5 pitfalls in Agile transformations

Most changes are generally difficult to manage, but succeeding with agile transformations has proven to be a major challenge for most organizations and teams. One of the reasons is that agile transformations often cause changes in the organization, in the working methods and in the culture at the same time! Which requires a lot from all individuals as they are affected while also making the change. This increases the risk of failing, and changes done the wrong way make people confused, frustrated and disengaged. 


To make the work easier, here are some of the most common pitfalls we see people falling with, and which we recommend avoiding. 


Implementation "top down"


The management of the company or organization has decided that agile is the new black and now everyone must become agile! Decisions are made about a certain method to be introduced across the entire organization. It’s often done completely without involving employees, either in the decision and/or in the choice of method, and also without communicating the purpose of the transformation and what’s the focus. Culture is talked about in passing – if at all. When the method is fully implemented, management follows up and puts a tick in the agile box, pats themself on the back and classifies the “project” as successful.  


This type of change rarely leads to something that’s in line with the agile principles and usually results in you backing away from the agile working methods after a while, saying you are working “agile-ish” or “agile-inspired”. Instead, it’s better to explain why you need a change, what the objectives are. And involve the teams in both the choice of method and its adaptations to their needs. Everyone doesn’t have to do it the same way, as long as everyone pulls in the same direction. The managers’ role in this is to become leaders, act as enablers and create the right conditions for the teams to succeed in reaching the objectives. 


Lack of mandate


A large part of the agile culture is about the teams being autonomous and to have the mandate to make decisions about the product. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. The managers often want to continue making decisions about the product and the technology, instead of giving the responsibility to the teams, letting them do their job. Out of habit, you focus on details regarding solutions, deliveries, and the final product because you usually have experience in these areas. This leads to micro-management, long decision-making processes, bureaucratic thinking and, in extreme cases, also political intrigues in the organization. Which is caused by the managers continuing to act like managers instead of embracing the servant leadership that is a big part of the agile culture. 


This is mostly due to the fact that very few agile methods talk about how leadership should work in an agile environment, and you continue with the same leadership style you have always had. There are few organizations that, even before an agile transformation, have worked with servant leadership where you as a leader in the company, is an enabler for the teams with focus on both individuals and teams reaching their full potential. Instead, the leaders remain wanting control instead of being content with “just” keeping track of the situation. 


Lack of feedback management


It is common for criticism and complaints against working methods, decisions, leadership, or the overall culture to be silenced, curbed, or otherwise not taken seriously. One of the four points within Modern Agile is about making safety a prerequisite for everyone. Safety comes in different forms, but psychological safety is a decisive factor for well-being, commitment, and productivity at work. If you silence criticism and dissatisfaction too often, it also leads to putting an end to involvement in improvements. Therefore, it’s important to act on dissatisfaction and work together to find solutions. Take hold of the problems, make them visible and enlist the help of those concerned to find solutions and a way forward. 


Wrong choice of methodology and measurements


One size does not fit all – a mantra that I constantly repeat in my work. There are no ways of working that are perfectly adapted to all work situations, organizations, or teams “out of the box”. Unfortunately, many doesn’t understand this, so instead of adapting the method according to needs, methods are forced – often the wrong method – and everything and everyone must adapt. All focus is on implementing the method, you define the wrong objectives you want to achieve with the change, and you define the wrong metrics or KPIs. This creates plans that gets re-planned anyway, wasted time doing time estimates, focusing on details that don’t create value for the product or team. Instead of what creates value or improves deliverability. Introducing Scrum “by the book” and slavishly measuring velocity, tuning the process towards higher velocity and then comparing velocity between teams is a textbook example of what NOT to do to succeed with your agile transformation.


Culture - or lack thereof


A lot of people talk about which agile methods you use, but very little about which behaviors you promote or which culture you foster. There are no methods that lead to becoming agile, but the right methods can create the conditions for agility. Focus on what you want to achieve with agility rather than which method to use. It’s perfectly possible to be agile without following a single process or method. It’s all about mindset. The lack of an agile mindset, the right culture and openness to ideas and change will never make an organization agile. Instead, promoting the right behaviors and promoting a culture that enables continuous improvement, with focus on creating value, collaborations, openness and transparency, and whatever working method you choose will eventually turn out really well – as long as you give it time! 


To sum things up


You don’t do agile, you are agile.  


Find the right behavioral changes that bring you closer to the agile objectives and make those behaviors become habits. Change takes time. Be patient and understand that it is a continuous journey. As a leader in an organization – focus on being knowing what is happening, not maintaining control. Think continuous improvement and you will succeed in any way of working. Good luck with your agile transformation! 

Alixander Ansari

Alixander has extensive experience in leading roles in quality assurance and agile. With a background in both software and hardware and several different industries, he has helped companies both in technical areas and with organizational changes.


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