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Why Agile Doesn’t Work and How to Solve This

Since the early 2000s, Agile has been gaining in popularity and becoming the go-to approach to project management in companies of all sizes and backgrounds.


Starting out in software development, it quickly found its way to other industries, and Agile in non-software projects shows to bring just as many benefits and results. It is being successfully used in departments all throughout the organization, including HR, marketing, finances, and general management.

Companies thrive in an Agile work environment and distinguish the many benefits from Agile implementation. Working in this framework, teams deliver better results faster and are capable of being self-sufficient and self-manageable, requiring less overview from the top. Having developed the mindset that sets up the foundation for the company’s transformation gives a sense of belonging and personal responsibility for the project’s successful delivery.

However, as much as it can be praised, it faces just as much criticism and for valid reasons nonetheless. Agile is not a solve-all solution to your project’s every problem. It won’t be a fit for every company and even industry. There are nuances and problems which arise when implementing the approach.

Such factors as company culture and composition, industry specifics, or management efficiency may call for different solutions, either sticking to the traditional waterfall approach or coming up with something completely new.

According to the latest “State of Agile” 2020 report, the most common challenges and problems when adopting and scaling Agile are as shown in the graph.


Let’s take a closer look at what happens when Agile doesn’t work and what can be done about it.

Why Agile practices might not work: Problems and challenges

How does Agile work? How do you go about implementing it? What toll does the company take in order to achieve the ever-desirable Business Agility?

Let’s see what are the common reasons why Agile fails in teams and how to overcome them:

Team and company culture

Introducing a new approach to project management and collaboration requires everyone to be on board. It’s especially the case if you are striving to turn your teams Agile – it’s a joint effort.

It’s not enough to follow the set of rules and principles. Being and thinking Agile may mean that your team members will have to take on new roles, step up and take responsibility for the successful delivery of the project, as much as for their part of the job. This would require more effective communication and collaboration, being aware of what is going on at all times, keeping track of dependencies.

Agile may create a positively new company culture that spreads from individuals to teams, to the entire organization. But it’s up to the people to be open to this shift in their mindset, be ready to let go of the old ways and work in Agile.

Business and industry specifics

The Agile approach has little to offer in industries which have to adhere to government regulations, such as healthcare, financial, construction, etc. In these cases, the product life cycle is linear and the end results predetermined. Requirements are not expected to change half-way into the project, so the flexibility in this approach brings little to the table.

Here the traditional waterfall model does the job just fine.

Agile is different in the way that it’s all about embracing the change, adapting and adjusting the plan as you go. If you can’t say that about your project, better stick to waterfall.

Failed Agile implementation

One of Agile’s characteristics is the team’s close cooperation with business. This encompasses daily communication and a constant feedback loop that allows the development team to have all the information needed to work on the product. To make such continuous cooperation possible, the management team has to be on board and ready to become the bridge between the client and the developers.

As this close daily cooperation depends on many teams and individuals to dedicate themselves to the project, it requires a thorough approach to implementing Agile within the organization. In this regard, an expert is invited to develop and implement an Agile roadmap that covers all the steps from assessment to education, setting up the processes, and further consulting and coaching.

If the team doesn’t take the time to properly implement Agile roadmap and consider all the aspects that come with Agile transformation, it may start facing difficulties when it comes to working on an actual project. Once the budgets are set and the client is waiting for you to deliver results within the first sprint, the team finds itself in hot water.

Inefficient planning

Planning is an essential part of Agile with many ceremonies centering around preparing for the work ahead. Program increment planning, sprint planning, story estimation – all this is to set the team up for success. A lot of this planning constitutes analyzing results of the already completed work and adjusting the plan in accordance with feedback from the client.

If the team fails to plan efficiently, they may have trouble completing the tasks with desirable results and meeting deadlines. Some of the things the team may struggle with are preparing a proper product backlog, accounting for dependencies with other departments, managing capacity.

Another important part of planning is considering business value and the time to implement. If the team leans too much in one direction and, for example, makes all the decisions too user-centric, this may lead to lack of real business value and results once the product is rolled out onto the market.

Team composition and responsibilities

When it comes to scaling, it’s important to understand the possible reasons why Agile doesn’t work for large projects and seek ways to address the issue.

