The Agile Trap

Increasingly I am witnessing what I call the Agile Trap. Here’s how it works: even by adopting introductory Agile practices from (say) Scrum or Kanban a team* will get an immediate 10% to 30% bump in performance. That’s huge by normal standards, but well short of the Agile promise of twice the value in half the time (a roughly 400% uplift).

*Or teams, if starting with a scaled framework, like SAFe.

The Agile Trap

The trap is for management and stakeholders to celebrate prematurely, and declare, “Goody! Let’s push through 10% to 30% more work from here on, and slap ourselves on the back”. The bad news is that even that initial uplift will evaporate over time as people burn out, become demoralised, and slow down.

What went wrong? We broke Prager’s Law by “rewarding” improvement with more work. We squeezed out some natural slack to get that up-lift and failed to re-invest. The punishment? Agile Hell. We now have burned out teams, many of who blame Agile, and our opportunity to introduce a sustained culture of continuous improvement just got a whole lot harder.

By contrast, the smart move is to reserve all or most of that freed up slack for continued re-investment, both at the team level, setting up and sustaining a virtuous cycle of improvement, and by helping out at nearby bottlenecks. This sets up a compounding effect, boosting productivity, quality, and staff happiness. That’s the road to Agile heaven.

And once we’re doing Agile more or less right at the team level, the scaling pattern spreads the goodness across the organisation (and beyond)!

The long, sustainable haul

Toyota has risen to become the pre-eminent car manufacturer based on a culture of innovation, experimentation, and continuous learning over decades. My good friend, Sydney-based coach, Dave Martin expands eloquently on this point in his article on Sustainable Pace for Organisations.

Too many leaders announce victory before putting in the hard yards. They think that the end goal is all there is, and forget that the journey of learning and improvement is long and involved.

What to do if you find yourself in Agile hell?

If you find yourself in Agile hell your best bet is to get an experienced Agile coach or Scrum Master and give them plenty of high level support to turn things around before your best people start to abandon ship.

I’ll describe my typical approach to this kind of rescue project in my next article: Escape from Agile Hell.

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