“The principles of Agile are fairly simple to understand but much more difficult to apply in practice. The simplicity of Agile principles, however, quickly and unpretentiously lay bare all the shortcomings and inefficiencies. Things that lay deeply hidden in complex realities of traditionally managed organizations“ Slawek Koziol, Senior Consultant, ADAPTOVATE.
Our teams across the globe are working daily with organizations that are adopting agile or scaling agile across the whole company. We are often asked what are the red flags to look for when first implementing.
It’s an excellent question. If you have committed to adopting this new way of working, it makes sense to ensure you are set up for success. Steve Walton, one of our team currently working with some New York clients, has observed clients saying “We are already Agile”. He says “People expend effort to do the right thing, however without knowing what good looks like, they may create unusual situations.”
Slawek Koziol from our European team says “Occasionally Agile enthusiasts get lost in the detail, trying to perfect the ceremonies and artefacts without proper understanding of the key values and guiding principles of agile. These ensure simplicity without losing sight of the goal.”
To help with this – we have consolidated some in-depth discussion we’ve had on Red Flags into eight key areas to focus on.
RED FLAG #1- LACK OF UNDERSTANDING – WHAT VS WHY
Ok – we’ll state upfront there is one ABSOLUTE you must have. UNDERSTANDING. And this can’t be understated.
UNDERSTANDING Agile and it’s elements and more importantly WHY they are there, will be a throughline throughout these red flags. If you don’t have a true understanding of Agile principles, things can go off track very quickly.
Kayla Cartwright says “The most common red flag I see when adopting Agile is an adherence to the “stuff” of agile (artifacts, ceremonies) without understanding the “Why” behind it… a dogmatic approach without true understanding can lead to backlash and agile projects to be canceled or dismissed in an organization.”
“Dropping retrospectives” Mark Barber adds. “This is often one of the first ceremonies dropped by teams who are not really working in an Agile way”. Mark also says that focusing on the wrong metrics such as velocity, over value metrics such as revenue or customer acquisition.
Steve gives this example by companies who think they are already Agile, but lack the true understanding of the “why”.
‘We are working in Kanban flow rather than Scrum iterations because too much of our work is unplanned’ – this is often a sign that capacity is not being fully understood. In most cases teams can find a percentage of time which they can do planned work, allowing for expedited work to also fit into iterations.
“Over time as stakeholders understand that teams can deliver what they say, the volume of expedited work can diminish as people learn they can wait a few days to the next cycle.” Steve says.
If you are interested we have an Agile Basics video series – find our more on The Role of Scrum Master here]
RED FLAG # 2 – NOT HAVING A PLANNING MINDSET
Simon Jacobson, a senior consultant in Australia says “Agile can be used as a shortcut for no-planning. Simon was particularly interested in looking at Red Flags that occur when organisations decide to scale agile across multiple teams.
“Not spending enough time planning is a common red flag to look out for, often visible as treating initial plans as fixed and not changing as new information is available.
With many Agile teams, some dependencies and shared learnings are bound to occur – is this reality incorporated in your planning?” he asks. This is especially true when scaling Agile across your company.
RED FLAG # 3 – NOT GETTING THE AGILE PIECES RIGHT
Meetings can be the back-bone of Agile, (called ceremonies in Agile lingo.) A direct relative of the red flag #1 of understanding – it’s crucial that team members not only understand what each ceremony is for, but also how to conduct them in the right way. Take the time to understand where they fit in. Simon continues “An easy to spot red flag is not stopping old meetings and continuing both Agile and non-Agile meetings.”
An example of getting a ceremony wrong is given by Shilen Modi – an associate in Australia.
“One of the biggest red flags is when the daily stand-up is treated as a progress update meeting with a senior member saying what work needs to get done.” He says
“The daily stand-up is a time for the Squad to make commitments to each other and say if there is anything blocking them, it is not a place to be told to work faster.” Shilen explains.
Sprints – too long, too planned?
Another example Shilen provides is when a Squad appears to have mapped out a series of sprints. “If you know what you are doing in 3 sprints time you’re effectively working to a fixed plan and this will not work out well.
