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Why Do Agile Projects Fail And What Can You Do About It?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 19th December 2018

Agile is seen by some as the magic bullet of project management. A framework through which all their project management woes will be cured. But let’s face it. Real life isn’t like that and, although agile is a great framework to use, there are times when even agile projects fail. This could be due to external factors, but sometimes internal stresses prove too much. You can’t control the external issues (fickle clients, changing economic climate, sudden unforeseen disasters), but by being aware of potential reasons for failure you can plan to avoid them occurring with these tips and tricks.


Company Philosophy

Agile is first and foremost a way of thinking about project delivery. Agile thinks about customers and products. Customers want particular features, and if those features aren’t yet implemented, they want to know when they can expect results. Agile expects you to work with your customers, to respond to their input and deliver working solutions rapidly.


What can you do?

Clearly, this type of approach cannot function if the rest of the company philosophy doesn’t support the necessary mindset. The whole organisation needs to embody agile values from the project management apprentice to project leaders, or at least not put unnecessary barriers in the way of teams that work within the agile framework.

Lack of Experience

For many teams an agile approach can come as a culture shock. As a way of working it needs to permeate the whole team so that adhering to the principles becomes second-nature. Many teams that intend to work on agile principles find themselves unable to function because they are still working using different thought processes.


Agile values flexibility. It recognises that the latest technology is worthless if the people supposed to be using it can’t work together. It recognises that while the contract is important what the customer wants is to be kept informed and allowed to influence the results. It recognises that creating working software is more important than documenting how it should work. And an agile approach recognises that the project plan is not a rigid itinerary, but rather a map of the area that can be edited as customer demands, technological improvements, and other external factors, change.


What can you do?

Ensure that all agile teams have access to experienced coaches who can disseminate their experience and encourage less experienced team members. Avoid underestimating the value of good agile coaches and quality training.


Inexperienced teams will struggle to be agile because it won’t yet be the natural way to progress the project. Which brings us on to the next issue with project failure:

The benefits of...Project Management Training


Lack of Training

Agile teams grow together – having good people working together effectively is incredibly important in an agile environment. Agile considers that your human resources are more important to the project than the physical ones. The lack of a tool or expertise in a particular language is not as much of a barrier to success as the lack of good staff, working together effectively. And to ensure that everyone needs to be clear what their role is and what they are working on during the current iteration.


“Everyone” in this case really does mean everyone. Adopting an agile approach means changing company philosophy, which will never happen if the executive leadership are also untutored in how agile projects work. Around 30% of agile projects that fail do so because of insufficient training. This can range from no one having training, to only “key” team members receiving training, to everyone being given poor quality training.


Clearly in the case where no one really knows how an agile approach works the project is doomed from the start. But it is those situations where training is spread too thinly or quality is skimped on that are harder to guard against. Saving money on training now could waste far more if a project dies.


What can you do?

Ensure all teams working within the agile framework are fully trained and that they are given a solid foundation in the principles of agile project management. Further, ensure all management responsible for such teams is also given training in managing in an agile workplace.


Unwillingness to Adopt Agile

One way in which a lack of training at management level can manifest itself is when management decide that teams should use agile methods without getting the teams themselves on board first. Agile teams are structured differently and some team members may feel that they are losing control or their job identity by switching to working in an agile environment.


There are different ways to structure teams depending on the results required, the wider organisation and the level of experience of team members. The “vanilla” team is one where everyone can do anything and each iteration may see different team members taking on different roles in order to balance workloads. This can also be a difficult team structure to begin with if teams have been used to working in particular roles.


What can you do?

Work hard to “sell” the benefits of agile to the team to provide them with the motivation to make a successful transition. Listen to their input and work towards ironing out problems in a way which is acceptable to the team. Providing training before transition can also help bring your teams on board without them feeling that an alien framework has been imposed on them.


Lack of Support During Transition

Moving from traditional methods to agile requires significant upheaval. Teams may need to be reorganised in order to balance skills – especially if moving from an extremely compartmentalised waterfall style of project management. Compressing specification, development, testing and deployment into iterations instead of distinct phases of the project is an approach that can seem haphazard to those used to waterfall methods.


