Three deadly pitfalls to avoid on agile implementations


Three reasons why good agile projects go bad

An agile delivery approach to software development can provide substantial, quantifiable business value while reinvigorating innovation and improving time to market. Many companies are embarking on agile initiatives, thinking that perhaps investing in some books or a couple of days of agile training is all they need before beginning the implementation. Such agile implementations often start off with good intentions, but they can lead to short-term chaos, create a negative impression of the agile implementation and eventually erode support for agile practices. It is possible to overcome them, but it takes dedication, discipline, support and an innate understanding of your company and culture.

When my IBM team and I consult with clients about their agile implementations, we see three recurring themes of failure related to agile implementations. These themes are inexperience, lack of a plan and limited executive sponsorship.

Inexperience: Lots of "buzz," but few long-term gains

Inexperience is a very common pitfall. There are only a few companies with broad and in-depth experience with agile implementations for large projects and complex development organizations. We see many companies engaging small agile shops who do a great job at the small "scrum team" level, but are not equipped to understand, address and resolve the existing organization and cultural barriers that exist in the current organization. Or, they leave their well-intended development teams to their own devices, expecting them to get started on agile with a book or a little training.

For example, my team and I visited a client that said they were struggling with agile and discovered that among many shortcomings, they had 25 people in one small team room. With experience, they would have seen that this setup wouldn't work. We recommended that they break down the initiative scope into three small teams and build out two additional team rooms. Things started to improve with that one adjustment alone. Another client assigned all core team members to their agile project part-time. With some experienced counsel, they would have been advised that agile requires a fully dedicated team in order to realize the benefits of true collaboration and higher team productivity.

Failed to plan? Be prepared to fail

For an agile implementation to succeed, a company should:

  • Understand the current state barriers to agility in the organization.
  • Take into consideration existing executive strategy, standards and traditional sources of project failure.
  • Determine how to resolve barriers, build sponsorship, deliver pilots, implement common tooling and make a commitment to measure, communicate and scale.

This takes a plan that can be articulated at executive levels, can help the team gain sponsorship from the skeptics, and ultimately be a catalyst to grow the agile initiative.

Agile teams might say that they want to be left alone, but they can only go so far if no one in the upper level is enabling them or is aware of the good things they are doing. Without a plan that clearly shapes the initiative and includes addressing and resolving constraints to agility (for example, waterfall process checkpoints, support from other required entities), it is more difficult to shape the initiative, staff it, fund it, manage blockers and maintain continued executive sponsorship. Several IBM clients who lacked a plan have seen their initiatives devolve into a religious war of words. In these cases, too often the status quo wins, citing risk to the organization because of agile.

Limited executive sponsorship equals limited agility

Agile development requires executive sponsorship at the highest level. This means more than showing up at a kickoff to give the initiative lip service. It means shaping the initiative scope, goals and objectives based on a true assessment of the challenges and opportunities for improvement. It includes dedicating top performers and empowering them to challenge the status quo and investing in the enablement of key agile practices such as whole teams, continuous integration and automated tooling, which can take limited capital investment. It means staying actively engaged in the communication plan and resolving escalated initiative blockers on a weekly basis.

Without executive sponsorship, the agile initiative is likely to wither and die or go significantly off track, and some of your most innovative employees are likely to leave in frustration. One of our clients had implemented a pilot agile project with offshore resourcing that were delivering from different functional business and IT entities and they refused to invest in any co-location. To the business executives, this was an important initiative that required innovation. Without the direct involvement of the senior executive decision-makers, organizational politics ensued and middle management stakeholders would not commit to removing the barriers, all which ultimately limited the achievement of real and attainable business results.

Avoid the pitfalls

It is possible to avoid the pitfalls of agile implementation for successful agile projects, even in more complex enterprise environments.

Before you embark on your agile initiative, or if you are looking to step back and refine your existing initiative, take a look at your organization, engage your senior executives, identify gaps between the current state and form your plan. Select business innovation initiatives that will showcase the agile approach and demonstrate the true value of agile. Partnering with a trusted external partner can help provide an unbiased third-party perspective and infuse additional innovation into your initiative.

Executive sponsorship is probably the most critical of all pitfalls to address. If you can attain that sponsorship, then you have everything you need to challenge the status quo, formulate a plan and execute. If you cannot get that sponsorship, then you might want to consider avoiding the frustration, and hold off until the timing is right. A change in executive leadership, especially one known to be a change agent from outside the company is a great opportunity to seek renewed sponsorship for agile. In the case of one client, we talked to them about optimizing their agile approach, but nothing happened until a new CTO took over to lead the change. She engaged us again to conduct a quick assessment, recommendations and plans. That information then became part of her strategy to change how IT delivered value to the business.


Agile development and practices can provide the core approach that companies need to reinvigorate innovation and provide quantifiable business value. However, companies must do more than decide they're going to implement agile—especially for large projects and complex organizations. Seeking advice from organizations who are experienced with agile on a large scale, forming an enterprise agile plan, and obtaining executive sponsorship can prevent serious issues and organizational risk down the road. Consider engaging the help of a third party expert to provide an agile assessment or skills workshop to help your organization avoid the common pitfalls and develop your roadmap for a successful agile implementation.

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ArticleTitle=Three deadly pitfalls to avoid on agile implementations