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Top Ten Organizational Impediments

2 April 2009

When we were writing the "Organization" chapter in Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-scale Scrum we asked a group of agile development experts working in and with large companies about the most challenging impediments their organizations faced. We aggregated their responses into a list of what we call the top ten organizational impediments.

10. Failure to Remove Organizational Impediments

Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum, considers the failure to remove organizational impediments to be the main obstacle facing large organizations. Common reasons for not removing impediments are "That's the way we've always done business" and "We won't change because we invested so much in this."

9. Misguided Cost Savings and Synergy Efforts

Peter Alfvin, an experienced development manager involved with introducing lean principles at Xerox, and Petri Haapio, head of the agile coaching department at Reaktor Innovations, both mentioned centralized departments looking for cost savings and synergy, leading to local optimization as an impediment. They offered several examples of these misguided efforts. The first was a centralized tool department that required all departments to use the same tool. This well-intentioned savings slowed development efforts for at least one group because the "mandatory tool" didn't fit the job they were doing. Also cited was a time when the so-called furniture police forced all groups to use cubicles in order to standardize and minimize cost. This led to inefficient workplaces for many teams. Another example was the IT department limiting video conferencing to lower network traffic, which hurt teams who depended on that method of communication.

8. Lack of Training

Sami Lilja, global coordinator of agile development activities at Nokia Siemens Networks, noticed that some organizations seem to consider learning a waste of time and money. Those organizations tend to educate and coach people only "when there is time for it." This distorted view results in a vicious fire-fighting cycle—mistakes made because of constricted developer skills, followed by hasty emergency repairs and a management team unwilling to allot time to analyze the causes of the mistakes, then more mistakes made.

7. Single-Function Groups

Larry Cai, a specialist at Ericsson Shanghai, mentions functional organizations (single-function groups) as one of the largest impediments to becoming agile. These single function groups create barriers for communication and abet finger-pointing among units.

6. Local vs Global Optimization

Esther Derby, consultant, coach, expert facilitator, and author of two books related to organizational learning, considers systems that foster local optimization over global optimization a major barrier to success. She gave several examples of these systems, including management by objectives(MBO)and budgeting systems.

5. Assumption that Book Learning is Enough

Mike Bria, a former agile coach at Siemens Medical Systems, mentioned what he called "do-it-yourself home improvement" as an impediment. He said that many people mistakenly believe that they "know how now" after reading one or two books, proving the truism that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. These organizations usually do not bring in outside expertise, electing instead to do it themselves. Lasse Koskela, the author of Test-Driven, mentions a similar impediment, what he calls an "unwillingness to look outside the organization."

4. Individual Performance Evaluation and Reward

A trainer (name removed on request) at one of the largest e-commerce sites, mentioned individual performance evaluation and reward as a major obstacle he had noticed. These archaic practices frustrate developers and managers on agile teams, hinder team performance, and foster command-and-control management.

3. Unrealistic Promises

Lü Yi, an agile trainer and department manager of a large development group in Nokia Siemens Networks in Hangzhou, considers "commitment games" and unrealistic promises to be a leading organizational obstacle. Unrealistic expectations lead to shortcuts, continuous fire fighting, and legacy code. We cover this topic in more detail in the "Legacy Code" chapter of the companion book, Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development.

2. Assuming Agile Is All About Developers

Diana Larsen, expert facilitator and, together with Esther Derby, author of Agile Retrospectives cited this impediment, "Assuming it's all about developers." Too often, organizations mistakenly assume that agile and lean involves only developers. They don't understand that a successful move to agile requires a shift in thinking and behavior at multiple levels of the organization.

1. Silver bullet thinking and superficial adoption

Almost everybody we interviewed cited some version of silver bullet thinking and superficial adoption as an impediment. Dave Thomas, founder of OTI, large-scale lean product development consultant, and managing director of ObjectMentor, spoke eloquently about this problem. He said that many companies make the mistake of equating agility with productivity, rather than with adaptability. This, coupled with a lack of educated executives, leads to the mistaken notion that agility is some kind of silver bullet. This, in turn, fosters the belief that meaningful problems can be solved by saying "we do agile" and going through the motions of doing so, with no deep understanding or change by the leadership team. Ironically, because this behavior leads to no real change and no real result, these same organizations eventually abandon lean/agile principles because they "don't work." 

