5 Pitfalls to Avoid in Agile Transformations

March 29, 2012 CollabNet VersionOne

Over the past several years, I have listened to new clients talk about the challenges they face with their Agile adoptions. At some point in the conversation the client inevitably says something like, “You have to understand, our organization is unique.” The irony is that the phrase is usually followed by a description of an environment that sounds pretty much like one found at every other company just getting started with Agile. It is natural that every client would view their organizational challenges as unique because they’re providing unique products and services. However, the fundamental challenges that organizations have at their core generally boil down to people issues. Human beings require similar environments for success – largely independent of the kinds of work being performed. After engaging with several hundred clients along these conversational lines, I have identified some of the most common pitfalls organizations run into during their initial efforts to become Agile.

1)      Reading a Book on Agile and Thinking It’s All You Need to Get on Track

Reading about Agile is useful and absolutely encouraged. However, reading alone does not provide the more esoteric elements of an Agile transformation. I have spoken with countless team members at large organizations who have read a few books and started doing Scrum without any professional guidance. Every single one of them has told me some version of the following: “We read some books and got started with Scrum teams and sprints, and after a year, we don’t feel like all of us are on the same page as to what Scrum should look like.”

People go to therapists because it is impossible to objectively analyze one’s self and provide appropriate guidance. Shouldn’t this be the same for organizations? My colleague uses a more universal metaphor: Professional sports teams are made up of highly skilled athletes, but still require a coach to perform well and win. If highly paid, highly skilled professional athletes still require a coach, why shouldn’t we expect our organizations to require something similar to achieve greatness?

2)      Breaking the Rules Before You Give the Rules Time to Work

Ken Schwaber, Scrum co-founder, once said, “Scrum is like chess. You either play it as its rules state, or you don’t. Scrum and chess do not fail or succeed. They are either played, or not.”

Scrum exposes various kinds of organizational dysfunction, but does not tell you how to resolve them. Often teams will modify the Scrum framework because it does not conform to an established business practice. This defeats the whole purpose of Scrum right from the outset. Scrum is supposed to feel uncomfortable and chaotic at first because the point is to uncover organizational issues that need addressing. Changing the rules in an attempt to fit them to existing processes leads an organization into a long period of doing “sort-of-Scrum” in which no discernible benefit is achieved and which usually causes the organization to quit after a year or two because “Scrum didn’t work.” Scrum works just fine, but only if you follow the rules. One of our clients who led a global Agile transformation effort involving hundreds of people on three continents likes to say, “I’m not smarter than Scrum, and neither are you.”

3)      Not Involving Anyone from the Business Outside of IT

High-performing Scrum teams have been compared to jazz ensembles because communicative self-organization is the hallmark of a good improvisational jazz. However, most organizations today are more appropriately characterized as orchestras in which the musicians play their parts as written on the sheet music in front of them. Having a start-to-finish plan is necessary for orchestras because their performances are replications of a completed product.

The orchestral methodology is impractical for nearly all business organizations, but many try to do it anyway rather than operating as a jazz ensemble. Imagine if an orchestra’s percussion section started playing in a different time signature in the middle of a piece. The whole performance would go off the rails. In a good jazz group, though, if a player abruptly changes the time signature, the other players will adapt and go with the flow.

Transitioning to Agile is a significant change that should affect the whole organization. Not everyone in the organization needs to be on a Scrum team, but everyone needs to be familiar with the values and benefits of Agile in order to play their parts in a communicative, collaborative way.

4)      Lack of Commitment

An Agile transformation requires organization-wide effort. At the outset, there is often a period of chaos and uncertainty which must be endured. This is something many beginning Agilists don’t understand and it can get them pretty freaked out once they realize what they’ve gotten into. If a company is not committed to learning about Agile, how to practice healthy Scrum, and how to resolve the organizational issues that are exposed, then there is no point in even trying to attempt an Agile transition. Yes, there will be people who do not want to learn yet another process. Yes, there will be people who are uninterested and unengaged. Find the people who are engaged, get them together and continue to push for more commitment, especially from upper management.

5)      Unwillingness to Mentor Talent to Achieve Long-Term Quality

An unfortunate practice in many organizations is the constant attempt to do too much with too little. This can be particularly short-sighted when it comes to personnel. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Stepping over a dollar to pick up a nickel”? When training budgets are cut and mentoring activities are shunned because management considers mentoring to be paying two people to do one person’s job, the long-term consequences can be disastrous. People will become stagnant in their skill sets, get frustrated and eventually move on to an organization where their natural desires to learn and produce will be fulfilled. If a company does not foster a sense of worth and appreciation for their employees and does not invest in training and mentoring programs, the company is bound to suffer losses large and small, sooner and later.


This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is something you can use to analyze your organization’s approach to an Agile transformation. Try self-assessing your organization on each of these 5 pitfalls and then prioritize them. If nothing else, it could get the right conversations going within your organization.

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