One characteristic of an Agile team structure is that it should be small (3 to 9 people) which allows it to remain flexible and responsive to change, yet composed in a way that it is self-sufficient and can function as a separate unit of an organization.

Wrong Agile team structure and responsibilities may disrupt the workflow of a small team as it will constantly fall through and drag behind due to the lack of certain skills and knowledge, therefore, not being able to sustain itself fairly independently.

Team burnout, feeling of “it will never end”

Generally, “early wins” are a great motivator for the team. However, some may feel as if Agile, with its focus on continuous delivery and no harsh end-goal, makes it a constant race without a definitive finish line. If the team is not able to properly manage requirements and self-organize, this may lead to feelings of burnout and lack of satisfaction. Full commitment to the project is an essential characteristic of an Agile team. If team morale starts going astray, there is an underlying problem that needs to be looked into.

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When tools come before interactions

It’s often mentioned that Agile is more than merely a set of rules to follow in your day-to-day work.

“Don’t do Agile, be Agile”

You’ll see this statement quoted time and time again. The essence of becoming an Agile company is in adopting the Agile way of thinking on all levels of organization. This calls for inherently more effort and dedication coming from individuals composing the teams and departments, as you are trying to create an Agile environment.

It is not unusual that such an emphasis is placed on individual responsibility, communication and collaboration in teams and between departments, and so on throughout all levels of an organization.

Agile processes and ceremonies are just the facade, the gateway to what creates Business Agility. They are means to make the transition easier and more comprehensible. That being said, Agile artifacts should in no way supersede the people and relationships. At the end of the day, that is what builds up to business agility.

How to solve these problems

One should understand and recognize the circumstances of when sticking to the Agile approach is not feasible for the company.

Not everyone can be Agile. Not everyone has to be Agile.

However, there are ways to introduce positive changes to the organization setting it on its way to become truly Agile.

Invest in education

An important part of your journey should be building a culture around agility, which begins with education.

Consider investing in trainings or inviting expert coaches and consultants to help you along your way. Having an outsider help you set up the processes is good in a way that they get to see your established culture and routines with an unbiased eye.

Implement Agile on all organizational level

As mentioned above, involvement of the management team is valuable for the development team’s successful cooperation with the client.

The Agile approach may be implemented in pockets to see how well it is working out for the company and if there’s any benefit in proceeding with a drastic Agile transformation for the entirety of the company. The company starts seeing significantly more benefits once everyone gets in “the game”.

This includes leadership too as they set the standard for the whole company. Close cooperation and true dedication is what makes it work. There is no time and place to play strict hierarchies.

Stick to Agile Basics

A good idea would be to remind yourself of where it all started. The Agile Manifesto clearly defines values and principles that make a company Agile.

 If you consider yourself Agile but don’t stick to the basics, instead opting for picking and choosing what you will or will not implement, you may be missing out on an essential part of the process. Try going back to the source material and remind yourself of what is the true meaning of “Agile”. Remember why you started out on this journey in the first place and reevaluate your priorities.

The four values defined in the manifesto are as follows:

  •     Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  •     Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  •     Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  •     Responding to change over following a plan.

Experiment and make it your own

Although it is strongly recommended to follow the Agile values and principles in your transformation journey, there is no need to be rigid about it. Know what works for your team and company in particular.

You see your business and industry from the inside, know its background and all the ins and outs. Leverage your own expert experience and insights to get the most out of your digital transformation. Use it as the foundation for your further improvement and look for ways to add up to it.

You may consider combining Agile with another framework, such as Scrum, or Kanban methodology, and create a hybrid solution that works best for your case specifically.

Summing up

So, the burning question is, does Agile actually work? Is it worth the effort?

Well, as with all things, it depends. Every instance may be different and have the people promoting Agile face with difficulties and obstacles on their Agile transformation journey. However, over the years, experts have streamlined the processes and defined the ways in which the above-mentioned issues may be diminished and the possible negative outcomes lessened or completely eradicated.

Bottom line is that Agile is not a miracle solution to all of your problems. However, with proper implementation and involvement of a solid expert base, Agile introduction may become the turning point for your business.

Andriy Romanukha

Andrew Romanukha, Agile Coach, Scrum Master at Symphony Solutions, Certified SAFe Scrum Master, and SAFe Agilist. Loves sharing knowledge and experience as an Agile evangelist, energetic business trainer, and Agile Coach.

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