by Matt McBride

Survey insights: the state of agile and the path forward

May 11, 2018
Agile DevelopmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Where are we today, and what does the future look like for agile?

elephant tight rope risk agile balance
Credit: Thinkstock

Each year, a large worldwide survey is conducted on the state of agile and its adoption.  Recently, the results from the 12th survey were published, and they contain insights into where we are heading as an industry.  The survey also reveals some of the challenges agile adoption and maturation faces.  One challenge should make us all sit up and take notice.

The independent survey is sponsored by VersionOne, an agile software tool vendor.  The results are not focused on tools but rather the larger state of the agile community.  Individuals surveyed cut across a wide swath of geographies and industries worldwide, with a variety of needs and ways of working.

Survey says….

Here are some interesting highpoints of the survey:

  • 97% of technology organizations are using agile development in at least one team, yet the depth of adoption is not high. 
  • Of these organizations, 98% had experienced successes at the project level.  The primary reasons for adopting agile are to accelerate delivery, and to manage constantly changing business priorities. 
  • 78% of these organizations report they are still experimenting with agile or that teams are still maturing.
  • Only 12% of these organizations report that they have a high level of competency in using agile.

Organizations are undoubtedly realizing the benefits of agile approaches to delivery.  This is confirmed by the fact that agile adoption has grown so significantly that almost every organization is using it or experimenting with it.  This is good news in an era where speed of delivery is a requirement and a distinct competitive advantage for businesses.

The fact that many organizations are still maturing, and few report high levels of competency should make us stop and think.  Both agile and scrum have been around for a while.  The agile manifesto was written in 2001.  Scrum had been in use for 10 years prior to this.  Why are we still struggling?  After all, agile is a set of values that are not hard to understand.  Scrum, the most popular version of agile, is easy to understand.  What are we doing wrong, and what do we need to change?  

People don’t like change, and culture empowers resistance

According to this year’s survey, the top theme that emerges from its results is that “Organizational Culture Matters.”  Specifically, “organizational culture stands out as a critical factor in the success of adopting and scaling agile. The three most significant challenges to agile adoption and scaling are reported as organizational culture at odds with agile values (53%), general organizational resistance to change (46%), and inadequate management support and sponsorship (42%).”  Or, as a good friend likes to remind me – people are messy. 

Resistance to any change and cultural challenges should be expected, anticipated, and planned for before beginning an agile or digital initiative.  Robert Tanner documents eight reasons why people resist change in an organization:

  1. Loss of status or job security in the organization.
  2. Poorly aligned (non-reinforcing) reward systems.
  3. Surprise and fear of the unknown.
  4. Peer pressure.
  5. Climate of mistrust.
  6. Organizational politics.
  7. Fear of failure.
  8. Faulty Implementation approach (including lack of tact or poor timing).

These forces are at work and oppose the adoption of agile and scrum, and in many organizations’ cultures they are magnified.  In speaking with executives and organizations, I hear that the impact of agile and scrum are often strangled by these forces.  Many have tried a “big bang” approach to agile adoption that includes bringing in training and coaches.  The all-too-common refrain is that after the coaches leave, everyone goes back to doing what they did before they came.  This is costly and inefficient for companies and casts a shadow over agile.  We need to do better, and start thinking about a way to bring about agile adoption successfully.  Agile and scrum work – but people and cultures frequently distort, mask, and hide its value.

Proactive steps

As organizations struggle to push agile adoption forward, and as the agile community of practice grows, it’s time for us to raise the bar.  We can do better.  To realize the benefits agile delivery brings, we need a proactive approach to culture change to foster agile maturity. This approach should account for three critical success factors:

  • First, each business exists in a unique cultural context that should be addressed and accommodated.
  • Second, the approach should allow for immediate realization of the benefits of agile delivery including accelerated delivery, project visibility, improved team productivity, improved business alignment and the ability to quickly respond to ever-changing priorities.
  • Finally, the approach should allow organizations to plan forward, and identify logical next steps as they transform technology organizations to realize these benefits for business customers.

Recognizing that an agile or digital transformation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition for unique organizations and cultures is a good start.  We must plan for culture and change management, and just not blindly march forward assuming everyone will fall in line.  They won’t – and we should accept that part of our job is to persuade them and demonstrate success over time.  There are no simple shortcuts, and big-bang approaches don’t work.  Finally, as we discussed in March’s article, we need to remember that each of the daily interactions we have with our business customers are important in an agile transformation. 

As Zig Ziglar notably said “If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business (or adopt agile) with you.”  Culture counts in large initiatives like agile or digital transformations – we must meet our partners on their turf and prove our ideas work.  Earning the trust of the business is hard work, and we should be prepared to do this every day, every hour, and every minute.  This is our way forward, the way we grow our careers, and the way we will advance agile adoption and practice.