If the broad consensus is that Agile works, then why do so many organisations see failure where there should be success? Is it time to come to the surface or keep digging?

“We went Agile and it failed.”

“It doesn’t work because it’s too loose”.

“It’s an excuse not to do the hard work upfront.”

Despite the many degrees of opposition, it’s fair to say that – on the whole – Agile works. Its global prevalence has risen because it specifically addresses many of the shortcomings of other delivery modes that have created a lot of project delivery frustration.

That said, like any mode of project delivery, we have to be candid and admit it sometimes doesn’t work so well. However, before you ask whether the organisation has simply gone down the rabbit hole, there is a lot that can be learned from an Agile project that goes off the rails.

The smart organisation won’t simply throw Agile out of the pram because it would leave them where they started and it is a flawed approach, as the reason they went Agile was that the status quo approach was not delivering the results. Instead, they are likely to try and unlock the reasons that Agile didn’t work and seek to understand – and avoid – similar mistakes in the future.

Is it Agile – Or is it How We Adopted it?

When Agile fails to deliver, a good starting point to unearth why it hasn’t been as effective as hoped is to ask the delivery team whether Agile as an approach failed or was it a failure in how it was adopted? It’s not a subtle difference; it’s quite a significant point to unpack what went wrong.

Agile tends to fail for a couple of reasons and the inhibitors can generally be put into two categories:

  • The Organisation Category, i.e. environmental factors; and
  • The Project Category, i.e. project specific factors

Experience tells us that these failure points can be pretty common and we’ve outlined these below. It’s not an exhaustive list, but these tend to crop up frequently enough that we see them as opportunities to learn from:

Organisation (Environmental) Inhibitors

Process Integration

  • Agile delivery may be effective, but does it integrate into the overall business processes such as financial approval, investment ROI, capital allocation, performance reporting etc?


  • Are all parts of the business adequately aware, trained, and supported in their roles within an Agile delivery framework?


  • Is Agile clearly defined and understood across the organisation?
  • Has the case for Agile and its context been clearly communicated?


  • Does the organisation have a change resistant, “paint by numbers mindset”?


  • Does the organisation accept that failure is a part of success and built in intelligent failure is an acceptable outcome from an agile delivery (fail fast, learn and act – not an easy discipline to embrace)?

Project inhibitors

Skills and training

  • Have the staff been given sufficient training and are they supported by experienced practitioners on an on-going basis?

Adequate tools

  • Does the project have the necessary tools to work in an Agile manner e.g. collaboration, code management, test management?


  • Is everyone open to trying new ways of doing things? Agile can be perceived by some people as too loose or too unstructured to deliver solid project outcomes and not get their buy-in.

Project type

  • Not every project type lends itself to agile delivery. In fact, some projects may contain elements of Agile, Iterative and Waterfall which can in certain circumstances all work together under a Master Plan to deliver the desired outcomes.


Delivering in small sprints doesn’t mean you’ve managed risk. For an Agile adoption to be successful it must also address risks such as fit for purpose, customer adoption, changing conditions, cost overruns, schedule overruns and quality

Unpack the Failures to Realise the Benefits

Unpacking and identifying the inhibitors of Agile success allows organisations to proactively address them and unearth both opportunities and realise the full potential of Agile.  It will set the business up to unlock the huge benefits Agile has to offer both the organisation and the people within it.

We have performed a number of Agile diagnostic reviews to help our clients on their Agile pathway and can tell you from first-hand experience that identifying and removing the inhibitors will give far greater returns than reverting to the old ways of delivering projects as a default response if your Agile projects are failing.

It is unrealistic to expect to be 100% successful with Agile the first time. Like all change, it will take time to embed within the organisation and if you are aware of the inhibitors you will be better equipped to adopt Agile successfully and avoid your projects disappearing down the rabbit hole for good.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...