Why your organisation won’t be agile – Part I

I’ve been peddling a talk around the place recently. Ostensibly it’s on “Why your Agile roll-out is failing”. Though Dan North got the name first. So I called mine Agile Adoption Anti-patterns. meh.

The behaviours I describe are based on my experiences over the last several years as a developer and coach. They seem to indicate a number of systemic problems that organisations face when looking to go agile.

One conclusion I reach in that talk is that you will fail unless you are prepared for systematic change in the organisational architecture, the people, the culture and routines that define your organisation.

Ok, that’s pretty strong. let me rephrase that.

If your organisation is based on the traditional command and control management model and you cherry pick a set of project management techniques from one of the flavours of agile you will get visibility but not much else.

Golf course agile

“We want to be ‘Agile'”

“Really? You want to learn how to value and trust your people? Be courageous? Build the right software at the right time? That stuff? Cool! I can help with that!”

“Umm, no. We want predictability and metrics. I want to know our velocity so that I know how lazy my developers are.”

“Oh, ok. Rename all your Six Sigma black-belts to Scrum Masters*. See how that works out for you and call us in 12 months when it doesn’t. Then we’ll chat about the rest of it. Failing that, can you just leave my card on your desk for the next CIO that comes through? Thanks.”

I used to find it was the developers who were into the idea of working in a more agile way. I think there are two reasons for this, the first is that undeniably there are shiny new tools and techniques out there that are associated with Agile. BDD, CI, Pairing etc all appeal to developers looking for ways to manage complexity in their code.

The second was that contrary to the popular image of a developer as some crusty old bearded dude (and it’s always a dude), sitting in a darkened room, only caring about copy-on-write semantics for lists, most are unbelievable passionate about their jobs and Doing The Right Thing. And incredibly intolerant of the wasteful processes they have imposed on them. Some even actually care about getting the right software out in front of their users so it can be used.

So for some of these reasons and almost certainly for a bunch I haven’t thought about, developers started getting the Agile bug years ago. It describes my reasons anyway. Plus I’m a hippy. Shrug.

Fortunately, the golfing class has now caught up. That’s a good thing right? Agile is going mainstream. Everyone and their dog is doing it. It’ll fix all our problems! Everything will be visible.

Management iz in ur progekt, wotchin ur progrez

Except I don’t really see Agile becoming mainstream. I see iterative development becoming mainstream, visibility becoming mainstream.

In fact, what I see most is that Agile is being used as another mechanism by which executives exert more control over their staff. Visibility onto a project should not mean you know who to fire when it fails. I haven’t seen much in the way of courage becoming mainstream.

In part II of this post I will talk a bit about the root causes of some of this behaviour. Stay tuned…

* Disclaimer: I’m not saying that Scrum is any more guilty of this than any other methodology, just that it is very popular. No-one ever got fired for choosing Scrum.

BCS – SPA talk on Agile Adoption Anti-patterns – March 3rd

I’ve been invited to give my talk on “the stuff I see all the time and wish I didn’t” at the London BCS-SPA meet-up in early March. Description of the talk and details of the venue below.


Title: SPA-237 – Agile Adoption Anti-Patterns
Presenter: James Lewis, ThoughtWorks
Date: Wednesday 3rd March 2010
Time: 18:30
Venue: BCS Davidson Building, 5 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7HA
Complimentary sandwiches and refreshments are served from 6pm

Attendance is free but you need to register for the event here

Agile Adoption Anti-patterns

This session focuses on the things that you shouldn’t do when trying to introduce Agile practices to an organisation. Maybe you drank the Agile cool-aid and are struggling to introduce Agile on your own or you are an Agile Coach trying to make some sense of the madness that is your current client. There are many more ways for agile adoption to fail than for it to succeed. Drawing on his experience introducing Agile principles and practices in large blue-chip organisations, the speaker will showcase a number of anti-patterns, technological to methodological, that could put your agile rollout at risk.

This talk is an exploration of some of the things that can go wrong when introducing agile to organisations, presented as a series of anti-patterns and smells.