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Why Does Everyone Avoid the Discussion of Backsliding in Agile?

8 November 2013

John Holmes

For a number of years now, the executives at my company and at others that I have worked with ignore the fact that backsliding is an issue in Agile organizations. By backsliding, I mean that we start our team with the proper training, coaching, and support, in order to reach our initial Agile goals. Once met, we want to go into a "sustaining" mode, which truly means that we want to spend less money on training, coaching, and the very support that made us successful. Within a short amount of time, our teams start to regress or backslide into their old development methods, or they start modifying the Agile principles and practices into something that is more about "doing some Agile things" than actually doing Agile. It is like a bad diet, in that you lose 20 pounds only to gain 25 pounds back because you start eating cheaper and less healthful foods, drop your gym membership, and go back to the bad habits that made you obese in the first place.

We all know that backsliding is happening. We all have our private stories that we discuss at lunch or the cocktail hours at the Agile conferences that we attend. But why is it that when I asked some of the big vendors for data to support my hypothesis that backsliding is more prevalent in the Agile industry than we want to admit, they cannot get their clients to confirm or deny this (or at least publicly confirm or deny)? Why is it that most of the authors and notable consultants agree with me that this is a good topic but never produce any examples, white papers, or articles about it?

My fear is that unless we have these open and honest discussions as a community, our executives, managers, and sponsors may underestimate the issue of backsliding and unintentionally undermine the steady progress that thousands of Agile teams have made in the past decade. Is there interest in surfacing this major impediment, or should we ignore the 800-pound gorilla, as one may say? I don't think that we need to name our companies, but if we stated that a major airline, financial investment group, travel company, insurance company, and aerospace company have experienced backsliding, and we analyzed why, we all could learn and prevent this from proliferating throughout the industry. After all, the success of Agile has been in our ability to share our lessons learned and to retrospect. Let's share these backsliding issues and prevent them proactively, not reactively.

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Phillip Stiby, CSM, 11/8/2013 4:21:01 AM
I'd have to say if your team reach a state of perfection and you enter "sustaining" then well done, but the reality is nothing is perfect, people change over time, there social interaction, drivers, family life all impact on the team. So with each sprint you need to reflect and improve and if your not then that's when complacency sets in which is the rot we are trying to weed out of the industry in the first place.
John Holmes, CSM,CSPO, 11/21/2013 10:52:10 AM
Thanks Phillip but I am not talking about one team or a few teams. We are talking about hundreds that continually change in staffing etc. The teams do well but when budgets are cut and our support roles redcued, the teams will regress.

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