Disciplined Agile

Agile Methods/Frameworks Only Get You So Far

Many teams start their agile journey by adopting agile methods such as Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), or Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)-Atern. Large agile teams dealing with “scale” may choose to adopt SAFe, LeSS, or Nexus to name a few. These methods/frameworks each address a specific class of problem(s) that agile teams face, and from our point of view they’re rather prescriptive in that they don’t provide you with many choices. Another problem is that they only address some aspects of tactical agility at scale, and certainly not strategic agility at scale, regardless of their marketing around being agile scaling frameworks. Sometimes, particularly when frameworks are applied to contexts where they aren’t an ideal fit, teams often find that they need to invest significant time “descaling” them to remove techniques that don’t apply to their situation, then add back in other techniques that do. Having said that, when frameworks are applied in the appropriate context they can work quite well in practice. When you successfully adopt one of these prescriptive methods/frameworks your team productivity tends to follow the curve shown in Figure 1. At first there is a drop in productivity because the team is learning a new way of working, it’s investing time in training, and people are often learning new techniques. In time productivity rises, going above what it originally was, but eventually plateaus as the team falls into its new WoW. Things have gotten better, but without concerted effort to improve you discover that team productivity plateaus.


Figure 1. Team effectiveness when adopting a prescriptive method or framework (click to enlarge).

Some of the feedback that we get about Figure 1 is that this can’t be, given that the claim is that with Scrum you can do twice the work in half the time. Sadly this claim of 4X productivity improvement doesn’t seem to hold water in practice. A recent studycovering 155 organizations, 1,500 waterfall and 1,500 agile teams found actual productivity increases of agile teams, mostly following Scrum, to be closer to 7 to 12 percent. At scale, where the majority of organizations have adopted SAFe, the improvement goes down to 3 to 5 percent.

We are constantly running into teams that have adopted a prescriptive agile method, very often Scrum or SAFe, that have plateaued because they’ve run into one or more issues not directly addressed by their chosen framework/method. Because the method doesn’t address the problem(s) they face, and because they don’t have expertise in that area, they tend to flounder – Ivar Jacobson has coined the term “they’re stuck in method prison.”