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Predict Success by Finding Problems

Agile was supposed to make things easier.

It was supposed to fix the problems of large projects with big, up-front planning ending up delivering solutions that didn’t meet the customer need. Its focus on customer collaboration, iterative and incremental delivery and responding to change was supposed to delight customers.

However, in practice, that is not the case. Agile projects can and do fail.

To increase our chances of success, we should first start to identify what is causing us problems.

Let’s start with our agile approach. One of the problems with all agile methods is called out on the first page of the Scrum Guide when it states that Scrum is ‘Simple to Understand; Difficult to Master.’

Teams often overlook this, yet it is a critical reason why some agile teams struggle – Being a self-organising team, delivering potentially shippable solutions frequently, with an empowered Product Owner ensuring you are working on the highest value work is tough. Really tough.

Moreover, if we struggle with the relative simplicity of Scrum, we shouldn’t be surprised when we also struggle with more sophisticated approaches like LeSS or SAFe.

Understanding why we are struggling to be agile will allow us to make changes that reduce or mitigate that pain. Once we can apply our agile mindset properly, we will be able to get closer to the promised benefits of Agile and increase the chances of our projects being successful.

Numerous factors impact how well a team can apply an agile mindset and approach. Depending on the particular situation, these factors can make being Agile easier or harder. They can be grouped into five categories:

  • The Team – Agile teams are small, self-organising, empowered and experienced;
  • The Work – The work the team is doing is transparent, prioritised, feasible and understood by the team;
  • The Stakeholders – The team know who their stakeholders are; they are available when needed and know what they need to do to help the team deliver in an agile way;
  • The Environment – The team can control their environment, and it helps them work in an agile way. They are co-located, can decide for themselves when to deploy and have all the tools and infrastructure they need;
  • The Culture – Agile delivery is more than a process; it is a mindset and a culture that everyone involved with the project shares.

To help identify where you might encounter problems in your agile project, consider each of these areas, in turn, looking for factors that might help you deliver in an agile way; and for factors that might cause you problems. When you identify issues, you can then decide what you can do about them.

Identifying potential problems with your agile approach in advance will improve the team’s chances of getting the best from Agile, and this will increase the likelihood your project is a success.

I have developed a tool to help with this process that I call ‘The Wheel Of Pain.’ It prompts teams to consider a range of factors and score them on a scale from 0 (This factor is perfect for agile work) to 5 (This makes it almost impossible to follow an agile approach).

It can be used at any point and is particularly useful at the start of a project when you are deciding things like which approach to use, iteration length, communications, training, product roadmap, etc.

You can download the template below. I’d love to hear how you get on with it.

Wheel of Pain Assessment