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Jean Tabaka at Agile Australia 2009


The Agile Australia 2009 conference ran in Sydney on 15 & 16 October 2009.  Over 300 people came together to hear two days of sessions by local and international speakers.

The first keynote was by Jean Tabaka, Agile Fellow from Rally Software.  She gave a talk titled 12 Agile Adoption Failure Modes, in which she identified a dozen common roadblocks that can prevent effective transformation to Agile techniques in organizations.

She stated that “most organizations have what appear to be suicidal tendencies”, then went on to list and explain the failure modes she has seen in the course of her work with companies across Europe and North America. 

The failure modes are:

1) Chequebook Commitments
This is where management’s attitude is “we’ve made the decision, you do it” – disengaged, expecting immediate results without allowing time and without supporting the attitudinal/cultural changes that are necessary, not changing the metrics that teams and individuals are measured against.
2) Culture Doesn’t Support Change
Where the organizational culture is “anti-Agile” – with a deterministic, follow-the-plan approach; where standards of work are imposed from without and are not allowed to evolve as the teams learn new ways of working.  Where the attitude is “apply the practices now, exactly like this”; where the PMO sees themselves as enforcers not as empowering the formation of a learning organization.  “Be Agile but still follow the plan”.
3) Ineffective use of Retrospectives
There are three failure modes associated with retrospectives –
a) not holding them (the worst possible failure mode)
b) the Scrummaster or other leader filtering and/or disregarding what is being said in the retrospective
c) not having an action plan to apply changes from the retrospective
4) Ignore the Needed Infrastructure
Agile techniques need effective infrastructure support – TDD, continuous integration, automated testing, version control and other tools make Agile easier.
5) Lack of Full Planning Participation
Full team involvement in the planning and estimation is important for Agile project success.  Not having the whole team involved creates waste – mainly from the time spent waiting for decisions to be made – and results in low levels of commitment from the team.
6) Product Owner – Unavailable or Too Many
Agile techniques make a lot of demands on product owners, and they need to be able to respond effectively.  The product owner who is “too busy to do all this communicating” or who has to get confirmation for every decision impedes the project’s progress.
7) Bad Scrum Masters
There are a number of ways that the Scrum Master can impede Agile projects
Command & Control management lowers team morale, results in low commitment levels and actually lowers the teams IQ! (She cited studies showing the latter effect)
8) No Onsite Evangelist (even worse with distributed teams)
Agile transformations need nurturing, and where some the team is remote there is a high risk of the remote workers becoming “remote road kill”. 
9) Team Lacking Authority
Agile teams need to be empowered, able to evolve their own ways of working.  This requires time, space and support for team formation (forming-storming-norming-performing).  High performance teams emerge in environments with positive feedback, Agile retrospectives provide an inspect-and-adapt cycle that encourages effective team evolution.
10) Not Pulling Testing Forward
Using a “mini-waterfall” sequential process inside iterations does not an Agile transformation make.  The myth of 100% utilisation results in inappropriate pressure to build product as quickly as possible, which ends with accumulated technical debt.  Shifting the focus to quality and optimising flow through the process instead of focusing on individual utilisation actually results in significantly higher productivity and output.
11) Holding on to Traditional Performance Appraisals
Individual performance appraisals are counter-productive for Agile teams.  Rewarding heroic individual efforts over team contribution detracts from Agile success.  Find ways to measure and reward team collaboration and contribution. 
12) Reverting to Form
“Embracing the evil we know” – change is hard, and the temptation will be strong to revert to prior habits. 

She discussed the progression from “this sucks” through “good enough” to get to the “kick ass” threshold in terms of Agile adoption and the resultant productivity improvements.

She ended her talk with a call to action – challenging the audience to select one item to address in the next 30 days, create an action plan to achieve the change, and commit to a personal retrospective in 30 days time examining the progress that has been made.

Her talk can be found at and the presentation slides at

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