Organizational Objections To Agile Process

By Jeff Langr and Tim Ottinger
Font is Andrew Script

It is no surprise that organizations struggle when attempting to transition to agile methods. As with any new venture that threatens the status quo, the list of objections is long and varied. In developing this card we collected over a hundred typical sentiments and grouped them into about a dozen categories--too many for a single card. In keeping with our personal vows of brevity, we present here the first card: Objections borne out of organizational and cultural circumstances. We will present reasons that stem from individual belief systems and biases separately.

In order to help transitional consultants and rank-and-file people who are struggling, we provide commentary and counter-arguments.
  • "It Can't Work Here" There is a common assumption that Agile methods require a special set of initial conditions. Most companies believe that their own situation is unique, their software uniquely complex, their market position too tenuous, or their management system too inflexible. Given such specialized initial conditions, how could a general-purpose method based on simplicity possibly work?
    Agile is not so much a set of a constraints and rules as it is a framework in which a team can continually discover its own limitations and then derive better approaches. There are few necessary initial conditions beyond an agreement to work together in an incremental and iterative way.
  • "They Won't Let Us" is a special condition of "It Can't Work Here." Agile methods may be deemed feasible and even advantageous among the technical crowd, but may seem counter to the organizational culture and/or management habit. For instance, there may be a competitive personnel evaluation system for staff which frustrates attempts at collaboration. The management might have a strong command-and-control model which prevents self-organization. Perhaps the organization is built upon the concept of a strong lead programmer directing a squad of "code monkeys." Maybe schedule pressures are so great that there is no slack to spend on organizational learning. It may be that the team cannot modify the layout of the office due to union issues or concern for decor.
    Agile methods are advantageous to development and product management since they provide more data about the team's real progress, allow better focus on important features, and require very limited limited overhead to practice. While some aspects of Agile practice are clearly focused on management practices and product management strategies, an increasingly capable team can usually cope with difficult organizational practices in the short term and can win over leaders in the long run.
  • "Guilt By Association" refers to the situation where Agile methods have not been tried, but at first blush seem to resemble other methods or practices that have fallen from favor. Sometimes Agile is associated with uncontrolled "cowboy coding." Other times Agile is perceived as a trick by management to force programmers to work harder. It may be confused with ceremony-heavy consulting-driven methodology. The poor image is often tarnished further by tool vendors hoping to cash in on the latest buzz with tools that are rarely necessary, of limited helpfulness, hard to learn, tedious to use, or even detrimental to collaboration and communication. An Agile conversion project may follow on the heels of other failed "flavor of the month" methodology attempts.
    Agile is a low-ceremony, disciplined way of working built on concepts and ideas that have been successfully applied in the software industry for many decades, and longer in other industries that still embrace these principles today. It is a simple, incremental approach to team software development that requires little tooling beyond a place to sit, a whiteboard, a good supply of index cards, and a few rolls of tape. It would be a shame if an unfair prejudice caused us to miss out on an opportunity to build a truly great team.
  • "Means/Ends Juxtaposition" is a variation on "cargo cult" mentality. A typical non-agile company will have layers of policy and management practices built on strict phase separation, copious up-front documentation, individual accountability, rigidly-defined hierarchical roles, and/or tail-end quality control processes. Artifacts produced by these practices become the primary output of teams, and enforcing mandated behaviors becomes the primary concern of managers, even though neither contribute meaningfully to quality software development.
    An organization attempting to transition to agile may fall into the same trap by rigidly applying so-called agile practices. Numerous teams claim (capital-A) "Agility" because they hold interminable feckless retrospectives, prescribe stand-up meetings that provide only vertical status, or prolong interminable pair "marriages." Stand-ups, retrospectives, and pairing are extremely valuable tools, but only if you are able to align them with agile values and principles.
    To succeed at agile, we must first understand that it is a continual journey of team discovery, and not a rigid set of practices. We must have some sense of where we want agile to take us, and that the journey will reveal unforeseen challenges and opportunities. Agile development is about growth rather than conformity.
  • "Inferiority Complex" The team that ships quality software on a consistent and frequent basis exhibits a high level of confidence. A team that lives with frequent failure and inability to estimate quality of product will exhibit a low level of confidence. An observer may attribute the confidence and ability of the team as an initial condition and not as an eventual outcome of the process, surmising that confident superstars are a necessary initial condition of agile success.
    The Pareto distribution suggests that most teams simply don't have enough star developers to conquer this mistaken understanding of agile. Real concerns over minimizing entropy in a rapidly changing system engender pure fright: "How can we possibly introduce new features without pre-conceiving the entire design? Our code is horrible to start with, and we've tried to write some unit tests, and it's just too hard." A large number of teams ultimately feel they lack the skill to produce anything of value in a short iteration.
    Agile software development is about teamwork, not about superstars. For example, pair programming helps make TDD less difficult (for everyone, superstars and supernovices alike); TDD in turn provides us with the means to safely refactor code; refactoring sustains quality design in an extremely dynamic environment. Likewise, introspection and teamwork allow for continual improvement. Agile is a means to raise the competence of a team and lower the difficulty of working with a code base.
  • "Superiority Complex" is when an organization feels that they have a pretty good handle on things. They have a process that has allowed them to deliver successfully in the past, and regard any change in practice as a step down. Practices like TDD and pair programming are regarded as training wheels for junior programmers, and wholly inappropriate for serious software professionals. They may believe that they have a special gift for up-front design that makes incremental design wasteful and unnecessary. The organization believes they have transcended the need for Agile practices.
    There will always be those who think that the world has nothing left to teach them. If the organization is perfect, there are no flaws to uncover, no waste to reduce, and no improvements for agile to bring. Since agile methods are about doing, measuring, and reflecting on the work, we often find that Superiority Complex is based mostly in wishful thinking and a lack of measurement.
    If, on the other hand, a company has found the techniques that leave Agile in the dust, we would love to learn about and adopt this superior method at work. Agile methods are perhaps not the best methods possible, only the best ones we know as of this writing.
  • "Rejection of Insufficient Miracle" is the tendency to refuse to use a practice which leaves any current problems unsolved. "It's all or nothing, baby!" A team that cannot automate all testing sees little point in automating tests at all. Incremental development does not guarantee that a certain date will be met with all features in place, so there is no reason to iterate. The team must collaborate with other groups which do not work in an Agile way--what is the sense in only part of the company being agile? If we can't guarantee everyone will refactor the code, why should anyone spend the time cleaning up the design? By refusing incremental improvements, the organization rejects the very soul of the Agile way of working.
    Samuel Johnson once said, "
    Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome." All software projects, even one that might be hypothesized to be free of technical error, are prone to failure from myriad reasons. All products, teams, and organizations are "insufficient miracles," leaving many of life's problems unsolved. Seeing that we have all gotten out of bed and come to the office, the question is whether we want to try a process that maximizes learning and quality (without guarantees), or an equally guarantee-free process that does not.

