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Why Agile Projects Fail

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The Process

Waterfall projects are successful when there is a rigid adherence to process. To some, that rigid adherence may be the only ingredient they are aware of. They may not acknowledge that the project also required the experience and knowledge to create an accurate project plan with achievable milestones.

In agile projects, rigid adherence to process is a key ingredient to failure. Agile is made up of many different processes that can be adopted, combined, added, dropped, and modified as needed. First-time agile projects are prone to the mistake of choosing their processes and sticking to them even when they don't work.

A perfect example is Test Driven Development (TDD). In TDD, automated test procedures are written first, and then the development is done and tested continuously. This is a great approach to ensure functional quality. It works perfectly for the Control layer of an MVC architecture, for example. However, for the view layer of a web project, it can result in deliverables falling out of synch because it takes much longer to write tests for web pages than it does to write the page itself.

Daily stand up meetings are an excellent communication tool. Run properly, they provide an excellent benefit. However, if one or more of the unconscious saboteurs join in (or, as is often the case, lead) these meetings, they can become a key factor in iteration failure. Choosing to make the stand up every other day or weekly while leveraging instant messaging can put an iteration back on track if the daily stand up is detracting from productivity.

Another fallacy held by extreme supporters and detractors of agile is that it cannot be combined with waterfall. Nothing could be further from the truth. An agile development team that begins prototyping based on the initial, high-level requirements of a waterfall project will be able to demonstrate their achievements earlier in the development stage and get immediate feedback from clients. This is because another fallacy about waterfall is that all of the requirements are defined before development begins. Change orders are part of the waterfall process, and it is very rare they aren't used. The earlier the change order occurs, the better the chances of success are, and agile development processes within a waterfall project facilitate these early changes in the direction that leads to improved deliverables.

In short: Agile processes work if implemented in an agile manner and followed by people willing to be agile.


Why do agile projects fail? When agile methodologies are not used in a project labeled as agile. Whether you consider the root of the word agile as meaning to take action and get immediate results, or the modern meaning of quick deliverables, simply using the word agile is not enough to take action or be quick about it. Nor is simply taking quick action truly agile, unless it is done with purpose and support. Many of the most successful agile projects I have participated in were not labeled agile; we simply followed agile methodologies as a development team and met waterfall deliverables, usually ahead of schedule.

Agile projects do succeed, and agile methodologies are designed for success. Like any tool, if it is not used properly it will not accomplish what it is designed for, and can cause actual damage. If you have a fly to swat, a fly swatter works well ... unless it is tied to a Buick.

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About the Author

Scott Nelson provides optimization services designing, developing, and maintaining web-based applications for manufacturing, pharmaceutical, financial services, non-profits, and real estate agencies for use by employees, customers, vendors, franchisees, executive management, and others who use a browser. For information on how he can help with your web applications, please visit http://www.fywservices.com/. He also blogs all of the humorous emails forwarded to him at Frequently Unasked Questions.

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This article was originally published on November 13, 2008

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