29. March 2022 By Florian Petermann, Andreas Honert and Stefan Hilmer
The agile regression trap
What is agile regression?
Sometimes people, organisations or companies that have gone through a long agile transition fall back into old habits. We call this phenomenon ‘agile regression’ – a danger that you need to avoid.
The dictionary lists two meanings for the word ‘regression’, one psychological and one educational. In psychology, the term regression describes going back to or relapsing into earlier stages of mental development or maturity. In the educational sense, it refers to a slow decline or downward trend or development.
This blog post refers to regression as being agile if it happens during or after an agile transition. An agile transition is when an organisation changes its processes and so on to give them greater agility in line with the Agile Manifesto.
Putting all of these elements together gives us the definition of agile regression: the regression of an organisation or individuals to traditional ways of thinking and working that they learned in the past that have supposedly worked for the person or organisation before. These relapses are not intentional, but the danger of them happening is a constant threat. Any agile transition can fall into the regression trap. However, you can often avoid agile regression if you keep an eye on what might set it off and are familiar with the main signs of it.
Causes and triggers that can set off agile regression
At the beginning of an agile transition, individual agile teams are often set up to test agile procedures and are deployed independently of the company’s hierarchy and the existing processes. These teams are optimistic and have a start-up mentality. As the agile transition progresses, the teams are integrated ‘back’ into the regular organisation, then more agile teams are set up and, in many cases, an agile scaling framework such as Scrum of Scrum, Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) or Nexus is used directly. In the financial sector in particular, iterative development is often only possible to a limited extent, as regulatory requirements have to be met and technical core processes have to be mapped end-to-end in order to create added value for customers and companies. A cultural change is also needed on top of using and implementing a methodological framework to make an agile transition successful. Having an agile mindset that uses personal responsibility to promote innovation and speed (among other things) is the only way we will be able to react to changing customer needs and market situations with the flexibility we need.
Seeing as an agile mindset is not something that can be taught or prescribed by and large, it needs to be given the space to develop at every level. This requires both time and everyone involved to be motivated, open and show perseverance. However, there is (especially at the beginning of an agile transition) a set of factors for agile teams and management that will facilitate a relapse into learned behavioural patterns – agile regression.
Agile teams can be exposed to enormous amounts of stress due to external influences if they are confronted with excessive expectations, for example from stakeholders. This can result in teams starting to work in isolation to other departments or demanding extensive specifications and detailed plans, for instance.
Agile approaches often focus on autonomous action and the assumption of (professional) responsibility as success factors for agile teams. This can lead to agile teams putting themselves under stress, especially at the beginning of a transition. Reasons for this include taking responsibility for prioritising requirements and selecting technical solutions. This can lead to agile teams having ‘traditional’ project structures and sub-teams with ‘their own’ responsibilities, which not only slow down the development process but also weaken the feeling of unity within the team.
An agile approach breaks down command-and-control structures and technical responsibility is gradually transferred to the agile teams. Managers or higher-level ‘external’ roles – such those in as enterprise architecture or process ownership – may feel overwhelmed by a perceived ‘loss of control’ in particular. Since there is no direct control in this phase, they make an attempt to influence the agile teams beyond the scope permitted by an agile framework (for example, the review).
Lack of transparency
Iterative and incremental approaches are good ways to meet customer needs flexibly and quickly in today’s world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Iterative and incremental approaches in particular require a vision and an overview of the overarching goals so as not to lose sight of the purpose. An absence of these easily leads to chaos, which then quickly descends into calls for detailed long-term planning.
You need transparency at every level. If agile teams don’t work transparently, then there is a risk that shadow structures, such as hidden roles, are created from the project management. If the management level doesn’t work transparently, then it’s difficult for the teams to act independently and take responsibility. This means that an iterative approach can gradually develop into a sequential one.
