna join?


    4. Ok to join ! My mail is firstname.lastname at gmail or twitter 😉

      For me, we don’t need more tool, we need more design, systemic point of view, better culture.

      I talk about SAfE for the example but I don’t think it’s the solution, too complicated tools are just adding more complexity and more problem. It’s another trend of tools.

      On the other side, principles are simple and like “simple” is it easy to say, easy to understand but so hard to really do 🙂

      Finally I understand really well your concern because I work in the same type of firm, with the same problems (look at healthcare.gov debacle … always the same problems and the same causes).
      But we don’t have to accept the bad principles / practices and trying to find silver bullets that doesn’t exists around them.

      We have to change the world and make it simple!

      But like Rich Hickey says : simple is not easy.


  4. The worst part of this story is that, yes, Agile is failing because we’re trying to put it in organisation that don’t want to accept the Agile principles and are playing a totally different game.

    Management 3.0 or Impact Mapping will have the same rate of failures.So don’t make them fail too by trying to put them at the wrong places 😥


  5. @yannick: except within occidental minds, there is no such things as “a unique way of kung fu”. There are almost as many styles of kung fu that villages in China… and Kung-fu could stand for “Chinese boxing”; it’s a virtual place where lots of experts/schools tried to figure out how to improve (or be better than) the previous boxing techniques they have learned (elsewhere or locally).

    I’ll soon post something about what I intend behind the agile-reboot concept. But be sure that it won’t be a new buzz word to sell some consultancy (and I’m even trying to think how to avoid that). Simply a gathering area for those that -like some of us- would like to fill the gaps and to improve the current dispositive (collectively).

    Last but not least: I’m not very comfortable with the “agile is failing because people are so lame” (be cautious of the confirmation bias BTW). You know what? It’s a fact that most of the people don’t share the same goals/agenda/needs/maturity level/intents/comprehension (the reason why the ubiquitous language from DDD is so important), and it may really help lots of people if we can figure out –collectively-how to make our software industry more mature and efficient than it is today (+ painkiller benefits).

    And I’d be glad to share and chat with you during the next Software Craftsmanship meetup events.


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