When Agile Fails

Mitch Malloy
Mitch Malloy

It happened again. Everything was working beautifully. The teams were meeting their commitments, trying new approaches and genuinely having fun being productive. Then [fill in the blank] happened. Like me, I’m sure you have all sorts of real-life experiences. As Agilists, we seek to fail early and often. We know that every failure is a learning opportunity, but how do we respond when Agility just isn’t embraced within the organization? We gave it our best shot and now things seem to be going in the opposite direction. I guess it’s time to throw in the towel, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. You know your goals better than anyone else and you know your situation. Me? I just have a big blank on my paper with a lot of assumptions. We could try to find someone to blame, such as the infamous ’They’:

  • They couldn’t embrace an Agile mindset.”
  • They weren’t willing to recognize the problem.”
  • “I took them as far as they were willing to go.”
  • They thought they were Agile, but they were practicing faux-agile.”

Maybe we all share the blame and defeatedly admit that “We tried to be Agile, but it just didn’t work for us.” Fair enough. But through the years, I’ve noticed we sometimes learn the wrong thing from a failed experiment.

I’ll use myself as an example: when I was in high school I did some field events in Track, and I decided to see how I would do in a running event as well. Without any training (and especially with any spectators!), I timed myself for a race against the clock to see how I compared with other athletes in that event. As you might expect, after timing myself running solo, I walked away discouraged and told no one about my failed attempt. My time wasn’t quite as good as the guys already training for that event. As I matured I learned a lot, such as how to run and how to train. I even coached Track & Field for couple years, and I would use my failure as an example for my student athletes. As a coach, if I had someone come off the couch to complete that event with a time like my private attempt, I believe I could have taken them to Regionals… possibly even State. The whole point of the story is that my inexperience and fear led me to a wrong conclusion and I emotionally shut down, declaring a premature defeat.

Fear and inexperience are obstacles to overcome, and it’s especially difficult when we’ve learned the wrong lesson from a failed experiment. It takes humility to move past failures and courage to move beyond failed learnings in our personal history. But the obstacles are often greater when working with others. It takes patience and boldness to confront and break down the failed lessons of what others have learned. Along the way, it’s easy to get into a fight or flight mentality: EITHER I fight these people to make Agile a success here OR I leave to find the plush lands of Agility Nirvana that exist elsewhere. But as pointed out in the book “Crucial Conversations” there’s a third option we should always consider: we can choose to dialog.

If I’m truly an Agilist, and by that I mean someone who ascribes to the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, then how should I respond to failed attempts at Agile? Failed attempts can take the form of an anti-pattern exhibited by an individual or at a larger scale as a failed organizational transformation. Do I truly value Individuals and [healthy] Interactions? Am I committed to collaborating, and are others willing to collaborate? If the other person has shut the door, locked it, and then nailed it shut, then it doesn’t matter how much you try, that door is closed, and it’s time to move on. But if there’s a chance of opening that door, shouldn’t we try?

Do I consider how the 12th principle may apply to a failed transformation?

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Why not take an Lean-Agile approach to opening the door further? Plan -> Do -> Check -> Adjust. Intentionally work with others to retrospect on what works and what doesn’t. I believe that cadence builds discipline, so creating a rhythm to retrospect will be more effective, but if the environment is not open to that yet, take a more informal approach. Something that has worked well for me in the past as a change agent is to focus on issues others can agree upon and prioritize the ones from that list that we’ll resolve first. This builds trust with others and often creates a willingness to collaboratively resolve other issues. It also models a collaborative spirit to help foster a continued growth in healthy patterns.

The bottom line is that Agile is a journey, not a destination. Although some are much further along than others, I don’t believe that anyone has fully arrived. So it’s up to us, as Agile leaders and enthusiasts, to lead with service to others and get back on the path. We own it to them and we owe it to ourselves.

copyright ©2018 Mitchell Malloy