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Cultural Barriers to Agile Succes


Lyssa-Fêe Crump, Catalyst of Disruptive Innovation at Headforwards, explains some of the cultural barriers to Agile success and why challenging these barriers is worth it.

Agile is method of project management often used for software development. It divides tasks into short phases of work and plans are frequently adapted and revised. It’s intended to break down the barriers created by strict workflows, and to allow teams to move quickly and efficiently through challenging aspects of projects rather than getting bogged down.

As great as this sounds, Agile is a relatively new way of working and through designed to remove barriers to successful projects, embedding the philosophy of Agile is a massive challenge and takes a lot of hard work. Headforwards have been using Agile from day one. Here they discuss some of the barriers that teams face when implementing Agile, and how to overcome them.

The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean there are no processes. We have great processes and they make us more efficient. But that’s not what it is about. It’s ad hoc meetings, talking in hallways and calling each other at 10:30 at night to discuss a new idea or something that shoots holes in how everyone’s been thinking about a problem. This is how Apple works” – Steve Jobs

The Seven Most Common Barriers to Agile Working

Fear of Experimentation

One of the biggest roadblocks by far is an organisation’s fear to try. Trying something new and untested sounds risky. What if it fails? The fear that the failure lies with a single responsible individual is a scary thought. How will people look at us if it goes wrong? Customer perceptions of us might change. What if we lose money over this? A willingness to change and become truly agile requires a leap of faith. It’s important to remind everybody that it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Set up a small team who take on one small project and work through it using agile processes to show how it might work on a wider scale.

Lack of Creative Time

Thinking time. Space to go over new ideas. Creativity and innovation takes time. Allocating a percentage of the working day to think is a big step in the right direction. Google give their employees 10% of a working day to do whatever they want – literally, anything work or non-work related. Coupling freedom and the absence of pressure which comes with assigned tasks will allow your team to explore their creative side.

Reluctance to Change

This goes hand in hand with the Fear of Experimentation. People will often be defensive and hostile to the idea of new things. Especially if the new “thing” is an entirely different way of thinking, operating and planning the way you work. It takes time to get buy-in from everybody. Take it step by step, demonstrate how it will make life easier, and eventually, even the most reluctant people will step on-board.


What’s going to happen? How do we know what the outcome of that will be? Being uncertain is not a comfortable feeling. Agile can create an air of uncertainty and that’s okay (for some). Creating an environment where it’s safe to feel uncertain is a challenge but essential to the success of an Agile framework.

Processes Controlling People

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is a mantra of Agile and should be the groundwork of any organisation who is pursuing this way of working. When processes and tools are seen as a way to manage a project, the way in which people approach each sub-task will require them to conform to those processes and tools. Conformity stands in the way of creativity and innovation. Value people over processes: focus on the team and their ability to innovate and problem solve without the constraints of rules defined by management style processes and tools.

Organisational Scar Tissue

“Organisations often build up scar tissue because of failures in the past” – This brilliant quote is from Dan North at Agile on the Beach 2017. Do not allow failures to be a barrier to future progress. Failing is part of life. The right way to fail is to fail fast – this is key to agile success. Testing new ideas in small iterations means it’s easier to pick up the pieces when it doesn’t work out. It’s very easy for somebody to utter the old classic line “We tried that once before and it didn’t work”. This might be the case, but analyse and assess what went wrong. It could have been something minor which stalled the whole project.

Competitive Advantage

An often overlooked barrier is thinking that what you’re doing right now will continue to keep you ahead of the curve and, more importantly, will keep your direct competition behind you. But Innovation doesn’t stop for a breather, so why continue to drive on the same road? You should be constantly looking for alternative routes, adapting to change. Respond to new threats. Find a better way of doing something. Get your customers onboard with your new ideas – test them in a sandbox environment.

It’s been nearly seven years since Headforwards began and Agile has been with us from the beginning. We’d never say we are 100% Agile. How can we? There isn’t a predetermined end to the process; it’s a work-in-progress. But we know we’re on the right path. There will be a whole host of different issues which will stand in the way of onboarding a new methodology, and Agile requires a significant change to people’s mindsets, behavior and an overall shift in organisational culture. Breaking through these barriers will take time and effort, but it’s worth it.

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