Agile | 11 MIN READ

How to Overcome Failed Agile Development

According to the 2019 State of Agile report, the vast majority of companies (97%) practice a version of the agile methodology. Despite its widespread adoption, many agile development projects still end in failure.

Jump to the main takeaways:

 Step 1: Ensure You Understand Your Customers’ Needs
 2: Plug Any Holes in Your Agile Project Management
 Step 3: Construct An Airtight Agile Development Plan
 Step 4: Make Sure You’ve Got the Right People for the Job
 Step 5: Listen More, Talk Less During Scrum Meetings
 Step 6: Play to Your Agile Team’s Strengths

 

A 2017 UK Survey revealed that only 45% of organizations say they’ve maintained a good agile development track record. Poor agile implementation, project management, and execution have even plagued Fortune 500 companies in a diverse number of sectors.

The truth is simple—failing at agile is a common occurrence in the tech world. In fact, not delivering desired benefits, while tough to swallow, can actually be the best thing for your team’s long-term growth.

You just need to know how to harness those lessons correctly.

This blog post will walk you through how to overcome the sting of failed agile development. These tips will help you assess your current agile performance and make better, more proactive decisions before you start your next project or sprint.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Ensure You Understand Your Customers’ Needs

Stemming from the Agile Manifesto, the 12 principles of the agile methodology puts customer satisfaction at the very top of its priority list:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

To accomplish this, every agile organization needs to have a deep understanding of its customers’ needs.

Sounds easy, right?

And yet, too many companies aren’t taking the time to grasp exactly what their customers want, both from their product and their brand.

Consider this:

In short, the stakes are too high to turn a blind eye to your customers’ needs. It can literally mean the difference between earning or losing money.

So, how can you know for sure what your clients want? The answer is equally simple: ask them.

This can be done in a variety of ways:

  • Ask product users to fill out an online survey. If your open or response rate is low, trying using gift cards or a loyalty program to incentivize that process.
  • Conduct social media surveys. These are often less precise than other information gathering means, but they deliver instantaneous feedback.
  • Leverage web analytics to decode website activity. This way, you can ascertain which content, messaging, and products customers like most.
  • Set up exploratory customer calls. These can be tricky to set up, but the benefits of a long-term conversation with a product user can’t be overstated.
  • Conduct usability tests for new releases or features. Often framed as a beta testing program, this lets developers get early feedback on product-specific changes.

The most important part of this step is getting real information from real customers. Don’t let egos or power dynamics create baseless assumptions about customer needs. Organizations must take time to ask the right questions.

If not, how can you hope to cater to your audience?

Step 2: Plug Any Holes in Your Agile Project Management

No matter how large a corporation is or how plentiful its pool of resources is, learning from agile development failure starts at the top.

As such, avoiding common agile project management pitfalls involves taking a proactive approach to each project and ownership of any shortcomings. In other words, leaders must be drivers for continuous learning and improvement instead of roadblocks.

More importantly, strong agile project management doesn’t involve blaming, ridiculing, or marginalizing employees because an agile development project didn’t work out.

The best agile project managers and business owners use failure to help their developers strengthen their skillset and work habits, not a chance to demean them in any way.

If a manager is too busy assigning blame, then they’re part of the problem.

Without an emphasis on constructive feedback, failure becomes a well-oiled machine that everyone in the organization feeds into but no one learns from. No learning means no growth, and no growth means your organization has already put a cap on its potential.

Beyond this, here are some tips that any agile project manager can use to refine their team’s lean development processes:

  • Strip away inefficient processes. Unpopular as they may be, these decisions can be a godsend when it comes to upping your productivity.
  • Make project updates clear and concise. This means prioritizing on figures and other visuals instead of forcing team members to read a wall of text.
  • Prioritize and respect your critical resources. This dovetails with your risk management strategy and how your organization plans for contingencies.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily. Even if you use more traditional processes for certain development aspects, don’t fix anything that isn’t broken.
  • Respect client deliverables for all projects. Guidelines and benchmarks are there for a reason. Iterative development only works if you follow through on those plans.

For more tips on how to become a great agile project manager, check out these great resources from the Project Management Institute and CIO.

Step 3: Construct An Airtight Agile Development Plan

As the famous Benjamin Franklin quote goes, by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

Unfortunately, many organizations end up going down this path. Studies show that more than a third (34%) of all projects aren’t baselined at the planning stage. This leads to huge cost overruns and missed deadlines, not to mention a failure to deliver value to customers.

The remedy to a large number of agile development issues is to create an airtight plan for each project or sprint. It’s one of the cornerstones of using agile and scrum effectively because it’s a proactive way to prevent future firefights that interfere with delivery.

At this point in the conversation, some members of the agile community will stand up and oppose planning altogether. Why? Because it supposedly inhibits flexibility and dynamism within an agile project.

This isn’t just false—it’s counterintuitive to what agile really stands for, which is to provide value to customers through iterative development and precise execution.

John Yorke explains as much in this blog post, highlighting that agile is often used as an excuse not to plan and, worse still, cut corners en route to a diminished final result:

“My experience is that Agile is not about reducing work, or about reducing control, it is the opposite [...] it focuses you on doing the most important work first, and to do that work to a defined and consistent quality standard. It imposes control and restrictions, there are rules in all of the frameworks, many of them rigid, or at least have a significant cost to unplanned change. Anyone that thinks adopting Agile will be easy, or that adopting Agile means they don’t have to plan, or document or design or prioritize, has missed the point entirely.”

