Sacred Cows Often Stop Enterprise Agile Teams

My exploration of enterprise agile development continues with the topic of training and coaching — areas that are often overlooked or shorted.

When transitioning from a command-and-control development approach like waterfall to an agile approach like Scrum or Kanban, there’s a tendency to oversimplify. After all, the rules governing agile development, particularly Scrum or Kanban, are brief and simple. How tough can it be to follow them?

This oversimplification leads companies to go it alone. They dive into their chosen agile approach expecting to figure it out as they go. And so, the long, slow march to project failure begins.

There are many reasons why agile adoptions fail. One of the big ones is “sacred cows”. These are things, beliefs, people, processes, or anything else deemed to be above criticism. Sacred cows get special treatment and are protected. Agile teams have to work around the sacred cows.

Here are a few examples.

  • A requirements document that must be formatted in a particular way and delivered at a particular time because some person or group “requires” it.
  • An approval process involving phases and gates that must be followed, even by agile teams.
  • A key contributor that refuses to play by agile rules but is untouchable and allowed to do things his way.
  • A manager who defends her group’s independence and won’t allocate her people to the development team.
  • An unsupported belief that customers won’t accept a shorter, product-release cycle.

These are difficult challenges that have to be tackled. People naturally fall back on what they know and how they’ve always done things. Even in the face of failure, there is a strong tendency keep doing what we’ve always done and to blame someone else for the problem — “It wasn’t my fault.”

Here’s what I recommend.

1. Get independent, professional assistance in the form of training and/or coaching. An independent agile expert won’t be influenced by your sacred cows. The expert will offer proven guidance based on personal and industry experience. You’ll be challenged to change or be forced to explicitly defend the status quo.

Send as many people to training as you can afford. There is strength in numbers. Get many people excited and motivated to try the new, agile approach.

2. Select a few staff members to become internal coaches/mentors (a.k.a. evangelists). This is the train-the-trainer approach. These people must be strongly motivated to change and equally motivated to help others. The formal training sessions will get everyone started and the evangelists will build upon the momentum.

Everyone will likely need continuing access to an independent, agile coach to answer questions, help resolve issues and overcome obstacles.

Challenge those sacred cows. Don’t accept anything as inevitable. Build a strong foundation for your chosen agile approach and start delivering software. As you build momentum, the sacred cows may actually want to climb aboard.

Updated: February 14, 2012 — 9:45 pm

1 Comment

  1. What a brilliant metaphor. The sacred cows that sometimes block agile development can be as slow as to move as the real life wanderers. Appointing enthusiastic and driven team mentors to become evangelists for the method is one of the key ways you can get those amblers out of the road and onto the fast track!

    Luke Winter
    Community Manager

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