Culture still keeps eating Agile software strategies for breakfast

The latest Agile survey finds efforts still crushed by organizational inertia; however, Agile efforts still shined through recent COVID-19 crisis. DevOps now a factor.

Agile -- the software-defined meaning of Agile, that is -- has been a thing since for almost two decades now, since the creation of the game-changing Agile Manifesto. (And yes, I'm finally using that awful term "game-changing" in a post, because in this case, it was.)

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

Are we holding true to the principles of Agile, as described in the manifesto? Are we finally "uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it"? Are we finally valuing "individuals and interactions over processes and tools"? 

Hmm. Maybe -- everyone is trying their best. But we do seem to be more sprint-like in our delivery, delivering working software frequently, "from a couple of weeks to a couple of months [2020 update -- a couple of hours], with a preference to the shorter timescale." 

But culture eats strategy -- even the most well-intentioned Agile strategy -- for breakfast, and burps it up before lunch. What vexes Agile efforts the most are organizational resistance to change, inadequate management support and sponsorship, and organizational culture at odds with Agile values. Add to that a lack of participation from business leaders. 

This is the key finding from the just-released 14th State of Agile survey, which finds progress in Agile methodologies, but still much work to do. The survey, published by Digital.ai, included the responses of 1,121 software development managers, developers and project leaders. 

The most pronounced obstacles to achieving a truly Agile software shop include the following:

  • General organization resistance to change     48%
  • Not enough leadership participation      46%
  • Inconsistent processes and practices across teams     45%
  • Organizational culture at odds with Agile values      44%
  • Inadequate management support and sponsorship      43%
  • Lack of skills/experience with Agile methods      41%

Since this survey was conducted in the midst of the recent COVID-19 crisis, with workforces suddenly scattered across thousands of locations (peoples' homes), it finds increased support for distributed teams and team members. "While working together face-to-face can be desirable for Agile practices, survey respondents indicated that organizations are supporting distributed teams and team members," the survey's authors report. "More respondents indicated their organizations continue to support and encourage team collaboration across geographic boundaries and time zones. The current worldwide health crisis may prove to be an inflection point that leads to an additional increase in distributed teams as a new normal."

When drilling down to specific approaches, the survey finds Scrum to be the most widely practiced method, with at least 75 percent of respondents practicing Scrum or a hybrid that includes Scrum. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)  is the scaling framework of choice, leading with 35 percent of the respondents -- up five percentage points from last year.

What has Agile been delivering lately? The "ability to manage changing priorities" and "project visibility" are the top two capabilities reported as having improved as a result of Agile implementations. The leading benefits of Agile are cited as the following:

  • Ability to manage changing priorities    70% 
  • Project visibility     65%
  • Business alignment     65%
  • Delivery speed/time to market     60%
  • Team morale     59%

Measuring success as a result of Agile efforts -- as it is with many soft-and-squishy-but-essential initiatives -- can be tricky. With Agile, at least, there are some hard metrics that can suggest things are moving in a positive direction, especially the pace of software deliveries. 

  • Business value delivered   46%
  • Customer/user satisfaction     45%
  • Velocity     37%
  • Budget versus actual cost     31%
  • Planned versus actual stories per iteration     31%
  • Planned versus actual release dates      28%

Of course, no discussion of Agile is complete with looking at DevOps scenarios, as DevOps is, for all intents and purposes, Agile in action. Seventy-six percent of respondents stated that they currently have a DevOps initiative in their organization or are planning one in the next 12 months -- up from 73 percent last year.

The study's authors observe that "having practiced Agile for five or more years correlates with a greater reported percentage of DevOps initiatives underway, as well as more interest in value stream management (VSM)." More than half of the respondents report that their organizations are either currently implementing VSM or are planning to do so. "We expect a greater percentage of organizations to embrace VSM going forward, as understanding increases and tooling more capably enables the unification of the 'concept to cash' value stream," the survey's authors suggest.

Here are the most critical measures of success with DevOps transformation initiatives continue to be improving quality and delivering software faster. (Hmm, customer satisfaction only ranks a distant third. We need to think about that....)    

  • Accelerated delivery speed    70%
  • Improved quality    62% 
  • Reduce risk   48%
  • Increase customer satisfaction    43% 
  • Delivery aligned with business objectives  39% 
  • Decreased IT costs  39%

What does it take to make DevOps even more, well, Agile? When asked about which capabilities would be most valuable for improving DevOps practices in their organization, 39 percent said having metrics that identify disruptions in the flow of business value, while 34 percent said that traceability from business initiative through deployment would be most valuable.