So Called Agile and Scrum Failures

2017 06 01 head

Agile will never guarantee product success.

All projects, especially application development, entail risk.

If a product was risk-free, it is unlikely to provide significant benefits or competitive advantages.

There are a number of ways in which Agile Scrum projects repeatedly fail which are worth examining.

Agile approaches and Scrum framework can reduce risks in projects and increase the return on investment. Standish Group report is a proof of this statement. One picture shows it all. Look at the failed column.

2017 06 01 agile vs waterfall

Below are common patterns and errors when doing agile instead of being agile


is a team which continues to basically follow a Waterfall product but uses the language of Agile and adds a few agile practices. For example, the team may present burn-down charts together with Gantt charts. Or the team computes individual resource allocation for the next three months. You can also replace Waterfall with V-Model, HERMES, RUP, and even sometimes SAFe.


describes a team which claims to follow Scrum but misses various practices. For example, We do Scrum, but we don’t have a Product Owner. Or We do Scrum but the Project Manager allocates tasks. Such teams normally have a long list of “buts” and show little progress of removing them.

Hitting The Scrum Wall

The most popular Agile method is Scrum, which is a product management technique. Scrum is normally used with a number of other Agile techniques, typically user stories redaction and the technical practices from eXtreme Programming – such as TDD, ATDD, code refactoring, continuous integration and delivery CI/CD, pair programming, etc. Teams that adopt the Scrum framework initially see an improvement in productivity and customer satisfaction. Without technical practices, quality is low, and the team hit the wall. The quality gap makes it impossible to maintain the pace in the long run.

Fake Agile

occurs when a team declares itself Agile and blames everyone else for their failure to interact correctly with the group. Such a group typically stops writing documentation, listening to business analysts, product managers and other customers, and dictates its own delivery schedule. Meanwhile, the team does not improve quality, does not adopt test-driven development or any other practice they dislike.

Potemkin Agile

occurs when a team adopts and applies an Agile method well but does not deliver business value. This is a form of goal deferment were the team consider adhering to the process rather than delivering business value as the success criteria.

Customer (Business Analyst, Product Manager, Product Owner) overload

on a well-functioning Agile product the customer, or proxy customer, is called upon to do a lot. They need to decide requirements, set priorities, scout ahead of the product, align strategy, work with the developers, testers and managers, and may even have their own day job to do. In the earliest XP product (“C3”) the first business analyst came close to a nervous breakdown.

Fall back

Management may bring in consultants and other experts to help switch a team to Agile. Once the consultants leave, some teams return to their old ways of working. Advisers and consultants can be a great help when introducing Agile. They need to build capacity in the development team to continue learning and evolving when the consultants are gone.

Failure to go far enough

To maximize the benefits of Agile Software Development, the people, processes and organization that interface and work with the Agile team need to understand Agile. It should adjust their expectations and working techniques too. Agile is not a drop-in technology that can be swapped in to replace another failing method. Isolated Agile teams will find it difficult to be completely Agile. When other groups adopt agile approaches, the benefits of Agile can spread beyond Software Development.

Exploding cards

happens when teams do not sufficiently understand the technology they are working with – either in the solution or problem domain. Small work packages suddenly turn out to be large tasks in their own right.

Hyper changing requirements

Most Agile methods, especially Scrum, hold the iteration goals fixed for a few weeks. An exception is Kanban. Most businesses should be able to hold to goals for such short periods of time. If it proves impossible to hold requirements and goals fixed for even one week, then something is wrong. In a few cases, business is genuinely changing extremely rapidly. In this case, teams are better off using Kanban style management than a Scrum-based approach. More often, hyper change in goals and requirements are a sign that something is wrong beyond the team. The organization itself may lack strategy and objectives, or the Product Owner may not be filling their role adequately.

Fragile, not Agile

Some Agile techniques, like TDD, ATDD, CI or CD, when poorly applied with a lack of understanding can show short-term benefits but create long-term problems.

Few of these failure modes are unique to Agile approaches. They are reoccurring failure modes for all IT software development projects. Neither are they a comprehensive list of the ways in which Agile or traditional application development projects fail.

We can state that (see the Scrum)

  • Team process improvement is a major focus for the Scrum Master or the Scrum Coach

    • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality.

    • Teaching and leading the Development Team to create high-value products.

    • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress,

    • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.

    • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

  • Company process improvement is a major task for the Scrum Master or the Scrum Coach.

    • Leading and coaching the organization in Agile and Scrum adoption.

    • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization.

    • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development.

    • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team.

    • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the framework application in the organization.

The essence of succeeding with Agile, Lean and Scrum is

  • It is a change process with well-known and discussed aspects.

  • You must have a strong and experienced Scrum Master and Scrum Coach to maximize success.

  • Do not tinker with the Scrum process before you really master it.

  • If you have to scale your process, please consider LeSS.