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by the Charlie Loulakis | 4 Minute Read

When Agile Goes Awry, Don't Abandon Ship

"Agile doesn't work." 

If you're an advocate of agile methodologies, hearing this claim likely makes you cringe. After all, you've experienced first-hand how embracing agility has streamlined processes, increased transparency, and ultimately delivered more value to customers.

Yet naysayers insist agile is a fad, poorly suited for complex organizational needs.

Where does this disconnect stem from?

Often, it arises when teams implement specific agile frameworks like Scrum dogmatically, without adapting them to their unique constraints. When prescriptive ceremonies or rituals fail to align with a team’s needs, agile gets blamed as the culprit.
In truth, no singular approach, agile or otherwise, can meet every team’s needs out-of-the-box. As Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum, acknowledged: “There is no such thing as pure Scrum.” Real agility means cherry-picking and customizing, not treating any single methodology as a silver bullet.

Agile is Not a Silver Bullet 

For leaders skeptical that agile can work for their products or teams, the fundamental mistake is equating "agile" with specific frameworks like Scrum. When rigorous application of Scrum ceremonies leads to lackluster results, leaders conclude agile itself is the problem.

In reality, agile is not synonymous with any singular approach like Scrum or Kanban. As outlined in the Agile Manifesto, it is a philosophy centered on flexibility, customer collaboration, and delivering value. The various frameworks we now associate with agile offer toolkits to manifest those high-level values, but rigidly using any toolkit out-of-the-box contradicts the adaptive spirit of agile.

Take Scrum, for instance. Its prescribed rituals like daily stand-ups, sprints, and retrospectives aim to introduce agile principles like transparency and continuous improvement into teams historically accustomed to waterfall bureaucracy. But for some teams, elements of Scrum can feel needlessly rigid and disruptive to how they best operate.

Does this mean agile doesn’t work for them? Not at all.

A team doing complex hardware design may need longer development cycles than 2-4 week sprints. Daily standups may not suit a remote team across global time zones. None of this indicates agile itself is flawed, simply that dogmatic Scrum implementation is not the ideal choice here. As Atlassian noted, “Agile is about self-improvement and being open to change.” It’s inherently non-dogmatic.

If Scrum Isn't For You, That is Okay!

"Our Scrum implementation just isn't taking hold here like I hoped. I guess this agile thing isn't for us." 

When leaders or teams conclude agile itself is the problem, they lose sight of its flexible spirit. In practice, agility requires tuning and tweaking approaches to best empower your people. While many coaches and practitioners may try and reduce customization, to me, it is an essential part of continuous improvement.

Do your teams find rigid Scrum ceremonies at odds with the nature of their work? Maybe. Should they abandon agile wholesale? No. By picking and choosing agile principles and innovating their own adaptations, you can craft a methodology better suited for the team’s specific challenges.

A cornerstone of agility is not a specific process or framework, but adaptability. Ruthlessly modify any approach until it clicks. Strip away rigid ceremonies that add little value for your teams. Retain and enhance elements that do work. Replace with new practices that better support collaborative flow.

Listen to your teams’ challenges and tailor solutions to empower their best work. As Jurgen Appelo of Management 3.0/Unfix puts it: “An agile mindset focuses on helping people become their best selves.” Always put their real needs first.

Key ingredients like transparency, servant leadership and continuous improvement can manifest many ways. There is no cookie cutter solution, so your blend will be unique. Treat frameworks like toolkits, not rigid doctrine.

Focus on the mindset, not the specific processes.

Signs That Your Agile Needs...Agility 

While no formula can determine the ideal agile approach for every team, there are sniff tests indicating when a little agile reinvigoration may be in order:

  • Development cycles consistently exceed estimates
  • Team members appear exhausted or frustrated
  • Meetings add marginal value
  • Customer needs are being misunderstood
  • Siloed departments impede progress

Most importantly, solicit feedback from team members directly. Ask what parts of the current process help or hinder their best work. Let what emerges guide your redesign.

By taking the time to rethink and reshape processes around genuine human needs - not just aping prescribed rituals - the payoff can be huge. As Samuel Culper at Intel noted after helping transition their massive engineering organization to lean-agile: “The empowerment I saw was the most outstanding thing.”

Building Agility Through Small Changes

Even in the most rigid, waterfall-centric organizations, nothing necessitates an instant, wholesale reinvention. The work of nurturing agile culture can be gradual. Start small, demonstrate benefits, and let it spread. 

One approach is to launch pilot agile” projects” with handpicked teams excited to experiment. Expose big picture thinkers from other departments as part of “scouting” roles to share learnings across silos. Arm those ambassadors with resources and training to become agile advocates. Their firsthand experience builds credibility with peers firm-wide. 

As agile ways of working spread team by team, arm each with an agile coach to promote the critical learner mindset. Let their initiatives organically inspire change rather than mandate top-down change. With patient cultivation, an organization can blossom from agile-averse to cross-pollinated. 

Staying Grounded Through Uncertainty

In times of turbulence, it’s natural for skeptics to denounce agile as chaotic. But structured approaches often fare worse; their brittle limitations shatter when stretched too far. Agile teams trained to inspect and adapt navigate uncertainty with poise. But when you embrace change, nothing should be too intimidating to improve upon.

Meanwhile, organizations chained to prescriptive tradition often freeze deer-in-headlights when situations shift. By embracing agile’s core values - not just mimicking particular mechanics - you build organizational resilience in the face of inherent change.

True Agility: Mindset Over Models

Mistaking agile as equivalent to specific frameworks like Scrum is understandable. Early agile evangelists often used prescriptive methodologies as vehicles to manifest values like transparency and feedback. But no single set of practices can address every team’s needs.

Recognize that any model, once codified, grows outdated with time and context. An agile mindset never expires. It empowers practitioners to reinvent collaborative models as work evolves.

So be wary of agile dogma. There is no blueprint. Instead, tap into the ethos of respect, reflection, and customer-centricity. Let it permeate your leadership to unlock organizational learning. With experimentation and empathy, teams build processes uniquely their own.

That is the heart of agile.

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