The Problem of "Bad Agile" and the Need for a Counter-Balance

In recent years, agile has become a buzzword in the world of project management. Companies across industries are adopting agile methodologies in an effort to increase efficiency, productivity, and ultimately, profits. However, with this surge in popularity comes a downside - there is now a lot of "bad agile" being implemented in organizations.

So, what is it?

So what exactly is "bad agile"? Simply put, it is the misinterpretation and misapplication of agile principles. While agile is often seen as a set of rules or practices to be followed, it is actually a mindset and approach to project management. This misunderstanding has led to many companies implementing processes that they label as agile, but are far from it.  This, in turn, gives agile the reputation of being ineffective and simply another scapegoat of naysayers that are in favor of maintaining the status quo.

One major issue with "bad agile" is the focus on speed and getting things done quickly, rather than prioritizing quality and customer satisfaction. True agile principles place a strong emphasis on continuous improvement and collaboration between team members to deliver value to the customer. However, in many cases of "bad agile", these principles are thrown out the window in favor of meeting strict deadlines and delivering as many features as possible.

Furthermore, "bad agile" often relies on a rigid and inflexible approach, rather than the adaptive and responsive nature of true agile. This can lead to frustration for team members who are restricted by strict processes, leading to burnout and a lack of motivation.

Real-Life Consequences of "Bad Agile"

One of the most infamous examples of "bad agile" is the failed UK government project, Universal Credit. Launched in 2010, this project aimed to simplify the benefits system by combining six benefits into one payment. The project adopted an agile methodology, but the lack of understanding and misapplication of agile principles led to disastrous results.

Despite the agile approach regarding the emphasis on iterative development and regular feedback, the Universal Credit project was heavily criticized for its lack of transparency and poor stakeholder engagement. The project quickly fell behind schedule, and costs spiraled out of control. A former principal agile consultant on Universal Credit, who asked not to be named, said the programme got off on the wrong foot. The Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said they would implement agile to get the initiative done.  However, one of the many issues was the use of contracts (with major suppliers, including HP, Accenture, Capgemini and IBM) that fixed the features of the seven-year programme right at the beginning, said the consultant.  "We were effectively on a waterfall project, because it was a waterfall contract.  There was an extremely strong command and control culture at the DWP was strongly entrenched, which goes against agile. We were trying to alleviate that - but it wasn't working. "  Unfortunately, "Universal Credit is very well known in the agile community - and not necessarily for the right reasons," he said.

Counteract the Bad with the Good

So, how do we counteract the negative effects of "bad agile"? The answer lies in understanding and embracing the true principles of agile. This includes fostering a culture of collaboration and continuous learning, prioritizing customer satisfaction over speed, and being adaptable to change.

Fostering a Culture of Collaboration

Creating a culture of collaboration is vital in an agile organization. This entails fostering an atmosphere where every team member's input is valued, transparency is maintained, and cooperation is encouraged. This collaborative environment allows for faster problem-solving, innovation, and shared ownership of tasks, enhancing productivity and job satisfaction. It encourages collective intelligence, where the team's combined insights and ideas could lead to more effective solutions than individual ones.

Emphasizing Continuous Learning

Continuous learning is another key agile principle. It involves constant evaluation, reflection, and improvement. This can be achieved through regular retrospectives, where teams can assess their performance and identify areas of improvement. It is an investment in the team's capabilities, allowing them to adapt and evolve in the face of new challenges or technologies. Continuous learning promotes resilience, stimulates intellectual curiosity, and ensures the team remains up to date with the latest practices, tools, and technologies.

Prioritizing Customer Satisfaction over Speed

In a truly agile culture, customer satisfaction comes before speed. Instead of rushing to deliver as many features as quickly as possible, the focus should be on delivering valuable features that satisfy the customer’s needs. This approach prioritizes quality over quantity, leading to a greater value product. It also helps in building trust with the customer, fostering a long-term relationship, and ensuring the product delivered meets the customer's expectations.

