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The cultural challenges of adopting Agile

For a large organisation to successfully adopt Agile is no mean feat. To be ‘truly Agile’ requires:

  • internal buy-in from across the business and not just IT
  • a willingness to fail fast and often, and
  • an understanding that value can stretch far beyond a sheet of numbers

Last week, a select group of technical, digital, and marketing professionals from the UK’s leading insurance, publishing and telecoms industries met at an invite-only dinner to discuss the challenges faced by organisations attempting to adopt Agile.

The promise of something sooner and better

After welcome drinks and introductions, the attendees launched straight into the first topic of the evening: why is Agile such a bad word?

For many organisations round the table, it came down to common Agile myths infiltrating senior management. For one CEO cited by an attendee, the arrival of Agile meant the development team saying yes rather than no – an attractive prospect for the CEO, but a demanding one for an already stretched development team. Another attendee pointed out that some executives see Agile as 'carte blanche to get developers to do what they want' and not what would provide most overall value to the business.

Even when senior managers understand Agile processes, new or inexperienced product owners often bring a project goal that already contains a solution, rather than a problem that needs to be solved. And often, this goal is far from SMART. 'We need to improve customer experience', was a statement that sounded all too-familiar to many attendees.

Re-educating management on the benefits of Agile or helping project managers bridge the gap from Waterfall can help bust the Agile myths before they spread, and help champion the Agile cause internally.

Proving the value of Agile

Having to work with large egos at the top of the chain can be difficult, agreed the attendees, and teams constantly asking for the business justification behind new features or projects can quickly be seen as impertinent.

The pressure to put numbers and results ahead of project delivery was also a point of contention, along with the struggle to prove the brand value rather than monetary value for the business.

Still having to complete outdated project update reports was also a frustration for many attendees, and middle management was named as the worst offender for wanting Agile, but refusing to part with archaic practices.

'I wish', said one participant, 'that [other departments] would stop referring to what we do as projects. I wish we could agree on short- and long-term KPIs and work continually to achieve them'.

Proving the value of continuous delivery is a challenge for all Agile teams. Attendee Boaz Tal, business development director, wrote this guide exploring how an organisation can embrace change, but still deliver measurable results.

We are all 'the business'

Most attendees were guilty of referring to their team and 'the business' in separate terms, but as one organisation pointed out, this can quickly create an ‘us and them’ mentality internally.

Similarly, it was agreed that using Agile terminology could quickly become off putting. Just don’t mention the A-word, advised one organisation, it’s not worth the hassle. Start delivering, show progress with iterative development, and explain the nuances later suggested one attendee. 'Deliver, deliver, deliver', urged another: 'it’s the best route to success'.

But don’t hinge success on one individual, warned another attendee. Too often, companies find themselves with an 'Agile guru' in their midst who can foster the right discussions, but when they leave, any newfound 'culture' can leave with them. To be truly successful, Agile needs to be championed by all layers of the business, even if its original source was from a third-party consultant or internal guru.

Fail fast, fail often

However, above all challenges in the adoption of Agile, all attendees agreed that one of the largest remains a reluctance to embrace failure. The pressure for numbers and monetary value perpetuates a working culture that celebrates success and hides failure.

For one organisation, this change started with just one individual. An executive at their organisation would regularly share project failures alongside successes, as part of the department updates, and would take time to explain the learnings of each project. For that organisation, having just one senior executive champion the importance of failure has helped to create a more open and productive environment.

Conclusion

Agile can be a hard sell. The dinner discussion proved that Agile comes with a reputation bruised from weak projects purporting to be Agile, and from senior management teams still dogged by common misconceptions.

One way to improve organisation uptake and support of Agile was to demonstrate the success of Agile projects and encourage tolerance and visibility of failure. Rather than a culture of ‘Agile’, teams should try to foster a culture of learning, which can be championed from within the organisation.

Going back to the basics of Agile and reiterating the benefits of continuous improvement can be a valuable endeavour, as well as abandoning the idea of a 'project' as a standalone operation with a hard and fast end date. Measuring success against short and long term KPIs can therefore provide much more value to all areas of the business, no matter their level of understanding about Agile practices themselves.

The last thing a business needs is more jargon and acronyms, but there is always room for increased delivery, regular feedback, and better communication across all divisions of the business.

nviqa holds quarterly networking dinners for digital, marketing, and technical professionals on the big digital topics facing modern and growing organisations. If you would be interested in attending future events, please register your interest here.