5 Early Warning Signs of Agile Project Trouble

Your agile project is losing momentum. Things aren’t going as well as they should, though it’s not clear why. Here are five early warning signs that an agile project isn’t so agile and may be headed for trouble.

1. Meetings keep getting longer and there are too many of them.

If your daily standups are getting longer and longer, watch out. Something is going wrong. The team may be losing focus or getting off track. If more and more meetings are being scheduled to resolve issues, the team is likely to be struggling.

These are early warning signs of trouble. Pay attention. Keep to the 15-minute time limit for standups and use informal discussions rather than formal meetings whenever possible.

2. The team follows a hierarchy and seeks approval before acting.

At times teams will establish one or more hierarchies. For example, there may be an acknowledged system architect, a keeper of the build, or a quality guardian. It’s fine to have designated subject matter experts (SME). Problems develop when the team stops and waits for SME approval. The SME quickly becomes a bottleneck, slowing the team down.

If there is a SME on the team, that person should guide the team not look over everyone’s shoulders. A SME that is protective of his territory will only hurt the team.

3. The team keeps getting bigger.

Sometimes agile teams will add people to try and do more in less time. The strategy can work if there is enough time left in the plan for the newcomer to have a meaningful impact.

Management may conclude that if adding one more person helped, why not add another? And another? Maybe the underlying problems that are causing the team to appear understaffed should be fixed. If the team gets too large, consider splitting it into two autonomous teams.

4. Deadlines are missed and sprints are lengthened.

One solution to the problem of missing sprint deadlines is to make the sprints longer, right? It sounds reasonable but if the team is having trouble planning and executing short sprints, it will only get tougher to manage longer ones.

Missed deadlines are a symptom. There are many possible causes of the underlying problem. The key point is that if deadlines are missed, you need to dig deep and understand why.

5. The team gets bogged down in documentation and becomes resistance to change

At times, some people new to agile development may be uncomfortable with a lightweight agile approach. They may attempt to make up for that by ‘writing things down’ and trying to control change. This may also result in each sprint decomposing into analysis, design, code and test segments.

This is a clear reversion to waterfall. Watch out for it.

Retrospectives can help.

Retrospectives are enormously valuable in dealing with these warning signs. Openly discuss the issues and agree on actionable steps to change behaviors.

You don’t have to wait until the end of a sprint to conduct a retrospective. You may want to look back and self-correct every week until the team feels comfortable with the process and with each other.

Updated: July 24, 2011 — 10:52 pm