Being Adaptable to Change

Agile organizations must be adaptable to change. Rather than sticking rigidly to a plan, teams should remain flexible and receptive to changes in requirements, even in later stages of development. This flexibility allows teams to respond to market shifts effectively, ensuring the end product remains relevant and competitive. Adaptability also encourages innovation, as it allows teams to explore new approaches and technologies. It fosters longevity, ensuring the organization can thrive in the face of uncertainty and change.

Value Both The Process and The People

In addition, organizations should place equal value on both the processes and the individuals involved. It's important to remember that agile is not just about completing tasks, but also about creating a positive and productive work environment for team members, wherein psychological safety is of prime importance.

Organizations harboring an agile mindset understand the equal importance of processes and people. A finely tuned process is undeniably critical in delivering efficient, high-quality outputs. However, processes alone are hollow without the individuals who breathe life into them. Each team member brings a unique set of skills, experiences, and perspectives to the table, enriching the process and fostering innovation. Therefore, organizations need to value and nurture this diversity, encouraging individuals to contribute their full potential to the team's shared goals.

Agile is not merely a method for task completion; it is a holistic philosophy that extends beyond the realm of work into the culture of the organization. It recognizes the importance of creating a positive, productive, and most importantly, safe work environment for all team members. Psychological safety is a cornerstone of a healthy and thriving agile culture. When team members feel safe, they are more likely to voice their opinions, share their ideas, and take calculated risks, all of which are essential for innovation and continuous improvement.

However, achieving a psychologically safe work environment requires conscious efforts from the organization. It involves fostering open communication, promoting mutual respect, and creating a non-judgmental environment where mistakes are treated as learning opportunities rather than failures. This sense of safety promotes trust, collaboration, and engagement among team members, which in turn benefits the overall productivity and effectiveness of the organization.

The true essence of agile lies in the perfect balance between processes and individuals. It's not just about getting things done; it's about how things are done and the environment in which they are done. Organizations should, therefore, strive to create a work culture that values both the processes and the individuals, where psychological safety is given prime importance, and where every member is empowered to contribute their best to the collective goals.

Good Agile

Ultimately, the key to avoiding "bad agile" is to have a clear understanding of what it truly means to be agile. This requires ongoing education and training for both leadership and team members, as well as a willingness to adapt and evolve processes as needed. Accepting assistance from agile experts and coaches to lay a solid foundation and foster continuous self-actualization will pioneer the way for successful outcomes.

The failed Universal Credit project undertaken by the UK government (mentioned earlier) was reset in 2013.  But by then, it had already suffered significant financial and reputational damage. This case serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of "bad agile" and the importance of adhering to agile principles rather than simply labeling a project as 'agile'.

At the end of the day, while there may be a lot of "bad agile" out there, it's important to recognize the value and benefits of true agile principles and values. By understanding and implementing the principles of agile correctly, organizations can achieve greater success and create a healthier work environment for all involved.  So let's strive for "good agile" - where collaboration, continuous improvement, and customer satisfaction are at the forefront.  Continue to educate ourselves and others on the true meaning of agile, and strive for a better balance in our approach to tackling company initiatives. Only then can we truly reap the rewards of this highly effective way of getting things done!

  1. Beck, K., Beedle, M., van Bennekum, A., Cockburn, A., Cunningham, W., Fowler, M., Grenning, J., Highsmith, J., Hunt, A., Jeffries, R., et al. (2001) Manifesto for Agile Software Development.  Agile Alliance.
  2. Highsmith, J. (2004). The agile manifesto revisited: Four guiding principles. Cutter IT Journal
  3. Martin, R. C., & Martin, M. (2017). Agile principles, patterns, and practices in C#.
  4. Poppendieck, M., & Poppendieck, T. (2003). Lean software development: an agile toolkit.
  5. July 4, 2013 edition (Mark Ballard)

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