by Michael Dougherty

The opposite of agile

Apr 10, 2017
Agile DevelopmentIT LeadershipSoftware Development

'Control of consciousness determines the quality of life" -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

pile of scrabble pieces 100922332
Credit: Thinkstock

In the IT industry, everyone has witnessed the continued increase of Agile (with a capital A) adoption over the past 16 years since the Agile Manifesto was written. Everyone who has led an organization under Agile has discovered that Agile is easy to understand but hard to master. Delivering Agile takes hard work.

What can we learn from comparing Agile versus agile? That question came up recently in my delivery oversight, especially when it came to identifying Agile anti-patterns.  That is, those behaviors and ceremonies that go in direct contrast with good Agile practices.

When teams are delivering poorly, it does not matter if they are following scrum, traditional waterfall, Kanban or no set process at all. Teams have been failing at IT delivery ever since IT delivery existed.

What matters is having experience at identifying the signs of poor delivery and then having even more experience at creating effective solutions with the team. The more advanced step is to have the team solve problems themselves in a self-organizing fashion and support them when they encounter any challenges.

What is the opposite of agile? Here are the antonyms for the word agile from Word Hippo:

Clumsy, apathetic, depressed, dispirited, down, dull, ignorant, inactive, lazy, lethargic, lifeless, rigid, slow, sluggish, stiff, stupid, brittle.

Walking through common antonyms brings some enlightenment on what to avoid with Agile delivery. This can be your checklist to gauge whether your team is agile enough to be Agile. Here is the breakdown:

Clumsy / ignorant / stupid

  1. Determine if you have the team with the right skills for the job. Look for signs of any team member not producing at an equal level with his/her peers.
  2. The team themselves usually know who is the “weakest link.”
  3. Bring in an expert to support the team.
  4. For those deficient, train them or replace them.

Apathetic / inactive / lazy / lifeless

  1. Confirm that everyone involved is fully dedicated and wants to see a successful delivery. Signs come from lack of involvement in ceremonies and detachment from the delivery team. A “lone wolf” can also be a detriment to the team if not working collaboratively together.
  2. If not, work on identifying the reason and get them out of their slump or find someone else that can replace them.

Depressed / dispirited / down

  1. Team morale is vital for delivery. A happy team is a productive team.

  2. Look at the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If the work is not challenging enough or too challenging, these will both impact productivity.
  3. Determine steps to increase or decrease work through balancing of the team or process improvements to help increase overall delivery skills.
  4. If the morale is down due to lack of recognition, use appreciations to have teams compliment each other for good deeds at regular intervals, such as retrospectives.


  1. As management, keeping the team environment exciting may seem unnecessary (it is work after all, right?) but actually a major component to delivery success.
  2. Recognize and reward excellent behavior.
  3. Bring on some healthy competition within a team by having the team vote on “top contributor of the sprint.” Include a rule that the same person cannot get the award twice in a row.
  4. Celebrate victories when milestones are reached or when someone goes above and beyond the call of duty (UAT, alpha release, exceeded sprint commit).
  5. Provide training to help remove the boredom of the same work day in, day out.

Brittle / rigid / stiff

  1. Is there too much structure and not enough time for creativity and experimentation?
  2. If so, setting time for creativity, addressing technical debt, focusing on nonfunctional requirements provides that “extra oxygen in the tank” that will otherwise suffocate the team unless provided on a regular basis.
  3. Innovation may be set a week every five sprints or a day every other sprint. The cadence should be determined by the needs of delivery balanced with team needs.

Lethargic / slow / sluggish

  1. This hits a team’s velocity in the core.
  2. Remove impediments ASAP when they are flagged.
  3. Increase automation to decrease redundancy and improve speed.
  4. Remove waste and repetition by reducing or removing low-value activities.
  5. Retrospectives to identify and fix those problems impacting performance.
  6. Decrease variability by identifying the source and seeking process changes to minimize.

You can have all the Agile ceremonies in place and follow them at the detailed level and still not be agile. We must identify what does not reflect good Agile delivery practices and then improve those processes within those practices. Otherwise, if we as software delivery organizations do not address these problems depicted by the opposite of agile, then Agile will fail and fall under leadership perspective of “Dark Agile.” This is where the organization concludes that Agile is the problem, instead of the implementation of Agile.