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When Agile Fails: Problems & Pitfalls

Instructor: Stephen Meyer

Stephen has worked as a Project Manager and is PMP certified, as well as certified by the Scrum Alliance.

Agile is often treated as the solution to the shortcomings of traditional project methodologies. Despite its many advantages, Agile methodology does have its share of vulnerabilities. Learn the problems and pitfalls that cause Agile to fail.

Unbalanced Principles

Casey provides training for companies who want to learn and use Agile. She spends her time going over the high-level principles that are behind each aspect of the methodology, as well as the low-level details of the people, work, and processes that are necessary for implementation. Her goal is to help people understand Agile and do it well. At the end of her training, she always makes sure to discuss the problems and pitfalls with a focus on the same high-level principles and low-level details. If these are not done well, the benefits of Agile are lost.

The first topics that Casey reviews are the high-level principles, which are the four components of the Agile Manifesto, which is a set of values written in 2001 by individuals from the field of software development who were striving for an alternative to heavy, slow-moving methodologies. The values are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The pitfall that exists is becoming overzealous and completely ignoring the items on the right. The manifesto states that the items on the left like individuals, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change are valued more than the items on the right like processes and tools, comprehensive documentation, contract negotiation, and following a plan. This does not mean that the elements on the right have no value. Agile that is completely absent processes and tools, documentation, contract negotiation, and planning will be ineffective.

When the high-level principles are not fully understood or not done well, it makes it difficult to implement Agile because the principles are the basis of the low-level details. However, avoiding the pitfall associated with the principles does not guarantee that the low-level details will be done well. This is why Casey also goes over the problems and pitfalls related to people, work, and processes.

People

One the largest potential pitfalls in Agile involves the people, specifically the roles that make up the team. For an Agile team to be successful, each position must effectively be filled, including the Product Owner who requests the work, the development team that completes the work, and the Scrum Master who tries to enable the development team to work as effectively as possible. The Product Owner and Scrum Master roles are more straightforward because single individuals fill them. The development team role is often more problematic because it is filled by multiple individuals.

The problem areas for Product Owners and Scrum Masters are opposite and could be described as a Product Owner taking on the characteristics of a Scrum Master and vice versa. Product Owners need to be decisive, own the product, and be the gatekeeper for requirements. It is problematic when they accept all requests from stakeholders or regularly change their minds about requirements. Scrum masters need to serve the development team and trust them to self-manage. The pitfall is to micromanage or dictate everything the team does.

The development team is all about cross-functionality. Agile is at its best when the various team members are engaged throughout the completion of project work, in both development and testing. The pitfall is for the different team members to identify and divide by their function. Sometimes it is even to the point where one team is entirely made up of developers and another is made up entirely of testers. The skill sets are different, but each team member can bring value in each phase of the project work.

Work

One of the most crucial aspects of any project methodology, including Agile, is the project work. Specifically, in Agile, the project work is broken down into smaller, more manageable portions, known as user stories. The quality of user stories plays a significant role in how effective Agile can be. User stories that are consistently too complex are problematic. Additionally, user stories that are regularly subject to change and not consistent are an issue as well.

The other pitfall related to project work involves its completion. The team commits to fully develop and test each user story within a given sprint, which is a repeated interval of typically 2 to 4 weeks that occurs throughout the project. Failure to complete a user story in the sprint is just that, a failure. However, if the team is not accountable for unfinished work, it can easily lead to a lax attitude about fulfilling sprint commitments and a regular occurrence of carryover.

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