Since agile frameworks can only provide the framework within which agile teams and managers operate, an agile mindset must be able to develop within the organisation, as we’ve already mentioned. This means that the success of an agile transition crucially depends on whether agile procedures are beneficial for all those involved, for the teams, for the product to be developed and ultimately also for the organisation as a whole. If this is not the case, existing structures, roles and processes are often replicated under new names. The critical question must then be asked as to whether the agile transition should be continued or whether the existing approach is more efficient for the individual (company) situation.
Signs of regression
In the previous sections, we defined regression in the agile context and described the causes and triggers as potential starting points for falling into the agile regression trap.
A relapse into learned behaviour patterns is often gradual and not obvious. However, there are a few signs to look out for to avoid agile regression.
People start to voice doubts
At the start of the agile transition, everyone assumes that everything was done correctly: agile teams were set up, Scrum or Kanban was introduced, sprints were planned and a minimum viable product (MVP) or increment was delivered. In addition, the introduction of a domain and product structure may have already seen the organisation make progress in terms of development. This has created the expectation throughout the organisation, and especially among stakeholders, that product development will now be faster and more flexible. Plus, there is now the assumption that more professional and higher quality products will be delivered as a result of a customer-oriented approach.
If these expectations aren’t fulfilled immediately in this situation, which will become apparent if a release or roll-out has to be postponed, for instance, then dissatisfaction will start creeping in before eventually spreading openly. The benefits of using agile approaches will be questioned in C-level management, middle management and within the agile teams. Hearing something similar to the examples below may be a sign that you’re edging towards falling into the agile regression trap:
- ‘The agile setting is slower than I expected.’
- ‘The MVPs are not moving us forward.’
- ‘These sprints take too long.’
- ‘The projects are getting too expensive.’
Statements like this often go hand-in-hand with a wide-sweeping rejection of the recently introduced schools of thought and working.
Trust in management drops off
If a release or the roll-out of an MVP has to be postponed, this can quickly lead to other units of the organisation that depend on it falling behind with their plans and promises. If, for instance, the go-live of the application section for an insurance policy or a loan has to be postponed, then this can have an impact on planned sales competitions and marketing campaigns, to name just a couple of examples.
Trust in management in the agile setting might quickly drop off as a result. In this case, crisis workshops and task forces being formed is a sign that the organisation is already falling into the trap of regression. These workshops and task forces harbour the expectation that the stakeholders’ requirements will be now met and that the agile teams will also take responsibility. At the same time, people in this phase generally have the opinion that results were also positive back when their organisation followed traditional project approaches (waterfall).
In order to ‘restore leadership in projects’, there is a risk for the agile transition that management reverts to time-honoured management patterns that have supposedly proven themselves in the past. This means it starts checking up on teams by evaluating and interpreting their key figures. For instance, management starts verifying an agile team’s capacity planning or checking their velocity, starts doubting this information and, in the worst case, even starts comparing it with that of another agile team. In addition, planning becomes more detailed, focused on the long term and transcends team boundaries due to the introduction of project plans, among other things.
This means the decreasing trust in the management in the agile setting or in the agile teams is a particularly effective catalyst in moving towards agile regression because concrete measures are ordered and implemented.
People question the agile transition
The agile framework chosen or the way of implementing the agile transition is often questioned. This is particularly evident if, for instance, a new consultancy firm is commissioned to check the status of the agile process and to develop proposals for restarting the agile transition. Suggestions for improvement are often made unwittingly on the basis of past best practice. As a result, there is a likelihood that traditional planning and controlling structures will be replicated within agile frameworks. Agile approaches are then no longer used as intended.
An agile mindset needs time at every level and the perseverance of everyone involved to be able to develop. However, factors such as stress are likely to prompt a relapse into old, ‘proven’ behavioural patterns. As a result, the agile mindset cannot unfold, and the advantages of agile approaches cannot be fully exploited.
The signs described in this blog post help to detect agile regression at an early stage and to take countermeasures early enough. We will present the relevant preventive measures and appropriate responses in the next part of our series ‘The agile regression trap’.
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