Key challenges for Agile: Confronting the bad and the ugly

Agile is helping to change the future of work. Over the past few years Agile ways of working have spread over a wide range of disciplines and organizations. This happy trend brings with it some key challenges that we as an Agile community need to confront. Some of these challenges are trivial, while others may be a threat to Agile itself. This article seeks to identify these key trends and offer a glimpse of a hopeful future, but also issue the warning that Agile is in need of careful stewardship.
9 January 2019
Michiel van Gerven
Organize Agile

This article came about by talking to various Agile people; Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Agile Coaches in a number of organizations, both public and private and of course my own colleagues. What you will find below are the challenges they mentioned most, coupled with some of my own thoughts on the subject.

Agile In Name Only

The primary challenge is Agile In Name Only. It can manifest itself in a number of ways. The first common way is for a situation to carry the name Agile, and maybe even look Agile, when in reality it is anything but. A situation a senior Product Owner at a financial institution described to me as: ‘Agile 3.0, now with extra top down.’ He was referring to a major project with multiple Agile teams that was using Agile on a day-to-day basis but was also expected to deliver the project fixed budget, fixed scope, and fixed deadline. This was in an otherwise mature Agile organization.

The second way is on the personal level. Like Prince2 before it, the certification happy nature of the Agile crowd has created an abundance of people that have received training but can’t do what it says on the box. When I met Tanner Wortham in Silicon Valley in October 2017 he aptly described this as ‘certificated rather than certified’. In other words, someone who talks the talk, but can’t walk the walk. Fortunately, help is available in identifying and avoiding such people.

This trend is mirrored in the fact that many organizations pretend to be more Agile than they actually are. This may be partially driven by an interesting megatrend affecting Agile today: the war on talent. Qualified people are getting scarcer and scarcer. This week for instance, I spoke to a leading Agile Coach at a well know brand that was struggling to find good scrum masters and Agile Coaches. Presenting yourself as an Agile organization may help in recruiting young people especially (not just scrum masters, coaches etc.). Therefore expect this trend to continue in 2019 and the foreseeable future.

A rather special kind of Agile In Name Only is machine room agilism. Many coaches report seeing this more and more as Agile starts to be adopted by follower, rather than early adopter organizations. It is personified in managers that seem to champion Agile, but only do so to serve their personal interest. While they can lever the power of Agile teams to increase innovation and development speed in their organization or department they will support the Agile movement in an organization. But as soon as they will have to change their own behavior they will drop their support. To their mind Agile is only for the production floor. This is a dangerous trend, because it weakens an Agile movement at a key turning point in a transformation.



Everybody’s doing it

As it turns out, there is such a thing as a conservative Agile transformation. A type of transformation that is not driven by a true desire to ‘go Agile’, but one that seems to start out of a fear of lagging behind and the feeling that ‘everyone is doing it’. The trouble with these is that what has worked somewhere else, will not necessarily work for you.

The banking sector for instance seem to suffer from Spotify-syndrome. Across the world we see virtual carbon copy implementations of the same model (hold your comments, I am perfectly aware the spotify model is not a model). It comes in many guises; bricks, squads and cells are all names for the same thing, an end-to-end Agile team.

Most coaches and consultants I spoke to are expecting to see more and more of these types of transformations in 2019 as Agile starts to become more and more mainstream. Such cookie-cutter transformations carry with them an inherent risk, which brings us to my next point.

Incomplete transformations and commodification

As Agile starts to become more widespread the danger of a backlash increases exponentially. Typically, an incomplete or conservative implementation (yes in this case it is usually an implementation rather than careful adoption) involves a large scale training effort, a phased roll-out of the selected Agile framework across the organization, and a steep consulting fee. Clearly there is more to transformations than rolling out a framework. Without serious consideration for what goes unspoken any transformation is doomed to fail.

Agile is fast becoming a commodity of sorts. This is clearly exemplified by the entry of large consultancy firms into the market. On the one hand they are very welcome, they have the clout to convince the upper echelons of management and their entry is a clear signal that Agile is starting to become the new normal. On the other hand they are a clear reflection of what is sometimes referred to as the Agile Industrial Complex. There is money to be made in selling Agile. Which is fine, if what is being sold is true Agile. Too often, however, selling Agile involves selling Agile frameworks or methodologies without consideration for the things that truly matter, the mindset and ideas behind the frameworks.

Inevitably, we will (start to) see failed or incomplete transformations. This will cause many to become even more skeptical towards Agile. In the past Lean has suffered from a similar backlash. In many organizations it is not uncommon to hear ‘we survived Lean, we will survive this’. The value of Lean principles has not gone away, yet the inherent inertia and resistance to change in many organizations has resulted in an unsuccessful adoption. As more organizations will try to adopt Agile and fail because they underestimate the challenges involved or simply because they want the benefits without putting in the work and making the hard choices.

Leaders are afraid to admit they don’t know what Agile is

One of the most curious challenges pertains to leadership in organizations that first start out on a path towards transformation. Being a senior leader in an organization is not an easy job at the best of times. Now imagine coming face-to-face with something that goes completely against everything you have always known, something like Agile. Agile likes to turn things completely on its head, in fact that is one of my favorite things about it. However this, coupled with the fact that Agile is now trendy, makes it a difficult beast to handle for many managers. For them, it has until now been a thing that ‘some of those IT teams do’.

Many of the Agile coaches and scrum masters I spoke to signaled that senior managers are often lacking in knowledge of what Agile truly is. Moreover, they are often in the unenviable position that admitting to this doesn’t feel like an option to them. Educating leadership on Agile should therefore be a key issue in 2019, especially since without them, wholesale adoption of Agile in an organization is downright impossible.


Agile In Name Only and the commodification of Agile may be the two most dangerous trends facing Agile today as they bring more and more people into contact with a faux form of Agile. Not only does faux Agile not ask the real, hard questions, it might also put many people off Agile as it fails to deliver on its promises.

But, let’s not forget there is also plenty of cause for celebration. Agile is clearly starting to move into mature territory. Adoption is more widespread than ever and Agile ways of working are steadily becoming the new standard in an ever in widening range of disciplines. In Finance, and HR especially Agile is really taking off.

As an Agile community we should be ready to confront the challenges in this article and make sure we can continue to change the future of work for the better.


Other insights by Michiel van Gerven

Why true agile transformation requires apex predators

Tackling Crime: How one police unit and prosecutor use Scrum to eat into their backlog of cases

Experiments with Holacracy: Why we stopped doing it, and what we learned along the way

Why Agile is the most important Social Technology of this decade


Michiel van Gerven

Transformation Lead