According to the Harvard Business Review, one in six projects experience a budget overrun of 200%. What’s more, nearly 20% of IT projects fall so far short of expectations that they threaten the company’s livelihood.

Thorough upfront planning can help you avoid these kinds of scenarios and, in the process, learn how to shape a more efficient agile development process.

Step 4: Make Sure You’ve Got the Right People for the Job

If your organization’s agile projects feel rudderless, even with strong planning and leadership in tow, it may be time to take a closer look at your personnel.

With agile teams working so closely together, your business must ensure that it has the right people for the job. As the Agile Alliance’s “Agile 101” guide demonstrates, how teams work is arguably more important than what they’re working on:

“One thing that separates Agile from other approaches to software development is the focus on the people doing the work and how they work together. Solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams utilizing the appropriate practices for their context.”

To build a successful agile team that consistently performs at a high level, your hiring practices need to prioritize soft skills and cultural fit. This includes seeing if a candidate’s values, beliefs, and outlook are in step with your organization’s mission and vision.

Additionally, it’s important to identify professionals who have the potential to grow and evolve along with your business.

As Sally Percy notes in her Forbes article, “businesses often underestimate the impact that good training and development can have with regard to helping employees develop the technical knowledge that will allow them to achieve their full potential.”

Strengthening your onboarding and cross-boarding processes are great ways to help staff members get to that next level. Those practices, coupled with regular check-ins with management and open, honest communication, go a long way to crafting a team where members empower, instead of stymy, each other.

Step 5: Listen More, Talk Less During Scrum Meetings

Let’s discuss scrum meetings for a moment. They’re an integral part of the agile methodology and yet if you ask 10 different people how effective each meeting is, you’ll likely get 10 different answers.

According to a 2019 report from Doodle, poorly structured meetings have become an epidemic in the business world. In the United States alone, the cost of lost productivity because of disorganized meetings was estimated at $399 billion.

Of the more than 6,500 professionals surveyed, other consequences of meetings that bring little to no value to the table include:

  • Insufficient time to do the rest of one’s work (44%)
  • Rampant confusion stemming from unclear action (43%)
  • A loss of focus on projects and requirements (38%)
  • Slower progress due to irrelevant attendees (31%)
  • Less efficient processes weaken customer relationships (26%)

In the context of agile, scrum meetings aren’t your standard check-in meetings where attendees read their laundry list of in-progress tasks. They should inform, both about upcoming changes or foreseeable obstacles instead of merely reporting on what’s happening.

Like any other type of business meeting, stakeholders often prioritize being heard over actively listening to others. Once this happens, egos and competition for more speaking time can get in the way of making any progress on your meeting itinerary.

Active listening, especially to an opinion you may disagree with, isn’t easy. It requires concentration that research has proven to be tricky at best. However, the more you’re able to listen in lieu of dominating the conversation, the freer information and ideas will flow.

As Fast Company’s Heather Finn explains, listening during meetings is all about being in the moment. Taking notes, making eye contact with the speaker, and continuously asking yourself what you learn can all help you retain that crucial level of focus.

Here are some additional ways you can boost the effectiveness of your meetings:

  • Set a clear agenda (and stick to it!)
  • Set clear objectives for your meeting (i.e.—what do you want to get out of it?)
  • Pick a recurring meeting time and do your best to keep this consistent
  • Respect the start and end times of a meeting
  • Use visuals and presentations to get to the heart of the topic and ensure a universal understanding of the information at hand.

 

Step 6: Play to Your Agile Team’s Strengths

At the end of the day, your organization’s take on the agile method and how it influences your development processes needs to play to everyone’s strengths.

Failures during different project stages will shine a light on how effective each team member is in their role. And, if the previous five steps have played out satisfactorily, it’s not someone’s competency or the agile plan that isn’t working.

It’s how they’re fitting together that might be the issue.

Tim Eisenhauer from The Balance Small Business elaborates:

“From a manager's perspective, identifying strengths and weaknesses is the secret to unlocking the potential of every employee and every team. This information enables leaders to make smarter decisions about assignments, deliver more effective performance reviews, and ensure that every employee can grow and succeed.”

Your organization’s mileage may vary on how you implement, as resources and skill levels will differ. What’s important is that you don’t try and shove a square peg in a round hole, so to speak.

Strengths and weaknesses also evolve and, in the former’s case, lose their effectiveness or appeal over time. This is especially true of managers or leaders who, after a while, need to adjust their approach in order to avoid employees tuning them out or becoming complacent.

Just like the principles of the agile methodology as a whole, it’s all about making those little tweaks that help companies adapt and thrive in the long-term.

Once that happens, your team will be able to overcome any kind of agile development setback and use the experience to fuel greater, more efficient forward momentum.


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Originally published Mar 31, 2020 3:00:00 AM

Late 2019, we did a brand split. Mindville is the company behind the Insight products. Riada provides expert consultancy services on all things Atlassian. Riada can be found at riada.se. Mindville is an Atlassian Platinum Top Vendor and Riada is an Atlassian Platinum Solution Partner.

Topics: Agile