Why Do Agile Teams Slip?

"Come and have a look at my team" says my new stakeholder. "We have been doing agile for a few years now and while we started well, I think we have slipped back to old habits". How often have you heard this when starting a new engagement? Quite often? What do you see when you take a look? It's usually lack of planning, absence of meaningful retrospectives, ineffective standups, lax WIP limits, poor metrics, mini waterfalls. Yep. They have slipped all right.

When you ask the team why they think they have slipped, you will usually get answers like "we scaled up and things went wrong" or "the rest of the organisation is pulling us back" or "some key people left" or something like that. In my experience these are never the real reason. They may have contributed, but the underlying problem is something else entirely. That underlying problem is almost always the same - they never had the basics right in the first place.

This usually generates howls of protest from the team. "But we were doing scrum! By the book! We did all the things!" And that's the problem. They did all the things the book (or their coach) told them to do. But they never really understood the reasons why those things get done. They did agile things but never really understood what made those things agile.

Take standup as an example. If you just do standups, without really understanding why standups are important and what outcomes they are supposed to achieve, it's really easy for them to drift off track. When it has drifted into a 30 minute daily management update, the team is still "doing" a standup, but all the things that make a standup useful (team synchronisation, communication, impediment identification, daily plan) get lost. When you just do things without really understanding why, it's really easy for those things to drift away from what makes them useful.

In short, if you just do agile practices without understanding the agile principles and mindset behind them, you will drift. For teams that have taught themselves out of a book, that's perfectly understandable. Most of the books and such like out there tend to focus on the practices. It's hard to explain mindset and principles in a book and very easy to describe practices. It's also very hard to comprehend principles and mindset in a book and very easy to understand descriptions of practices so that's what teams pick up.

What about teams that have been coached though? Why do they still drift? Unfortunately, the coaching profession, myself included, needs to shoulder a lot of the blame for this. We tend to focus first on practices. There are a lot of reasons for this. Practices are easy, you can teach them quickly and get results quickly as well. That looks great to our employers and makes our daily rate look worth it. Culture and mindset is hard to change so we tend to pick the low hanging fruit (the practices) first. We have also become enamoured of scaling frameworks (in spite of the fact that scaling is an anti pattern) - SAFe, Less, etc and tend to apply these as collections of practices (because doing mindset on a large scaled group is daunting).

We have developed a "build it and they will come" mentality around coaching - if we build the practices and reinforce them constantly, the agile mindset will naturally follow. This unfortunately is complete bunkum. If you focus on building practices without tackling mindset then all you will get is adherence to a practice, not a deep understanding of agility. That sort of deep understanding through practice takes years to develop, if it develops at all. It took me years of applying the practices in many different scenarios to start to understand the agile mindset. Even now, after many years coaching, I still see things that make me question and revise my understanding of what agility is.

Learning mindset through repeated application of practices requires time and intent. If I just do the practices, without the deliberate intent of learning from them, then all I do is just do the practices. I don't learn anything. To learn I need to apply the practices in different situations, see what works, see what doesn't and make a deliberate effort to learn from that. I need to break the practices down into the component parts and apply these parts in different combinations.

I can grab a YouTube video on karate Kata and practice them until I can do them perfectly but that will teach me nothing about how to defend myself. Only by taking those Kata and breaking them into their component strikes and applying those strikes in different situations will I really learn how karate works.

This is where a coach comes in. They can help with that learning journey by teaching the mindset. If we go back to karate for a second and the classic Karate Kid (the first one...not the sequels), when the kid was teaching himself karate from a book and just practiced techniques, he got his arse handed to him on a plate by the bully. It was only when he got a coach who taught him the mindset alongside the techniques that he triumphed.

Coaches should teach mindset first and technique second. Mindset is hard to change as it is; it is almost impossible to change mindset with no support. It's much easier if you have an experienced coach to guide you on the journey. Practices are easy, anyone can learn them out of a book. The real value of coaching is in mindset, not practices, and that is where we should focus.

If we teach our teams to understand agility, not just how to do agile practices, they won't drift. In a team that understands what a standup is for, they won't drift into a 30 minute daily management update. They understand the value of what they do and will work to preserve that. I'm not saying that they will stay static, of course. A good team that understands agility will probably change more, but change will be deliberate and focused on making things better rather than just a random drift back to the organisational baseline.

By focusing on practices rather than mindset, coaches have been creating a problem rather than fixing one. We have been failing our teams and our employers. We have traded short term success for long term pain. We need to change and become mindset coaches first and practice coaches second.