We fully recognize that there are teams that will not want to use Agile methods, and we suspect that there are organizations unwilling to modify their practices to accommodate a new style. We suspect that any method will not be successful in such organizations and that abandonment may be a reasonable strategy. As they say, "Change your company, or change your company."

In time, we may discover ways of fulfilling the promises of Agile with other methods. Agile is not the only possible way to improve an organization, even though we have found it to be one exceptional way to improve software-developing companies.

If, on the other hand, an organization is not interested in the kinds of benefits Agile methods promise (teamwork, growth, quality, productivity) we recommend that they become our competitors.


  1. Nice summary of common objections and good counter arguments. I'm worried though that companies with those types of objections also will lack the ability to listen to the counter-arguments. I think your "insufficient miracle" is a good place to start - pick the biggest pain point and start making a small change to help alleviate it.

  2. Hi Lisa--Thanks for the comment! Yeah, skepticism is normal, but if they won't listen to counter-arguments, then I think it's a good indicator of the likelihood of success in that organization. I can recall two *monstrous* rejections of insufficient miracle in my career, one leading to project disaster (cancellation), and yet the rejections prevailed despite many of us urging to "just do something," make some demonstrable forward progress.

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  4. There's one thing probably to add here (although it falls somewhere in the 'It Can't Work Here' category):

    Agile & Lean bring in completely new job roles that people must accept and adapt to. It questions especially existing roles/career paths, and so creates an uncertainty that not everybody may love instantanously.

  5. For any new methodology to be implemented, i see two reasons for company to adopt some day or the other.
    1. Business community/clients need to have greater transparency, feedback & involvement in project execution & implementation.
    2. The very purpose for which the software is created (i.e. the customer), his involvment is uttermost necessary.
    3. We would need to break away from the mindset of most of the organizations who are hierarchy driven and build a highly cohesive and competent teams.

  6. See also this article:

    I have some differences of opinion or presentation choice, but I think there's a lot of real-life exposure in the article.


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