Agile Transformation Failure - Understanding Management Debt

by Inflectra on

By Dr. Sriram Rajagopalan


Organizations are looking to adopt agile approaches and methodologies, to gain productivity and quality improvements. However, in many cases, such agile transformations seem to be doomed to failure before they begin. This whitepaper looks at one of the key causes of why agile transformations fail in many organizations.

Introducing: Management Debt

The growth of the agile approaches to software development is constantly increasing with organizations reporting the benefits of:

  • Accelerated product delivery
  • Enhanced ability to manage conflicting priorities
  • Increased productivity
  • Enhanced software quality.

Despite these claims of increasing agile adoption, the reasons cited for Agile’s failure (The 10th State of Agile report, 2016) revolve around the company culture, management support, and lack of experience with the agile methods:

Similar to the “technical debt” metaphor, I would like to introduce the notion of the “management debt” that inexorably signifies the environment and philosophy that the leadership brings to the table as they extend agile approaches in their organizations.

The Agile Adoption Cycle

This management debt manifests in the form of leadership persona with inherent behavioral styles that fail to provide the necessary nourishing environment. Let us consider why a seed never germinates and blooms? While nature can work its magic through sunlight, water, and oxygen to see life germinate out of a seed, there needs to be nourishment in the form of correct soil temperature, moisture levels, expert knowledge and enduring patience.

Similarly, for agile adoption, when these nourishment requirements are not factored and addressed, expedited attempts by these executive “persona” listed below to accelerate agile adoption will only lead to failure of any framework leading to lost productivity, trust erosion, and employee attrition.

We shall discuss each of these factors that comprise “management debt” in turn:

Never heard of agile

The executives that fall into this category are open to ideas but are unfamiliar of the agile framework.  This group’s lack of understanding may arise due to many reasons such as their own personality towards new learning, lack of initiative, and firm’s industry representation to understand new trends.

These members often rely on experience of others bringing in consultant experience or another senior member to implement the transformation. If the consultant or the senior members inherit one of the following persona, then, they may fail to apprise the executives of the implementation challenges in product development, skills reorientation, and the structure required for agile development to thrive. As a result, the incorrect expectations get reinforced suggesting agile as a general failure.  


Nothing travels faster than bad and incorrect news. Similarly, this group of executives have had experience from the earlier bad implementation in their organization or in a different organization. Their “bad taste” of agile implementation shouldn’t be attributed to agile framework’s failure.

Nevertheless, these leaders may dissuade learning from the failure to correct the implementation and avoid failure altogether. Depending upon the power and influence they can exercise, their voice becomes a resonating voice to avoid agile implementation because others may be afraid to hear these leaders say, “I told you so!


The executives that fall into this category are those that either have a generational gap relating to the new business models of operation or one of those “misinformed” leader’s experience supplemented by additional failures that they demonstrate an active resistance to change.

The relevance to current ways of managing projects or understanding product development is not in the radar screen of these executives for taking the organization to the next level. These leaders are more task-oriented managers who embrace the notion of agile not adding any value. “It has been working for me and so I see no need for agile” is the theme behind such leadership.

Insufficient Experience

This group leans on those consultants or senior members that are brought into the organization just because they have implemented agile in their previous job. As Boyatzis and McKee (2005) noted, these high-profile members need to understand the emotional makeup of the new organization and not just their own personal success in their previous job.

The reliance on a structure or set of tools that they had found useful previously but failure to understand the new organizational structure, impediments, and product makeup among others add up to the challenge of insufficient experience that these roles bring to implement agile transformation successfully.

Metric Oriented

Some executives have a natural instinct to focus on the profit motive and rush to establish the key performance indicators. An example would be to measure team’s productivity across sprints by velocity when it was intended for capacity planning. The focus of the metric oriented leaders to identify incorrect metrics or use metrics incorrectly impedes the team’s ability to self-organize.

The focus on grooming the business requirements, market research, and business acceptance criteria is lost and replaced by measuring the team’s stability, efficiency, and predictability causing team friction and eventually failure.

Big Vision

These groups of executives understand that their current structure is not in line with their big vision for growth. They recognize that they need to develop products differently for competitive position of themselves in the market place or excelling in doing things efficiently. They have heard of the agile framework through their own due diligence to implement their growth ideas and look forward to their delegates for support.


In the end, the successful implementation relies on proper coaching of the organizational executive for leadership behaviors that they need to inculcate as part of their culture. Only when such misinformation, ambiguities, and inaccuracies are addressed can agile implementation turn to be successful. The longer we take time to address this management debt, the longer it will take to refactor organizational culture.

If the leadership has not bought into the fundamental agile principles for successful agile transformation and middle management members like functional team leads and project management not trained on product ownership, project team leadership, process governance, and client management, then, the fragile leadership should be held accountable for agile framework’s failure.


Boyatzis, R.E. & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership: Renewing yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

The 10th state of agile report (2016). Version One. Retrieved Jan 2, 2017, from

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