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The agile movement has failed

This article is translated from a series of articles from my German blog.

Do not get me wrong. I am passionate and positive about agile work. The agile manifesto outlines the principles that state-of-the-art software development is made possible. However, the attempt to establish this way of working in companies inevitably fails, and the whole agile movement is in a deadlock.

Reading time: about 12 minutes

Why agile working does not fit into companies

Agile work is based on the manifesto for agile software development. In addition to the four guiding principles, the manifesto consists of the unduly less well-known and often fatally less noticed 12 principles.

The content of the 12 principles of the agile manifesto includes:

  • the focus on motivated employees who are trusted
  • customer orientation
  • sustainable work at a constant pace, which can be maintained over time
  • the emphasis on self-organizing teams
  • technical excellence as the basis and driver of agility

Agile frameworks grow beyond this and illustrate the consequences of these principles. Not only do we find self-organizing teams here, but also there are no more disciplinary supervisors on the teams.

Another notable aspect is that agile principles and agile frameworks address only the team level. This focus on the team level is sufficient for the desired context of software development.

Companies’ organizational forms (the frameworks) are also subject to concrete principles. Today’s average company follows the principles defined by Frederick W. Taylor in his 1911 work “Scientific Management”. The core and principles have not changed much since then. The contents of these principles are as follow:

  • focus on efficiency and scaling
  • plan economy and budgeting
  • control not only the budget but also the people
  • create a hierarchical structure for a centrally managed organization
  • disintegrate thinking and acting with decision-making at the top and execution at the bottom of the hierarchy

These principles are characterized by pressure as a control mechanism (fixed targets, deadlines). This fundamentally contradicts the principles of the agile manifesto.

The failure of the agile movement

Two directly contradictory principles converge in companies on the border between agile teams and Tayloristic enterprises. The conflict is inevitable. Visit agile meetups and other events of the agile community. The number of sessions offered on problems on this front is almost endless.

The conflict is so vast that the share of failed agile transitions is enormous. Depending on the source, it is said that 70–85% of the attempts to introduce agile project management fail.The remaining 15-30% are bobbing and rubbing against this conflict, instead of exploiting their potential.

Since the agile principles are set for the team level, and corporate organizational principles apply on a company-wide scale, you can now make up your mind and guess which of these will dominate. Guess now!

Excursus: Flat hierarchies

Often, companies tell me that they are not that nasty. The hierarchies would be “very flat,” and in many decisions, employees are also “involved.”

Do you know the saying “there is no such thing as being a little bit pregnant”? A flat hierarchy is still a hierarchy, and thus is the foundation for a centrally controlled business. Involving and asking employees is a different matter than allowing decentralized decisions based on competence and roles.

The agile movement has realized that agile principles are losing out. The logical consequence, from the perspective of agilistas, is that companies have to become more agile. This is where buzzword bingo starts.

The agile mindset

Agilistas claim that you have to have an agile mindset. It is a mandatory requirement. But you'll have a hard time finding a clear definition. The lack of a clear definition makes the agile mindset an intangible, nebulous concept. You have it, or you do not. Agilistas have it, of course. Also, business people usually do not have it.

For me, the agile mindset is the absurdity of the agile movement. Its existence describes the powerlessness of the agile movement like no other word. It serves as the general apology: If agile principles cannot be applied or fail, then it is because of the lack of the agile mindset.

This hypnosis works so well that there are now coaches focusing on coaching the agile mindset who have seriously started believing in just that mindset themselves!

The fact is, you do not need an agile mindset. The mystery of the conflicts you stumble over in your daily agile work lies in different principles. Finished. Out. It is that simple.

The biggest scam of the agile industry

My impression is that 90% of agile coaches, consultants, and transformation specialists cannot get to the point of recognizing these conflicting principles as the root cause of the dilemma and propose the “missing agile mindset” instead. In my perception, nearly 100% of consultants still tell their clients that an agile transformation can work within a classic company setup. This is either ignorance and lack of experience or straight-forward fraud.

With this background, agile frameworks arise, which are called “enterprise-ready.” For the “agile transformation” to work, frameworks have to be degraded to methods. After this degradation, a change of context and principles is possible. Thus, the adoption of these methods becomes “trouble-free” for classic companies. A prime example of this is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) which you could hardly call "agile."  It is beautifully colored and agile Taylorism— in the best case!

In the worst case, agile approaches are deformed and changed. In the past, one often heard the term “scrum-but,” which is derived from the statement “We do Scrum, but ...”; however, in extreme situations, not only projects will fail but the failed agile transformation will lead to confusion and demotivation among employees, including all the unpleasant consequences.

Do not get me wrong. I am not a dogmatist. A healthy adaptation of methods and frameworks to a particular situation is desirable. However, we are agile as long as the agile principles are obeyed. Otherwise, we are not. Call me a stickler for principles if you like!

Alternative principles for organizational development

The help comes from an unexpected direction (at least for Agilistas). In 1998, a research initiative was set up in business circles, which used case studies to investigate how the nature of corporate budgeting affects their ability to generate value.T‌he results demonstrated a clear link between the type of budgeting and the generated value, and that the highest value creation potential can be realized in companies that dropped classic budgeting entirely.

The research initiative (“Beyond Budgeting”) then developed twelve principles that cover the needs of business management. Case studies based on these principles include the Swedish Handelsbanken, W. L. Gore, Southwest Airlines, Toyota, dm-drogerie markt, and many more. These principles have been further refined over the years, and are now known as the BetaCodex.

The BetaCodex is in clear opposition to the Tayloristic approach. It is meant to replace the Tayloristic way of designing organizations. And it is consistent with the Agile Manifesto.

This harmony is no coincidence, because both movements are based on the same fundamentals, particularly in terms of systems theory and the concept of self-learning organization, though not exclusively.

Excursus: The BetaCodex Principles

  1. Team autonomy: Connectedness with purpose, not dependency
  2. Federalization:  Integration into cells, not division into silos
  3. Leaderships: Self-organization, not management
  4. All-around success: Comprehensive fitness, not mono-maximization
  5. Transparency: Flow intelligence, not power obstruction
  6. Market orientation: Relative Targets, not top-down prescription
  7. Conditional income: Participation, not incentives
  8. Presence of mind: Preparation, not planned economy
  9. Rhythm: Tact & groove, not fiscal-year orientation
  10. Mastery-based decision: Consequence, not bureaucracy
  11. Resource discipline: Expedience, not status-orientation
  12. Flow coordination: Value-creation dynamics, not static allocations

See also:

The quintessence

An agile transformation in classically organized companies is impossible. Agile frameworks are degraded to methods, and agile principles are curtailed as far as possible because they have to submit to corporate Tayloristic principles.

For an agile transition to succeed and the agile way of working to be possible at all, it requires a change of principle in the corporate organization. The BetaCodex is a set of 12 principles that are consistent with agile principles. Companies built according to these principles generate much higher added value and are much better positioned for a complex, high-speed innovation market.

For agile consultants and coaches, there are no more excuses based on the missing “agile mindset.” The times you tried to use the agile principles for business transformations should be over. They were never meant for this context! Moreover, they are not adequate in this context.

Instead, it is time for agile coaches and consultants to deal with organizational physics, corporate governance, and organizational development. This is how genuinely sustainable work becomes possible. It is the basis for successful agile transformations. In this way, companies can be prepared for the market requirements they will not face tomorrow but the ones they face today. Level up!

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