The Curious Case of Agile

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This blog post is the first in a planned series on the current state of Agile. In it, I look into the changing dynamics of how Agile is being perceived in the world of work based on my own experience and history of working with it. This lays the groundwork for exploring the problems we are facing in more depth and looking at options we have for making Agile work more effectively.

Agile Finds Me

My journey with Agile started in 2010. I was in the middle of my 18-month training to become a project manager. My first project went poorly, and I was seriously reconsidering my career choice. By sheer luck, I happened to read an interesting article about “Agile project management”. That same day, one of my colleagues from a different division showed up late for our scheduled lunch. He said, “Sorry, I had to attend our Daily Scrum.” My eyes widened. After a lot of prodding, he promised to introduce me to the external consultant they had hired to help them become a Scrum team. A few days later, I found myself in the office with a charismatic guy slightly older than myself explaining what Agile was and what a Scrum Master does. I remember walking away from that meeting, literally shaking with excitement with a singular thought stuck in my head: “That’s what I want to do!”

By no means was I one of the pioneers of Agile. But back then most people hadn’t heard of it. The ones who were exposed to Agile thinking usually reacted by saying how it might work for really small startups. No professional company would ever do anything like that. “A hacker’s dream,” as one of my project management colleagues called it. 

Agile Grows Up

The work back then was about establishing Agile as a legitimate approach to developing products. The company I worked for saw good results. Most of the developers were happy and said they would never go back to the previous way of working. The guy who first introduced me to Agile and then mentored me played a big role. The team he worked with shipped a piece of software with zero defects in production. Not only that, the people who had to use it actually liked using it. That achievement alone was so shockingly different and completely unheard of that even the CEO took notice. 

Agile delivered results. It felt new and we were going to transform the world of work. But then something shifted. Slowly but surely Agile crossed the chasm and made it into the mainstream. When people asked what I was doing for work I started getting reactions like “Oh, yeah. I know what that is. Our company is trying to do something like that right now.” And then, much to my bewilderment, nine times out of ten, the next sentence would be “It’s not working very well.” 

Suddenly, Agile was everywhere. And people were struggling. They didn’t have the positive experience I was fortunate enough to have. Christiaan Verwijs, Barry Overeem, and I published our Zombie Scrum Survival Guide to do our part to help. Our main goal was to show what healthy Agile (or Scrum in particular) looks like and how so many companies go astray. We tried to put a humorous spin on the situation and used the metaphor of zombification because people seemed to react well to it. 

We fixed the problem and rectified Agile. Everybody is happy. 

The end.

Agile Goes Off the Rails

Okay, actually kind of the opposite happened. It seems like something is shifting again. I hear fewer voices saying “Agile isn’t working for us.” Now people say “I don’t think Agile has ever worked, anywhere.” Whoof! Like Agile is some textbook theory that only exists in a fantasy world. Like people sitting at a desk made it up and are now trying to sell an idea that has no connection to the real world whatsoever. How did we let this happen?

It seems like the reaction from the Agile community is to explain how these people are wrong and misguided. “They just don’t get it, otherwise, they’d be on our side.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to help very much. It just widens the chasm between believers and non-believers. And it steals our focus from the more important fact that, in the end, all of us just want to be successful.

Let us first acknowledge that these experiences are real. People are genuinely struggling. They’re being subjected to something that they find unhelpful at best, and at worst very harmful. If you’re reading this and have been part of some form of Agile transformation that makes you question your sanity, I am deeply sorry. We haven’t done a good job of transmitting the actual intention of our approach. You should come to work in the morning and enjoy a process that lets you do your best. A process should be there to serve you, not the other way around. 

What’s to Come

In a series of blog posts, I would like to offer my perspective on the situation and some underlying reasons. As I see it, there are at least four things that contribute to Agile’s apparent failure:

  1. Agile is popular
  2. The term “Agile” has lost its meaning
  3. Agile is hard
  4. We are bad at explaining Agile

There is obviously no easy fix for this. I’m also not arrogant enough to believe that I can turn this dynamic around by myself. However, I’ve learned in my work that transparency is a great first step. Let us look at what is happening, make sense of it, and then explore ways of improving the situation together. There’s still hope!


  • Johannes Schartau

    is a consultant, trainer, and coach for Agile product development and organizational improvement. His interests in ethnology (with a focus on Amazonian shamanism), psychology, technology, integral thinking, complexity science, and stand-up comedy finally coalesced when he was introduced to Scrum in 2010. Since then he has dedicated himself to exploring organizations from all possible angles together with their members. He aims to bring life and meaning back to the workplace by spreading Healthy Agile and Liberating Structures worldwide. Aside from his work, he is passionate about cast iron (both in the gym and the kitchen), Mixed Martial Arts, and humor. Being a proud husband and the father of two wicked boys gives his life meaning and beauty.

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