A related impediment is the wishful thinking that significant improvement in large product groups can and will happen fast, within only a few years. In reality, significant improvement in large organizations can take five or ten years—if there is sustained executive support.

Our Two Cents Worth

After publishing this top ten list, we decided to add our own personal favorite organizational impediments to the list. The first impediment we have uncovered is a culture of individual workers rather than real teams and teamwork. Too many groups of individuals disguised as teams are ostensibly adopting Scrum, yet they still have the mindset of "Jill does Jill's tasks, Raj does Raj's tasks and so forth." These organization have yet to move as a whole team together, pairing and multi-learning within the group.

The second impediment we see is the gap between people in management roles and those doing the hands-on work. Frequently, changes made at the management level have no impact (or at least, no positive impact) whatsoever on the actual work. Similarly, decisions by hands-on developers are often not aligned with the direction of the organization. This gap is caused by managers who do not go and see the real place of work—sometimes because they have lost the skill to do so—and by developers who do not think outside their normal job responsibilities—they are "retired on the job." The gap leads to shallow agile and lean adoptions that happen either only on the management level—without any change in technical practices—or only on the development level—without any change in the organization. The lean practices of go and see and managers-as-teachers help to reduce this gap.

The replies from the agile development experts validated our own experience and acknowledged that we were covering the right topics. The remainder of the "Organization" chapter in the book explores these organizational obstacles and what you can do about them.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Richard Perrin, CSM, 4/7/2009 1:05:49 AM
Many of the issues mentioned trace back to W. Edwards Deming's 'seven deadly diseases' of management: particularly the sub-optimization of the business in favor of local optimization, Management by Objectives, individual performance evaluating and rewarding. Deming also made the point that efforts to deliver real improvement often must initially come from outside the organization because the organization cannot see itself clearly.

However point 8 - some organizations 'consider learning a waste of time and money' - speaks to one of Deming's most famous quotes: "learning is not compulsory, neither is survival". Make point 8 your mantra and your competitors will eat you for breakfast.

Finally, the last point by Bas is straight out of one of the 14 points of the Toyota Production system: Go and see for yourself... (Point #12).

These observations are right on the money in my experience and are a great supplement to the Standish Group Top Ten reasons for project failure.
Luis Xavier Baena Mourão, CSM, 4/13/2009 9:53:32 AM
The biggest impediment is definitely what you have called the "Silver bullet thinking and superficial adoption", i.e. "yeah, do it, but don't bug me about it". And this is a horribly difficult impediment to resolve as it requires confronting the guys who are buttering your bread with the fact that their commitment is bull...!

Unfortunately I haven't seen or heard of a way for normal people who depend on their job to pay their bills, for confronting a CEO with this simple fact without jeopardizing their pay-checks. And let's face it, how many Scrum practitioners are that brave, independent of means or stupid?

As long as there is no clear commitment from the top that is backed by explicit action from management, then the odds are not with you and the message is that it's a fad like many others that will fade away after a while, so no reason to get all excited about it.

And with that as a starting point... well then all the impediments in the world are automatically built-in and natural to your stakeholders and teams mindset off the starting block... good luck!
Vetrivel Shanmugasundaram, CSM, 4/15/2009 3:17:39 AM
One of the key areas that i have observed in the Organizational Impediments (10) is offshore software vendors ability to adapt to agile model and move away from their traditional software development model. Mostly the choice to the offshore development team is to follow agile along with their regular processes. So the team ends up having a status meeting after their stand-ups, having a detail project plan along with their backlog tracker, conducting process audits along with sprint reviews. This has a large impact on team morale as they are not sure whether agile is helping them or it is simply a burden.
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 5/6/2009 10:02:47 AM
From my perspective point 2 could be extended to something like "Assuming Agile Is All About Developers and Quality Engineers" or even better use a generalization of the concept to something like "Assuming Agile Is All About Technical Staff".
The reason why I named QEs is because I've seen in some organizations that developers do believe, and in fact, try to apply Scrum principles whereas QEs still try to stick to the old rules. Further, from a traditional management perspective it's times easier to monitor teams using measurable indicator. This itself could be another impediment.
Nicholas Cancelliere, CSM, 5/7/2009 1:29:13 PM
In my experience the biggest impediments I've run into are: superficial adoption, thinking it's all about the developers, lack of training and individual performance evaluation.

