How to Break Agile by Ignoring Three Vital Ingredients

10 April, 2017


“Shai, I don’t think this Agile thing is going so well…”

It was the phone call that always break my heart. This team had put a lot of time and effort into Agile – was it all going to go to waste?

Her next words were right on queue: “Maybe Agile just isn’t right for us.”

Well, maybe it wasn’t. But probably not for the reasons this team leader thought!

Why do so many teams get lackluster results with Agile?

Three ingredients for a successful Agile transition

I’ve observed and facilitated many of these types of transformations, and there are three make-or-break elements: approach, culture and leadership. Tragically, they’re all often overlooked.

Now before I go on, I’m aware that not every situation calls for an Agile transformation. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of seeing only nails to my agile-hammer! In this post, I assume that the organisation, team, or individual has gone through the critical analysis process and discovered that Agile could work for them. If this is a process that you haven’t thought about, need help with, or think is not worth doing – check out this video.


Lots of people think that there’s only one approach to Agile. One approach to Scrum, one approach to Lean, one approach to any Agile methodology.

That mindset is, in itself, not agile!

Some people find comfort and security in following procedures by the book. But the thing about Agile is that it allows you to learn.  No, it encourages you to learn. Learning is built in.

Agile is about the evolution of the process: it teaches you how to manage change so that your Agile will never be the same as anyone else’s Agile, let alone “by the book”. There is no strict procedure, no single method, and no single right way. You can’t simply copy your friend’s amazing transition – it will almost certainly fail. Every organization will learn differently.

If you keep worrying about how to stick to a single approach, you and your team are not going to grow.

Growth, my friends, is what it is all about.

On the flip side, having no set rules can feel liberating… to the point where anything goes. This approach is also flawed and often results in a team going back to the way things were.

The right approach is finding the balance to manage change while also promoting team/organisational growth within a loose set of agile principles (let’s call these… The Agile Manifesto!)


You’ve all heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast I can tell you that culture will also devour your Agile transformation.

Agile is disruptive, and I love that it is disruptive because it really breaks an organisation. It shines a light on things that demand fixing and it teaches people how to be comfortable with that. Eventually. But that requires changing your culture.

Culture is extremely tough to transform. If you’ve been using traditional development models for quite a while and you’re running a big organisation, be warned: it’s going to be a very slow and difficult transition.

Agile also encourages improved interactions and collaboration, which won’t be easy for some hardcore traditionalists to adjust to.

Change your culture first

If your organisation’s culture is not yet open to accepting the change in values that Agile brings, do yourself a favour and go back one step. Look at your culture and plan what you can do to evolve it to one that will allow for open, honest, and difficult conversations to be had without the worry of politics, ego or penalties.


It should be no surprise that without competent leadership, any Agile transformation will fail. In fact, any complex initiative will fail.

A friend and natural leader recently wrote:

Typically leadership teams lock themselves away in an offsite location and develops strategy [until it is] crystal clear to them so they expect their people to understand it just as they do. Everything should be sweet, right!?
– Rash Khan (read more here)

It might be a cliché, but communication is the key to change. Any leader who fails at inspirational, high-bandwidth, emotionally-intelligent communication will render themselves ineffective very quickly.

Technical prowess and IQ do not help if you cannot communicate effectively as a leader. Effective leaders are those who are able to fly through huge, scary, disruptive changes. And we all know that leaders who make it through those kinds of changes, always practice effective communication.

For years, I thought the concept of leadership was too “woo-woo” and a waste of time. Boy was I wrong… and I only needed to meet one true leader to see the world that I’d been blind to because of my closed-mindedness.

It’s up to you to make Agile amazing

So when a consultant (much like me!) tells you how amazing Agile is – please give yourself the self-respect of hearing that as “how amazing Agile can be”.

I’ve only outlined three of my observations here, but there are many more reasons why Agile transitions fail to realise their true benefits. Having said that, most do tend to fall under these three general categories.

If you want to know more about those, let me know in the comments or by email, and I’ll be happy to share more challenges that people face when attempting an Agile transition.

If you are wondering how to be Agile (and not just do Agile) and don’t know where to start, talk to us!

Better yet, explore these three questions before you get in touch:

  1. How many of my colleagues (as a percentage of your team/organization) are as excited as I am about an Agile Transformation?
  2. Do I (or someone else) have the ability to communicate in a way that will influence but still be informative and up-beat?
  3. How many times have you heard the phrase “because that’s how we do it/we’ve always done it” in the last 12 months?


Please feel free to share your findings and thoughts with us!

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One thought on “How to Break Agile by Ignoring Three Vital Ingredients

  1. As a Team Coach is driving individual teams towards empowerment and Agility, an organization will need to start optimizing beyond the team level, looking at how the products and structures within which the teams operate, interact. When organizations reach this point, the need for a System Coach arises.

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