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What are the top 3 challenges when transitioning to Agile?

What are the top 3 challenges when transitioning to Agile?

Welcome to part 9 of our agile coach interview questions series, where John McFadyen answers common questions posed to agile coaches and scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

The annual ‘state of Agile’ report is released every year, and it lists these top 3 challenges.

  1. Culture
  2. Processes
  3. Tools


Many people and organisations are considering adopting Agile because what used to work in the past is no longer working for them.

We have transitioned from a predictable, albeit complicated, 20th-century environment into a highly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous 21st-century. The old style of working – traditional management and project management – can’t cope with the complexity of today’s customers, markets, and competitors.

Traditionally, these are conservative organisations that have witnessed the growth of Agile since 2001 and are only now beginning to explore the opportunity of Agile. As an organisation, they have a command-and-control culture that is deeply rooted in rigid bureaucracy, processes, and decision-making by committees.

The vast majority of large organisations have existed for decades. Although they have identified a need for change, what they have been doing up until now has served them well. That style of working, managing and building is deeply embedded in their culture and organisational identity.

To adopt agile values and principles and move from deep hierarchies of control-and-command to a fluid, responsive and adaptive style of working is incredibly difficult. It requires a lot of time, effort and will.

It is a major stumbling block when companies make the transition to Agile and is often listed as the number one reason for a failed agile transformation.


Many of the processes, policies and systems in a traditional organisation have been shaped over years, if not decades, and they often work against achieving business agility.

Most legacy organisations are command-and-control oriented, whilst others are more competitive, but ultimately the processes in place are designed to control what happens or direct others what to do based on seniority or hierarchy.

In a complex, knowledge-based environment like most Agile environments, you want the experts to be the ones making decisions, supported by Agile leadership teams, rather than having a manager tell a group of experts what to do.

There’s a long-standing joke that committees are where great ideas and decisions go to die.

Yet, you often find that large organisations have heaps of committees that make decisions – without expert knowledge or experience in that field – and they often only meet every quarter to do so. That means that teams wait months for approvals and run the risk of having their proposal rejected by people who don’t understand the environment, the challenges, or the need for the resources that have been requested.

The list goes on.

Decades worth of bureaucracy and red tape often prevents teams from achieving true agility and being able to rapidly prototype, test and iterate. Agile teams need autonomy and to be self-managing in order to be effective and create products that truly delight customers.

Wrapping them up in red tape and making them wait months for approvals means that regardless of how important an Agile adoption might be, it will ultimately fail if the processes and systems that support that transformation are not in place too.

The tools you select and how you manage those tools

One of the primary Agile values as defined in the Agile Manifesto is ‘people and interactions OVER processes and tools’. It speaks to the value of focusing on people, teams, and customers OVER the adoption of tools and frameworks.

Yet, so many companies look to the tools and framework as the most important element of an Agile transformation rather than considering their people, their customers, and what tools best support how the team want to build products or solve complex problems.

Time and again we ask executives and leadership teams not to IMPOSE an agile framework on people. A great consultant might sell you an off-the-shelf ‘solution’ like SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) but it may restrict and hamstring the team rather than set them free.

You may decide on a new piece of software to ‘manage’ outputs from a team or team of teams, yet that tool creates more bottlenecks and problems than it solves and puts the team on the back foot from the word go.

You want your teams to understand the ‘why’ behind a new style of working. You want them to actively agree on the purpose of an agile adoption and you want them to be actively involved in designing the tools and processes that will best support their new style of working.

Data and evidence are a great way to go about getting people to buy into a proposal. If you are actively running experiments and allowing the team to test different tools and processes before refining and customising those tools and processes, it is going to be very hard to build a great team that builds products and services that truly delight customers.

Ask yourself whether the tool you are investing in is designed to support the team or whether it is instead there to manage them and their output.

If it exists to support great work, awesome, you’re likely to succeed. If it’s there to manage output, then you are still in the ‘command-and-control’ style of management and project management and it is highly unlikely that your team will achieve true agility.

About John McFadyen

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