Agile: benefits and drawbacks of a valuable cultural change

David Reyero

Clearly, Agile is not a management fad, nor just a project methodology. 

Agile is a powerful tool for corporate culture change, of great use for tackling today's business and people management challenges. 

In this article I set forth some of its undeniable benefits, but will concentrate more its drawbacks, as I believe they are not always so well-known and may come to jeopardize its successful implementation. 

Well-known benefits and others yet to explore 

Twenty years on from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, its benefits are more than proven: faster and more flexible decision making, more effective innovation as a result of listening to customers better, efficient resource use through the concept of the minimum viable product, greater multi-departmental collaboration and silo busting, eliminating hierarchies, and fostering intrapreneurship by facilitating the testing of new concepts, among others. 

Agile is a philosophy that goes beyond an improvement in project management systems and involves a positive revolution in the way of working and organizing

Furthermore, it is still far from reaching maturity, as few companies have achieved a 100% Agile organization, as McKinsey show in their report The journey to an agile organization

Risks of Agile: do we know them and manage them properly? 

An oft repeated phrase among Agilists: “Agile methods are easy to understand, but very difficult to apply.” 

We need to be aware of its drawbacks in order to manage them intelligently and prevent it from failing early on: unprepared organizational culture, an excessive increase in stress for participants in Agile projects, lack of skills in key roles, complex and over-technical terminology, failures of some pilot schemes that raise doubts about the methodology, or mistaking Agile for speed without thoroughness or quality. 

I will focus on some of the risks that, in my experience, are most crucial for Agile to gain a solid footing in the day-to-day functioning of the company. 

Is our organizational culture mature enough? 

Aside from certifications or role assignment in Agile (like in any other transformation), the first necessary step is to analyze whether our organization is culturally ready and to identify projects or teams that are likely to lead a given pilot scheme to have a good chance to succeed. 

Early successes are important because there are bound to be sceptics and people who prefer the inertias of the past, step-by-step projects, to trying novel methods. 

If we are not ready today, it is better to be realistic, assess whether it is really a priority for our strategy, and if so, start preparing the ground. 

Is Agile causing too much stress? 

In my opinion, this is one of its main risks. 

There is much evidence that Agile can increase stress to unhealthy levels in some people. Especially because these projects in sprint format usually come on top of already heavy regular workloads and require tremendous flexibility and prioritization in weekly agendas. 

This possible burnout should be anticipated to prevent significant impact on people (absence from work, demotivation, risk of voluntary turnover, etc.), results (lower quality, missed deadlines, etc.) and the internal credibility of this methodology. 

Are the key actors well trained and motivated? 

It is important to have an internal team that is technically well trained. However, in many projects the support of Agile coaches is recommendable. These are people with solid and rich previous experience of Agile who are capable of detecting risks and opportunities and pulling the project back up on those low days that any transformation will have. 

Have we succeeded in really involving the customer? 

The customer – internal or external – is not always collaborative enough in their opinions, or fails to understand that Agile requires more involvement from them at the start in order to get to meet their needs better later on. 

Today organizations are no longer machines that need optimizing. In this digital age companies are living organisms in which agility and talent must flow in order to ride out disruption and improve flexibility, innovation, competitiveness and employee and customer loyalty. 

In this complex and exciting voyage of transformation, with its challenges and its opportunities, Agile culture is a fundamental part that is here to stay. We should manage its risks well to get the most out of its undeniable potential and impact. 

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