The hyperbolic sales pitch from quick-fix Agile providers misleads management into creating lackluster, forgettable Agile.

Agile today is a broken promise. Fifteen years after its birth, its core tenets are largely ignored, and most companies achieve few of the gains that are available. For those who aspire to adopt it, the marketplace is dominated by over-simplified trainings and software that often result in the opposite of what Agile advocated. Both are ineffective and threaten to destroy what was one of the most amazing revolutions in organization and work design.

Back in 2001, after years of experimentation, a handful of senior software developers defined a revolutionary set of team-empowerment principles, labeling it the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. That moment birthed the ubiquitous use of the word “Agile” and started a revolution in how software was built and organizations were structured. It specified dramatic (and proven) changes to the way projects and organizations should be run:

  • Team discussion and planning works better than project planning and management.
  • Building things works better than specifying things.
  • Direct client-team interactions yield better performance and relationships, and work better than using contracts to manage clients.
  • Adapting to insights and changes during a project works better than following early plans and specifications.

I’m paraphrasing the original text to make a point: Agile techniques work by rejecting many everyday business analysis and project management techniques. Basically, a bunch of software guys proved that you could make better software, faster, by letting teams and customers jointly own the plan, budget and work, cutting several of the managerial roles out.

Just in case you don’t know, early teams led by Agile’s founders and the people they trained, posted performance gains of 100% to 500%, sometimes more.

Sounds great, right?

But here’s the problem: today, the results gained by the average team or shop are often negligible. As published bi-annually by the Standish Group, project success rates for Agile (still) run well below 50% now.

In my own conversations with more than a thousand agencies over the past five years, few have achieved even a 50% gain using Agile. Worse, at a 2015 IT industry event I polled approximately 800 conference attendees and less than 1% claimed gains of 25% or more.

What happened? It’s the “sushi rice” problem. And marketing.

Agile and sushi rice-making both look easy when you see an expert do it. And the instructions are beyond simple. But the reality of making world-class sushi rice or creating Agile’s empowered teams is far different: both are very difficult, and seemingly minor differences in technique create unedible or lackluster results. You can tell the difference between good and bad sushi rice, just like clients and teams can tell the difference between good and bad Agile.

Agile has become a victim of how marketing often destroys an idea in order to sell it.

Mastering sushi rice and Agile both require months of concerted effort and practice. If you tried to market make-at-home sushi rice as, “Only 4–6 months of practice and you’ll have something that isn’t really all that awful” you would be honest…and go out of business. Instead, just like instant sushi rice in a box, a bevy of Agile software and seminar providers promise “two days (or less) and you’ll be Agile.”

Nobody has ever become Agile in two days, period. It didn’t happen for the founders, and it won’t happen for you. But overtaxed managers respond to the brightly-optimistic box on the shelf, because it’s easier to spend on a product than truly implement a process. The corporate training model favors change in a box.

As a result, the “Get Agile Now” marketplace conversation now centers around the very processes and tools that Agile founders sought to replace. The founders were adamant that only team interaction and thoughtful reshaping could yield a more effective organization.

How hard is Agile to learn? The good news is that it is faster than learning to make sushi rice — which is often the main focus of the first year of a sushi apprentice’s training. We’ve found that real transformation starts happening with as little as four days of immersive team training with a senior coach/mentor. Full transformation can be accomplished (and stick) within another five to eight days spread across several months. That’s a quantum leap in intensity, investment, and patience from a two-day tutorial that is the market’s most popular offering, the Scrum Master certification.

In the early days of the new Agile, the Scrum Alliance was formed, and it created the Scrum Master certification training program. Today, for $1,000-$2,000 and two days’ attendance, a single project manager could become an Agile Scrum Master.

Instant mastery. Who doesn’t want that?

Having now worked with over a hundred shops — virtually all of whom had “tried Agile” in this way — I can say empirically that two days of classroom training does not equip any project manager to implement, let alone master, the transformation of a team or an organization. Scrum Master certification is a business model, but not for your business.

The correct carton label would look like: “Scrum Apprentice Program, just add water, wait 2–3 months and hope.” That business too, would go into bankruptcy.

Even more insidious are the hundreds of books on Agile, all bearing similar hyperbolic labels (“…and do anything twice as fast”), providing people with the same promise of instant mastery and results. At least you don’t get a misleading job title from reading a book: “I’ve read a few books” is a fair title, but you wouldn’t want your sushi chef to have that credential, nor your doctor, and you probably don’t want to bet your business on it either.

In my mind the worst offenders in this pack are the makers of software packages that claim to implement/impose Agile project management and workflow. As discussed in a very fine Economist article, most all of these tools are fundamentally anti-Agile. They spend a lot of money to give you the message that you can become Agile by implementing software.

You can’t become Agile by implementing software. In fact, most of these tools just give managers a different tool to manage with, not a better way of empowering teams. When Agile works well, it dramatically reduces the need for managers altogether; self-directed teams don’t need a whole lot of managing. That was the point of Agile.

Fewer managers and less managing results in more hours of productivity for the team.

So today, we have a marketplace filled with Agile-certified “masters” that know little or nothing about how to achieve the gains that made Agile desirable. Some of them are using software that claims to implement Agile, but it just enforces a bunch of old, negative proactices. A lot of bad rice being served, and I believe it is giving Agile a bad name.

I actually tell the folks we train to not use the word “Agile” in front of a client unless the client uses it first, and the client is smiling.

Agile is an art that’s all about bringing out the best in people; it is best learned from other people. It’s experiential and non-linear because it’s human. Its founding fathers mentored each other, applying logic and experience to each other’s challenges, iterating over several years to find a solid model. They developed mastery over time and developed the abilities of others.

The Agile marketing machine sends exactly the opposite message. It often reinforces the problems Agile was created to solve. Managers buy the rap because it sounds easy and non-confronting — a promise of change that requires only a credit card payment and avoids the actual discomfort of changing anything.

Agile, the amazing collection of team-empowerment techniques that unleashes teams and makes the world better, needs protection from its own marketing. Otherwise it will bear the blame for a new generation of organisational failure.