This is because you need to be able to adapt to customer needs and might miss potential opportunities of benefit. The Squad may also be put under pressure to work to these fixed timelines, and often leads to comprising quality and lower team health.” He says.
Just like if you know what you’re working to in 3 Sprints time, similarly if you are having 6 week sprints, you are falling into old habits. Steve has heard this example from a client: Our Sprints are 6 weeks because it takes too long for each piece of work . He explains “This is often a sign that the team needs help in breaking their work into smaller, more easily understood and deliverable pieces.”
Read our story on the 5 key success factors that define the most successful Agile coaches
RED FLAG #4 – LACK OF LEADERSHIP BUY-IN
Even leadership management who have introduced Agile into an organisation, can struggle with the day to day. Perhaps there is some reverse mentoring needed, by more junior, but more experienced team members to assist in getting Agile up and running correctly. Be open to this and welcome the knowledge.
However, an Agile transformation is going to be set up for success, if the leadership team are committed. (If not knowledgeable yet). Rachna Verma from our Australian team says “The Leadership team must be committed and bought in to agile ways of working. If the messaging doesn’t come from the top then the success of the project and it’s delivery is very likely to be impacted.”
Having said that – it’s important for stakeholders to understand Agile and where they fit in. Simon says “Stakeholders of one or many Agile teams believe they need to attend all meetings – we need to divide and conquer and it’s ok to wait for the right session (e.g. Showcase to get an update).
Leaders of Agile transformations must live by the values of Agile, and make sure they are well understood and applied. Slawek Koziol says, “The majority of red flags when adopting Agile can be traced back to misconstruing the key agile values and principles.
That’s why it’s so important for leaders of agile transformations to live by these values and make sure they are well understood and applied.” He says.
It’s an important point. As Mark Barber “Sometimes management think that agile is just about making the teams better”.
Read our article on : Do we have to use the agile ceremonies and artefacts to adopt Agile?
RED FLAG #5 – LANGUAGE
Simon Jacobson says “People often underestimate the importance of language in building a common understanding.
When people use different meanings for the same terminology, a lot of confusion occurs down the line” He explains. “Where there is a single Agile team, face-to-face interactions often happen naturally to limit confusion. Where there are many teams, nudges are often needed to spur alignment.” Simon says.
RED FLAG #6 – NO CLEAR ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
Watch out for stepping on each other’s toes!
Slawek explains “The roles and responsibilities in agile organizations are clear and should be respected.
Some of the most common examples are stakeholders acting like they were product owners demanding certain work from the team or second-guessing product owner’s decisions.” He says.
Slawek says that in mature agile organizations product owners have full accountability for the success of the product the team is developing. Their decisions are respected. When in doubt, the agile coach should provide guidance and support.
Mark agrees that a red flag would be when “Product owners that are not empowered and/or not responsible for customer outcomes”
RED FLAG #7 – NOT LETTING GO OF OLD HABITS
“One of the red flags is when new product owners continue to behave like a traditional manager and dictating the “How” of the work to be done.” says Tiong Yeow Tan. He continues “Continuous coaching is needed to change the behaviours and support them into transitioning into their role as product owners.”
Slawek agrees in the difficulties in letting go of the old habits . Pretending to be agile while using agile as waterfall in disguise. He explains “This can include planning activities and deadlines (instead of committing to functionalities in a steady sprint cadence), using user stories as replacement for business requirements documents, over-documenting of work or multiple handovers before working output can be delivered.”
He says “This has much to do with letting go of the old habits but also with lack of implementation discipline and focusing only on selected agile elements and neglecting others.”
Read our story on Four Unexpected Benefits of Agile
RED FLAG #8 – HUMAN INTERACTION AND TRANSPARENCY
Finally we finish with the human factor. As Slawek explains “Keep a very close eye out for fake transparency. That is – producing progress reports, team updates. Using tools that aim to reduce the need to have open and honest conversation about things that matter.”
Actual human interaction is what sparks discussion and collaboration. Properly set-up agile artefacts and agile team rooms encourage human interaction. Any tools and techniques used, especially involving modern technology, should aim at encouraging and enriching human interaction, not replacing it.
Editor: Thank you to the ADAPTOVATE team contributors. Always #teaming.
Tiong Yeow Tan