Agile sounds very simple — you can a “Master” of sorts in a two-day class — but based on my experience implementing and discussing agile with hundreds of organizations, few achieve any significant business results.  In reality, gaining the benefits of Agile techniques in almost any context, including its birthplace, large-scale software development, is wicked difficult. 

Read on for my article on Agency Post, published on February 9, 2016, to better understand Why It’s Hard to Make Agile Work.

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When Agile is used in its birthplace — large-scale software development projects — it can create amazing results. Studies have documented 300% productivity gains, even as high as 1,500% in some cases.

That’s good news for your agency, right? Not entirely.

The basic Agile techniques sound very simple — you can learn many of them in a two-day class — but you are very unlikely at that point to see any impact from using them. And, the reality of applying Agile techniques in almost any context is that a lot of adjusting, tweaking and improvising is needed. As Jeff White points out in his recent post, Agile is pretty hard to do in a real-world situation where you think it would be easy — a digital agency.

A year or so ago, when I was speaking to 800 software professionals on how to make Agile projects go better and faster, I asked, “How many of you have seen a 200% improvement in your productivity as a result of using Agile?”

No hands were raised.

I hadn’t expected that no one would raise his hand, so I plowed ahead. “So how many of you have seen a 100% productivity gain?” I said, holding my own hand up encouragingly. My plan was that there would be several in the audience that would raise their hands so we could start a discussion on what they (and I) thought were the critical success factors. I figured this was a slam-dunk. After all, these were software people. In agencies, we’re pretty happy just getting to 100% improvement. I assumed at least a few people would promote their successes, but no hands were raised except for mine.

Getting Agile right requires both a rarified coaching skill set and an almost Zen-master-like focus and immersion. Agile is such a simple set of ideas, yet I have never seen a home-grown Agile team get the daily standup (often called the Scrum) anywhere close to right, much less understand the dynamics that are so key to turbocharging a team’s productivity.

In our work with agencies, we’ve seen every foundational assumption of Agile and Scrum fail in an agency setting. For example, the assumption that agency teams can plan a project using “T-shirt” sizing for stories (identifying each piece of work as small, medium, large, etc.) to predict project schedules isn’t realistic.

Even those who can make Agile work in traditional settings often fail when the real world appears: small projects, multi-disciplinary teams, fractional and shifting resource allocations, and the need for fixed-budget, fixed-date, fixed-scope results. Software Agile falls apart once you get to messy problems. We figure we only use about 30% of software Agile when we’re helping an agency find its way.

At the speaking gig, I continued the line of questioning. I counted down, asking “50%? … What about 25%?” with only a few people out of 800 raising their hands. A bit concerned, I asked a feel-good question, “So how many people here use Agile, and while you haven’t seen a performance improvement, you feel like it is a better way of doing things and are happy with it?” All of the hands went up.

The world and most workplaces are better off using at least some Agile techniques, so my feel-good question was not too far off the mark. As Ming Chan notes in Forbes, probably the most surprisingly profound effect you’ll get from almost any attempt at Agile is improved employee attitudes.

Achieving expertise at using Agile in your agency (or elsewhere) will change your perspective on how an organization should work, wrote our client, Craig Calloway of The Starr Conspiracy. When you reach that point, you’ll likely see massive improvements in productive velocity (50% to 100% is very achievable), employee and client satisfaction scores, and of course, the bottom line or profit margin. Best of all, you’ll be able to join the few who can raise their hand with pride in what they’ve accomplished.