Monday, August 13, 2018

Why is there such a disconnect in how Agile is marketed and how Agile is adopted?

Dear CMMI Appraiser,

For defense industry CMMI organizations like ours, why does there seem to be such a disconnect between the way Agile is marketed and the way it is actually adopted by teams? ~ Quora User

Dear Readers – Because there is often a high level of discourse at about engineering strategy and software process improvement, I try to go in and answer questions as frequently as I can. Below is my response to an engineering professional in the defense industry who wants to be more successful with agile. Enjoy!

Dear Quora User,

Because reality is a harsh teacher.

Agile: why is there a disconnect?

When you consider that most marketing is about the “happy path,” and by its very nature doesn’t advertise the complexity of the product or service, or its potential points of failure, it makes more sense. Agile is complex, hard, and fraught with risk. It’s also rewarding.

Agile is popular because it espouses self-organization, collaboration, transparency, optimism, trust, rapid delivery of value, and celebrating early failure (among other things). These are all things that, in theory, produce more value, more quickly than what we sometimes call “waterfall,” or “traditional” project management techniques.

Then comes the reality. Companies, customers, teams, and humans are often NOT collaborative, optimistic, trusting, or willing to celebrate early failure. This is especially true in the government, health care, and aerospace industries. If they naturally were all those things, it would be simple to adopt and embrace agile values, ceremonies, and techniques, and everyone would happily march down the path to a more agile future. But they’re not - almost never.

For instance, as a reaction to top-down, command-and-control approaches to managing projects, Scrum doesn’t identify “project manager” as a role. After all, a Scrum team is self-organizing. Why would they need a manager? That sounds great - except there are MANY things a project manager needs to do related to product development that have nothing to do with tasking and oversight, and of the over 200 agile organizations I’ve assessed, 100% have project managers. Some are good at it - they limit the PM's role to ensure it aligns with agile values. Some are terrible at it, and have PMs that can’t resist being dictators.

The other problem is that leaders often don’t even know what agile “looks like,” and they go about the process of “agile transformation” without any attempt on their own part to change and become agile themselves. This creates immense friction in the organization and makes “real” agile adoption (as opposed to just adopting some techniques) almost impossible. AgileCxO’s model, the “Agile Performance Holarchy,” is the defacto standard for agile leaders who are serious about this, and AgileCxO’s research has shown that leaders, not teams, or the largest impediment to agile adoption.

So, the bottom line is that Agile is hard and requires very strong leadership - although not the kind we’re used to. Try marketing that!

Like this blog? Forward to your nearest engineering or software leader!

Jeff Dalton is a Certified SCAMPI Lead Appraiser, Certified CMMI Instructor, author and consultant with years of real-world experience with the CMMI in all types of organizations.

Visit for more information about engineering strategy, performance innovation, software process improvement and running a successful CMMI program.

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