Shaking up an organisation will always lead to friction and difficulties if not handled in a sensitive and supportive manner. Teams need to want to work together – good people working together effectively is one of the fundamental principles of agile after all – and it is up to management to support them to move to an agile framework along with the rest of the organisation.


What can you do?

Ensure that teams feel supported during transition and that sufficient experienced agile coaches are there to help manage the transition period. Consider the speed at which the transition takes place and whether “practice” iterations, where the focus is on non-critical aspects of the project, could be beneficial to allow the team a chance to familiarise themselves with the new way of working.



Do you understand...What Causes Project Failure?


Lack of Management Support

Agile relies a lot on support from management. Management need to trust that teams can organise their workload per iteration and avoid pushing top-down constraints or prioritising activities that don’t align with the expectations of the customer.


Management need to change their mindset to implement agile successfully in their organisations. It is tempting to jump onto the agile and related systems bandwagon, expecting that teams can be brought together to use them, without really changing the management structure to suit. It is not just project teams that need to be fully trained in agile methods – management need to assess their training needs and ensure that they fully understand how to support an agile project.

What can you do?

Ensure management knows enough about managing agile teams to be able to support them within the wider organisation. This could involve reviewing executives training requirements to ensure that they understand how to support agile projects.

Friction Between Agile And Traditional Methods

Agile methods don’t suit every project, or every team. There can be many reasons why an organisation may have teams using traditional waterfall methods of project management working alongside teams using agile methods or even combining traditional and agile methods on a single project. Having already covered the necessity of organisational change and management support for agile it may seem obvious that such an approach is inevitably doomed, and that perhaps it should only be tolerated for a transition period.


Teams can be viewed as individual units that work towards a particular goal but friction can occur when traditional teams, with fixed initial requirements, need to co-operate with the changing focus of an agile team. This can be especially acute during a transition period if agile is being “bolted on” to a traditional approach instead of driving fundamental change.


What can you do?

One way to counteract this is to bring in outside help. Involve those working with traditional methods in the planning, review and retrospective phases to facilitate better communication. Clearly defining pathways and interfaces for the exchange of information to delimit where each methodology is to be applied is also important. Keeping in touch with all groups who are affected by the outcome of a team’s work will allow the team to respond appropriately.



Poor Communication

The cornerstone of successful projects of all kinds is communication. Within small to medium sized teams, communication is easy to facilitate but to extend agile’s effectiveness beyond isolated development teams requires a transition throughout the entire organisation and if, during this period, communication falters then projects can stall and fail.


Agile teams can respond quickly to customer requests because they have short iterations which allow them to switch focus as the project progresses. It is vital that such teams are provided with the bigger picture in order to allow the correct priorities to be assigned to various tasks. If the wider organisation has not structured itself to support agile and if it has not fully come on board with the approach then that will hamper projects, potentially to the point of failure.


What can you do?

Improve lines of communication between project teams and the rest of the organisation. Ensuring that management is fully behind the use of an agile approach will help them to understand the necessity of keeping their teams fully up-to-date. Make sure that managers, other teams and customers are included in planning and review meetings to ensure that their views on progress can be heard.

features of agile project management methods

To Sum Up

There is much to recommend using an agile approach to project management, especially in customer driven areas where being reactive to changing client priorities offers a better experience and a more satisfying end product.


However, agile is not some buzzword that can be picked up by a team, used until the next fashionable methodology comes along and discarded. In order for agile project management to be effective it needs to be adopted, or at least strongly supported, on an enterprise wide basis.


Training is another important factor in the success, or otherwise, of agile projects. All team members need to be offered comprehensive training in agile methodologies. It is a false economy to provide training to only a few team members and to expect them (either implicitly or explicitly) to pass on their new knowledge. Where training is required, high quality training providers need to be identified in order to provide the best and most comprehensive overview of how to maximise the effectiveness of the agile approach. It must be remembered that the cost of a failed project could far outweigh the initial costs of creating well-resourced agile teams.


What can you do?

In a nutshell, successful agile projects require:

  • leadership from outside the team from sympathetic and strong executive management;
  • high quality training and for ongoing training to be offered to all team members;
  • cultural change within the organisation to allow agile teams to thrive;
  • experienced and capable agile coaches.


If you want your agile projects to have the greatest chance of succeeding then it is imperative that those four issues are addressed as early as possible.

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