Agile teams won’t do the trick

Why are many lean & agile adoptions not delivering the expected results?

  • Is it because of their lack of experience?
  • Is there not enough focus on learning?
  • Did they forget about change management?
  • Are they not doing Agile by the book?
  • Is it because they haven’t hired an experienced coach?
  • Maybe they forgot about the technical practices?
  • Is it because it’s driven top-down, bottom-up, centrally or inside out?
  • Is it because you haven’t mastered complexity or systems thinking?
  • Or because the portfolio level isn’t aligned?
  • Maybe they should do more gamestorming or serious play?
  • Or focus on continuous improvement?

Possibly!  But many cases I’ve seen are related to organizational design.

Why would you think that creating an agile team should do the trick?

Agile teams are focused on delivering value on regular intervals.  Within a couple of weeks they work on a list of business opportunities, often expressed as user stories or features.  Together they work full speed ahead to analyze, develop, test and release the whole set.  Their focus is strong and simple.

However, in order to do this, they are depending on people outside of the agile development team.  Business unit managers, system engineers, marketeers, help-desk,…  These are all individuals that are part of different organizational entities which have another focus.

  • Some focus on keeping existing systems up.
  • Other focus on expanding the customer base.
  • And even others focus on minimizing change, such as help-desk and support.

While the agile development team’s primary concern is releasing pieces of value in regular intervals,  this is only a minor concern for others.  Let it come as no surprise that this has a serious impact on the delivery success rate of the agile development team.

  • User stories are not completed within the iteration because the business owner had not time to validate them.
  • The next release could not go live because the help-desk had no time to prepare for support.
  • Operations decided to delay the installation because they faced a storage capacity issue.

How can we ever reap the benefits of a change-embracing process if the rest of the organization does the opposite?  So instead of promising great results through agile coaching, I now start by looking at the organization.  And in most cases, I have to deliver this message:

Coaching your teams will bring no major added value, as long as we don’t start redesigning the corporation.

Funny thing is that it comes as no surprise to most managers.

Some are willing to take this risk and step forward.  I found one!  One of a rare breed, who is more concerned about company success than covering his own #ss.  In my opinion, that’s where you can really deliver value as a coach.  Helping him to design an organization that is built on taking advantage of  constant change and feedback.

About Nick Oostvogels

Hi, I'm an independent management consultant. My biggest strengths are located in the fields of teamwork, motivation, leadership and continuous improvement. In the IT industry you find a lot of these values in the agile movement, in which I often act as a project leader, product owner or coach. My interests go a lot further, into other industries where we find these values in lean production. Besides that, I try to broaden my horizon as much as possible, always looking for better ways of doing business.


  1. Nick, I like how you show that teams need an organizational context to succeed. I see many organizations that start with agile teams, and discover that getting teams up and running isn’t that difficult, but interfacing the teams with the existing line- and/or project organization poses many problems!

    An agile coach helps the organization to implement changes needed for a better fit for agile teams. The results is that agile teams become able to deliver valuable software. A win-win situation for the teams, and the organization as a whole!

  2. Organisations can only fully benefit agile (delivery) teams if they also understand about “agile product discovery” which provides the business value the teams should deliver. Only my guess is that 98% of all organisations have a “fixed” view of what needs to be done (output). They don’t even understand the difference with outcome, or how to discover a product/market fit (i.e. like promoted by Steve Blank as “customer development”.).

    It only makes sense to optimize the whole: to make the complete value chain ‘agile’, not only the delivery part. You only need “agile management” to understand that too 🙂

  3. Lean eliminates waste through such practices as selecting only the truly valuable features for a system, prioritizing those selected, and delivering them in small batches. It emphasizes the speed and efficiency of development workflow, and relies on rapid and reliable feedback between programmers and customers. Lean uses the idea of work product being “pulled” via customer request. It focuses decision-making authority and ability on individuals and small teams, since research shows this to be faster and more efficient than hierarchical flow of control. Lean also concentrates on the efficiency of the use of team resources, trying to ensure that everyone is productive as much of the time as possible. It concentrates on concurrent work and the fewest possible intra-team workflow dependencies. Lean also strongly recommends that automated unit tests be written at the same time the code is written.

  4. @las artes:

    1. ” Lean also concentrates on the efficiency of the use of team resources, trying to ensure that everyone is productive as much of the time as possible”. How would this be accomplished according to you with what practice(s)?

    2. “Lean also strongly recommends that automated unit tests be written at the same time the code is written.” Do you have references which support/confirm this?

    Thanks for your reply

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