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Why agile initiatives fail

Agile has officially been around since 2001 with the publishing of the agile manifesto. The past two decades have seen many agile initiatives start, falter, and then fail due to a number of common causes. As you’ll see later in this article, the reasons for agile failure stem from organisation, cultural and change management issues.

We recently compiled data we have collected during pre-client surveys over the past 5 years. The data contains the reasons (perceived and inferred) and causes of agile implementation failures as described by executives, senior managers, project managers and developers.

Agile methodology failure
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Just to be clear, what do we mean by agile initiative?

  • A project or initiative to implement the use of agile methods to an organisation

  • Sometimes formal methods, others changes in behaviour, and yet others just guiding principles.

The results

1. Culture Clash

Perhaps unsurprisingly, culture clash came up repeatedly as the biggest challenge that teams faced. There were simply many differing values, behaviours and expectations of how things need to be conducted.

2. Lack of Commitment (from management)

When push came to shove, the executives and senior managers reverted back to what they knew best. Particularly when goals needed to be adjusted – as they should be when any substantial changes being implemented, without the understanding and vocal commitment by executives and managers, other teams would push back on the activities required by agile teams.

3. Lack of Customer Engagement

Customers often applauded the need for agility, especially in highly dynamic environments. But they often were one-sided and very reluctant when they came to understand the significant commitment required of them by agile, such as colocation and re-prioritised backlogs.

4. Incompatible Inter-Departmental Processes

There were lots of conflicts between the agile teams and other teams. Having significantly different expectations of what the organisation required including deliverables, drove many of the problems.

A prime example of this is was when finance and reporting teams required budgets and regular reporting from the agile projects. Often the budgets and reporting requirements were structured in a way that was incompatible with the agile method that the teams were using to run projects. A frequently occurring example was the structure of sprints, backlog prioritising and financial revisions and corresponding reporting often did not align with corporate requirements.

5. Not Establishing Processes 

Many agile initiatives interpreted the guiding principle from the manifesto of “people over process“ to mean that no processes were needed and simply explaining what needed to be done would be sufficient. Other initiatives had a defined set of processes but were unknown to my staff or were simply seen as optional.

6. Lack of Experience with the Methodology

Having skills without experience can mean many of the risks that may impact a product or project have a higher likelihood of occurring. Without the experience, lessons learnt over the past two decades of agile have to be relearnt, and many of the same problems occur. This makes the acceptance of agile and the perception of success very difficult.

7. Conflict with Legacy Methods

Conflicts with legacy methods – in a similar manner to the behaviour and value complex, many agile initiatives were deployed on a pilot project. However, the project was often not insulated from the demands, expectations, and behaviours of other projects methods and teams.

The agile-based projects simply found plan-based projects to be inflexible and were perceived to be not delivering or providing other teams with what they viewed as necessary documentation, milestones, and reviews.

8. Insufficient Change Management

Like any change initiative, without an appropriate change implementation, many employees simply did not want to move to agile.

9. Lack of Agile Skills

Surprisingly a lack of formal agile skills was not as serious a contributor to agile initiative failures as you would expect. Many managers realised that they did not have the required skill-sets in-house and so organised the needed training. Even though most organisations realised the necessity of training staff, some managers simply expected to learn agile themselves. They saw agile methods as a means of reacting faster to custard demands without having the cumbersome training in process. They just thought their staff should “be more agile“ and everyone could do that. “Why did they need training?”

What does this tell us?

  • That agile method implementation needs to be driven by executives and senior managers for the right reasons. If they haven’t got a clear understanding of why it needs to be done, they won’t have the commitment when it counts.
  • The deployments must be well-defined and treated like any other change initiative with the challenges and risks managed.
  • Employing staff with agile experience wherever possible.
  • Ensuring the values, behaviours and expectations of the team, surrounding organisation and customers is crucial. It is not just the IT agile team that needs to adjust their methods.

If you want to implement agile, you need to understand and communicate clearly what problem you want to solve. The reasons for implementing agile need to solve one or more current problems. Otherwise, they will almost certainly be treated as yet another management fad of the month.

person following agile methodologyJames Kelly is CEO of Method Buzz, a boutique consultancy providing strategic ICT advice, software & system engineering method transformations in defence, aerospace, telecommunications, and software start-ups. After graduating with a Bachelor of Informatics and an MPhil from Griffith University, he helps clients in the practical application of high maturity methods in quality and organisational improvement. Partnering with client teams, Method Buzz brings about significant productivity and quality improvements in organisations within engineering and technology. James has had a lifelong fascination with Wicked Problems and how to manage them.

This article does not constitute legal advice.

The opinions expressed in the column above represent the author’s own.

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MethodBuzz helps you and your organization to identify, understand, prioritize and solve your critical business problems. With so many methods, processes, and techniques being introduced continually, it can seem daunting to stay on top of things and determine which are useful to your organization, people, processes, and problems.

They use the OODA (Observe, Orient, Determine, Act) loop to accelerate your decision-making and operations business processes.  By taking a business problem-oriented approach to analyze and plan improvements you can stay focused on the things that matter.