Agile Is Not for Everyone (and That's OK)

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Some people claim agile has “crossed the chasm.” Certainly, many people are aware of agile. Many people understand that a cross-functional team works in increments, delivering features, asking for feedback. That’s at the team level.

The problem is that agile is not just for teams. Once a team installs agile, the team bumps up against systemic management issues. Management has to be willing to change. Program management has to be willing to change. HR has to be willing to change. Finance has to be willing to change. That’s huge. We’re talking about shifting an organization’s culture.

Therefore, the team is a good place to start the change to agile. If the team can’t get to continuous integration and small-enough stories to move to two-week iterations, maybe agile is not for them.

Here are some issues that prevent teams from transitioning to agile.

  1. Agile requires that you start managing the project portfolio. You cannot multitask on projects and be successful. Are you willing to commit to some projects for now and not commit to other projects for now?
  2. If you want to go to more teams, it’s not as simple as multiplying what you do on one team to several. That will give you bloat. And you cannot move employees around like chess pieces.
  3. Agile requires an open culture. Are you willing to give and receive feedback at all levels? Are you willing to be transparent about the boundaries of management decisions?
  4. Agile invites team recognition and rewards. Would you change the way your organization evaluates teams? Are you willing to rethink what management is and how much of it you need?
  5. Agile does not easily play with once-a-year budgeting; it invites incremental funding. But Finance prefers milestones. How would your organization help Finance with capitalization? For software-as-a-service, it’s an easier problem—you decide when you have released enough to capitalize. For non-SaaS products, it’s a lot harder. Are you willing to try? Is Finance willing to try?

As you can see, agile is not just a lifecycle but also a huge cultural shift for the entire organization. For a project team, it’s one lifecycle among many, but for the organization, it’s much more than that.

I’m not saying agile is for the elite; far from it. I’m saying agile is for people who want to and can manage the cultural change that it requires. And if you try to do many of the technical and project management practices we suggest in agile, you will be better off.

If you can’t maintain a transition to agile, you should not be ashamed or worried. You have many choices for lifecycles. And with what you know about timeboxes, slicing features into small stories, ranking stories, creating cross-functional teams, and integrating testing into the iteration, you would have an awesome RUP or staged delivery lifecycle.

Is becoming agile the objective? Or is the objective to have projects that deliver products your customers want? What counts is effectiveness. If you need an agile assessment, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You need to see if you are more effective this year than you were last year.

Agile is one vehicle; it’s not the only vehicle. Choose the vehicle that fits your culture.

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Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. She is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and Gantthead.com, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman.com, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.com.