Agile’s Achilles heel

From its birth in the software development community, the idea of ‘agility’ has risen in prominence to the point where organizations of all shapes and forms are now leveraging agile principles (or at least trying to).  Since being conceptually formalized in the 2001 ‘agile manifesto’ the ideas have matured to the point where agile practices have worked their way into the mainstream of the Project Management Institute’s PMBoK® Guide.

As I’ve written about a number of times, agile concepts are well founded (when applied in appropriate contexts and by skilled professionals).  However, some organizations are finding that agility is no panacea.  To illustrate, I recently witnessed an agile team drive a project into the ground.  In that particular case the team were skilled in the technology they were applying, but lacked the depth of knowledge of the client’s business.  In principal agility calls for constant engagement of the business stakeholders to ensure their knowledge is sufficiently transferred to those writing the code. Unfortunately, in this case the client didn’t have the number of resources dedicated to the project to adequately achieve that goal and in retrospect, that under resourcing of the project by the client was a contributor to the failure.

In that particular case some may assume that the issue wasn’t seen in advance, but that’s not the case.  Throughout the project, voices inside the project warned senior management that there were structural problems.  Those warnings were unfortunately ignored and the client and investors ended up eating a very significant loss.

So, why did the warnings go unheeded?  In short – arrogance.  To heed a warning, you have to listen.  To avert a project disaster, you have to see reality.  In this particular case listening and seeing were in short supply and people in key leadership roles maintained an unshakable belief that the project was on firm ground.

In reality the project was using the word ‘agile’ to hide sloppy practices.  Phrases like “we’re agile” were used in response to concerns and a cultish mindset meant you were either an ‘agilist’ who ‘got it’ or a heretic to be silenced.

Despite the cult like belief in agility, the issues should have surfaced when early sprints failed to deliver working software.  In reality a lack of meaningful quality practices meant that testing was scant and the true status of the delivered code wasn’t appreciated by those high up.  Although that flies in the face of agile principles, those raising concerns were again shot down by the project’s ‘agile’ evangelists.   Sprints lead to releases, but the issues compounded and early releases were both late and unfit for production release.  Only after 3 years did the project finally get canned (so much for the agile principle of fail early).

Truth be told the team weren’t being agile.  The words were used, but the principles were not.  The process used was nothing more than chaotic and the cult of agile was used as lipstick on the pig to mask reality.  Arrogance at the upper levels acted as a roadblock to reality and the stage was set for a project tragedy to be played out.

Arrogance is a powerful force in the way we as humans work. At times it can be beneficial. Arrogance leads to confidence and sometimes confidence is well founded or lucky and a significant step forward gets taken.  Other times (and perhaps more frequently) arrogance is a determent.  Arrogance is the bypass for learning.  Why bother learning when you feel you already know it? Arrogance is the replacement for thinking.  Why think when the answers are ‘so’ obvious?  Arrogance is the substitute for enquiry.  Why ask others when they can’t possibly know as much as you?

When arrogance meets agility, you can easily create the context for failure.  The nature of agility is that the processes are relatively lightweight, simple and hence easy to understand (arrogant people like that).  That simplicity however masks the maturity of the underlying principles.  Leveraging those principles takes leadership, thought and understanding (things arrogant people tend to skip).  For the arrogant, the simplicity of the process is the stopping point for learning and as a result, the deeper principles get ignored.  The net result is foreseeable and the in the case I touched on above the price tag for arrogance was $200M.