Why Agile Project Fail

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First of all - Not all agile projects fail. Not all projects that fail are agile. Is the failure due to the agile approach used, or due to the same causes of failure that occur in projects using traditional or predictive approaches? What is the definition of failure? In a traditional project, failure was the inability to meet the agreed upon scope, schedule, budget or quality as defined in the project baselines. Obviously there were many projects that were able to meet at least one or more of these requirements, but because one was not met, the entire project was deemed to be unsuccessful. For most adaptive or agile approaches the failure is not in the approach itself, but rather in the way it is implemented. Some of the major reasons for failure when using an adaptive approach to deliver value-based solutions or results include: 1. Lack of a strategic alignment with the business objectives 2. Lack of a common vision by all team members and stakeholders 3. Infrequent planning sessions to continuously reevaluate and apply value-based prioritization 4. Incorrect product owner assignment 5. Poor requirements elicitation and analysis 6. Lack of collaboration 7. Non-transparent communication 8. Long delivery times 9. Command and control management of Team members 10. Lack of continuous improvement in adapting on-going work and processes Is failure the opposite of success? Failure or success is often judged from two different viewpoints. 1. Customer – Does the result deliver value? 2. Provider – Have the triple constraints (scope, schedule and budget) been met? But is failure or success defined differently using an adaptive approach? Lack of properly implementing the basic principles of agile may be a critical factor that leads to project failure. If the key principles of agile are understood and followed, any project, regardless of the approach used, has a greater chance of success. If on the other hand, activities which provide no value are done, time and effort is put against that which provides little if any value, the time required for those items delivery less value. The agile method of Lean says it best – Eliminate waste. So what are the real keys to having a successful project result, regardless of the approach or method used? 1. Ensure that the project solution is aligned with the organizational strategy to provide value. This alignment is usually identified during the project selection process where the organization determines where funding will be authorized. In the initiating process for a project, the business objectives should be included as part of the project charter or chartering process. 2. This includes verifying the understanding of the vision and organizational rules and continuing to focus on this vision by all team members. Accountability by all team members to this vision as work is being done. By having a consistent message by all, including the usage of group innovation techniques such as a project elevator pitch or tweet, a clear vision will be consistently delivered. 3. In order to adapt to the changing environments it is imperative that rather than trying to decide all future decisions at one time, more frequent planning sessions are held to focus on the current priorities which will provide the highest value to the organization. These sessions often remove previously identified features and replace them with those that will support the adaptive environment. 4. Establish continual collaboration and face-to-face communication between the team members and those who have requested and/or will be the recipients of the final result. This allows for frequent verifications, clarifications and feedback on the work in progress. As issues and concerns arise, they can be discussed and resolved much quicker and more effectively using participatory decision-making techniques. 5. Ensure the team members have the appropriate skills to be able to deliver the solution. This often requires a deviation from the principle of having full-time team members, as often specialized skills are only needed during portions of the project. These team members should be empowered and motivated team to make recommendations on how to deliver the best results by recognizing the skills, creativity and innovation of all individuals. 6. The product owner or business representative is a crucial requirement to ensure that the business objectives and procedures are understood. This in depth knowledge of the business, especially of business rules, ensures that the result will properly support the business functional areas. In addition, there are often times when decisions must be quickly made by the product owner, and unless that individual is in a position to make those decisions, the project effort may be delayed. 7. Whether the understanding of the current organization as well as the vision for the results of the solution requested is provided by a product owner or business analyst, it is imperative that the requirements provided are supported using elicitation and analysis skills. This includes the additional knowledge of the details to define user stories and acceptance criteria, and usage of analysis models to facilitated discussion and understanding. 8. In adaptive teams the team is responsible for control of scope, task assignments and individual status reporting. The project manager is responsible for the overall reporting of the project status to upper management. This self-empowerment of individual team members and leadership abilities of a project manager result in high-value results. 9. Deliver something of value frequently, often in 30-90 day cycles. This not only shows progress but also prevents veering off course from the vision and the project objectives. 10. Continually adapt the process through frequent reflection and review by the team. These lessons learned, retrospectives, etc. allow small changes to be made, and then reviewed to see if the changes improved the effectiveness of the practices and behavior. Summary The implementation of a methodology or approach may contribute to either the success or failure of a project. But one size NEVER fits all. It is important to understand what portions or techniques are applicable to each project and then determine when to use them, and convince everyone of their value toward a more successful result. Agile is not a silver bullet. As Alistair Cockburn stated: “A well-functioning team of adequate people and complete a project almost regardless of the process or technology they are asked to use (although the process and technology may help or hinder them along the way).” By Greta Blash, MA, PMP, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA
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