I just left a company where the business wanted to dictate specific times when features had to be finished, but failed to organize the backlog to priority (instead they gamed it trying to guess when to get features by which dates). In addition they never wrote acceptance criteria for stories and often will dictate the "how" and not the "what" to implementing features. In short it falls into a superficial adoption, where command and control is maintained and servant leadership is a bad word. Folks like to say they're embracing Agile - but they like to cherry pick, and in the end it's just as dysfunctional as what was before.
Alan Shalloway, CSM, 8/2/2009 9:19:00 AM
An excellent list and comments. Thanks. One needs to ask - and how does my process, thinking, methodology (whatever you want to call it) help me remove these impediments. Bringing them to the surface is not enough.
David Harvey, CSM, 8/9/2009 2:06:32 PM
>> 8. Lack of Training
Ah, but training != learning. And in particular, more learning is not a necessary consequence of more training...
Mike Collins, CSM, 8/13/2009 3:21:40 PM
I understand the need to build cohesive and motivated teams but referring to individual performance evaluation as "archaic" seems very extreme to me. Are we really expected to build organizations that don't recognize individual achievement? What we need here is balance, not ideology.
Dean Grant, CSM, 9/29/2009 9:48:28 AM
I too disagree with the comment on individual performance review and reward. It is a truism that people perform the tasks at work that they are rewarded for. The issue should be that the individual performance should be aligned with team, not individual, goals.
Jay Conne, CSM, 11/8/2011 11:14:00 AM
Thank you for this list. I never find development teams not getting it. They really appreciate the respect we offer them - especially respect for their judgement and responsibility.

Organizational impediments take many forms, e.g.
- A PMO member tries to force their superficial, prescriptive behavior and understanding rather than take responsibility to fit practices to context. Sometimes it just the same old power game.
- A CEO of a small, very successful company places himself as the only authority on acceptance of every user-facing feature. The POs on teams are reduced to message carriers.

Points 10, 8, 6 & 5 are all factors in these examples.

We are lacking an integrating philosophy that explains the why of Agile. I think it's largely about honesty about the business context and about people's knowledge. Going back to Deming - is it safe to say, "I don't know?"
Scott Duncan, CSM, 11/8/2011 4:11:44 PM
Perhaps this fits into other categories, but I find a major impediment to be lack of concensus as to why an Agile approach (Scrum or otherwise) is being attempted in the organization. I have seen folks, when I come in after many months of them doing some form of an Agile approach, debating what Agile means. This is both as a concept and in terms of its meaning to the organization. This can make it rather difficult to get traction for change since where the organization is at that time from an Agile perspective is viewed very differently by different people. So people's interest in and tolerance for any (more) change varies greatly.
Krzysztof Nosek, CSM,CSPO, 11/8/2011 5:22:11 PM
Where does inherent trust shortage, or fear of empowering people fit? Is it included in no. 1, or too obvious to mention? Or didn't it make its way to the list, since it's a general - not only anti-agile - organisational and managerial impediment? The problem may be not apparent at the beginning, but it can take various shapes over time, often camouflaged, and it maliciously commutes with "old power game" that @Jay wrote about.
Gene Gendel, CEC,CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 7/30/2014 1:00:27 PM
@David H. & Mike C. - supporting a pursuit of individual achievements, that is frequently (and inevitably) done at expense of a bigger common cause is, indeed, a big problem. I strongly agree with #4 above (but no less – with other bullets)

Extrinsic motivators to "achieve" that are targeted at individuals, not teams, do cause conflicts of interest and do bring harm. Transitioning from Tribe Level 3 to Tribe Level 4 (agile culture) is very hard when people think "I", "I", "I", not "we", "we", "we"... I am using David Logan's terminology here (Tribal Leadership by David Logan sums it up well).

As far as motivation goes, there is no need for much of it when we deal with intellectual workers that genuinely like what they do and do care about their personal professional growth. They will care about personal growth regardless of extrinsic motivation.
Carrot and stick motivation really has a limited power. Daniel Pink's "Drive" (about motivation theories) summarizes this extremely well. Motivation 3.0 is needed for transitioning from Logan's Tribe Level 3 to Tribe Level 4. I have more on this here.
Latha Swamy, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 7/31/2014 12:59:58 PM
"Fear of Failing" masquerades itself as reasons and justifications rather than just telling the truth when results are not produced!
Removing this fear requires a new mindset!

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