Project Management

Agile Myths Debunked

22 Oct 2020
Scott Ambler
Leading organizations don’t latch onto easy answers, but double down on continuous learning. There’s no quick way to do that—but the results can pay off handsomely in the long run when leaders tune out the myths—and focus on the possibilities of Agile.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to present and exchange ideas all about the world of Agile at conferences around the world. I’ve also worked with organizations helping them to adopt more effective ways of working (WoW). In that time, I’ve heard more than my share of myths, misconceptions, and confusion about Agile in boardrooms, airports, and conference centers from Toronto to Melbourne to Frankfurt.  

These can have a pervasive effect, leading many organizations reluctant to pursue Agile solutions because of stories—accurate or not—they have heard over the years about failures. As the last few months have kept me largely grounded at home, I’ve had a bit more time than usual to reflect on, and clear up, some of the most common myths I’ve heard over the years.  

Myth: Agile is primarily used for software development projects.

This may be the most common myth I’ve heard. Agile certainly has its roots in the world of software development but in truth, people are applying Agile in every domain. Disciplined Agile has partnered with an eclectic array of organizations—ranging from legacy financial institutions to insurance companies, fast food retailers, and everything in between—to embed Agile into their entire enterprise. Virtually every organization—not only software enterprises—is under the same pressure to deliver value quickly.

As one example, DA recently published a case study taking a look at how Franklin Templeton Investments used Agile to deliver value to the business faster.

The study includes a video testimonial in which a senior executive at Franklin, Karen Lewis, highlights how Agile touches every aspect of the organization—from marketing to sales divisions to back operations—for the better.  

(You can take a look at the video online.)

Myth: Agile is primarily for low-risk projects.

In truth, a far greater range of projects use Agile, including high stakes initiatives with enormous dollars or even safety on the line. (For some insight into the increasing adoption of Agile at large, the Harvard Business Review  found in 2018 that some 80 percent of businesses today are using Agile in some form through major lines of business.) 

In respect to risk, Agile is often more effective than many traditional approaches to tackling complex projects, assuming teams have the right skills in place. In fact, problems are more often than not encountered when team members have only been through a crash agile course but haven’t gained the coaching necessary to develop the right mindset or technical skills.  

Keep in mind the myriad ways that Agile, and in particular Disciplined Agile, is uniquely well suited to addressing factors such as technical risks with the use of life cycles and milestones to test assumptions and weaknesses. 

Myth: Agile won’t apply for traditionally “waterfall” projects, like physical construction.

I’ve heard it more times than I can remember: “Agile sounds great, but my company builds buildings and bridges, so it’s not relevant.” In fact, virtually every construction project has many more components of the work that could become more Agile, whether it involves IT, finance, marketing, sales, or procurement. For example, I recently sat down for a discussion on ProjectManagement.com  with Mirko Kleiner of the Lean-Agile Procurement Alliance, who had invaluable insights on applying Agile to improve procurement processes. Similarly, I also sat down with Pierre Neis of Agile2  to share strategies for how human resource (HR) groups can operate more effectively. 

As our conversation touched on, the demands of “Black Swan” events like COVID-19 can demand that organizations operate much more quickly at, say, procuring face masks or ventilators. This same increased demand for speed will be true of functional areas that touch construction and infrastructure projects as well. (The days of defense agencies or contractors waiting six months to receive pencils should thankfully be long over.) 

Clearly many construction projects require a specific approach when it comes to simple laws of physics, which require more upfront planning. However, there are still plenty of opportunities on the ground to become more collaborative—given that I recently did exactly this with my own money to have a house built, I know that it’s possible. 

Myth: The speed of Agile results in low quality.

The persistent myths about the inevitability of low-quality outcomes in Agile projects have largely arisen, in my mind, due to the proliferation of self-styled “hackers” and low-end developers asserting they are “doing Agile” without a true grounding in how it works. When they misrepresent what they do as Agile, it can create a lasting negative bias among clients and partners who still haven’t seen a project grounded in true Agile principals. 

I’ve also seen many successful Agile projects that only hit challenges and are declared failures toward the end of the project life cycle when they deliver a result or conclusion that management doesn’t want to hear. These stories only underscore the need for executive support and, even more importantly, senior-level understanding of the Agile mindset and focus on iterative and incremental approaches. 

Myth: You don’t need to do any planning in Agile. 

Agile doesn’t lend itself to “no planning” by any stretch; but it does encourage shorter-term detailed planning, and long-term high-level planning—this is a classic project management strategy called rolling-wave planning. If you’re planning years in advance, you can box yourself into a corner given the lack of clarity on where the market is heading for most industries in today’s VUCA ++ environment.  

It can certainly be a jarring concept for some organizations to consider the prospect of not planning a year in advance—especially in tradition-bound organizations like government agencies. But there is enormous value in store for leaders who decide to take the journey in respect to learning, inspecting, adapting, and improving along the way with shorter increments and timelines.

 

Leading organizations don’t latch onto easy answers, but double down on continuous learning and improvement. There’s no quick way to do that—but the results can pay off handsomely in the long run when leaders tune out the myths—and focus on the possibilities of Agile (which I like to describe as the opportunity to “be awesome and delightful” in surpassing customer expectations).  

There’s no easy recipe to becoming agile, beyond accepting that there will be hard work. The organizations that succeed don’t settle for easy answers or fall into the habit of listening to myths; they stay focused on the search for truth and for value.  

Learn more about the Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit, which supplies straightforward guidance to help you, your team, and your enterprise increase effectiveness. Apply and evolve your way of working (WoW) in a context-sensitive manner with this people-first, learning-oriented hybrid agile approach.

Scott Ambler Scott Ambler