Cultural Barriers to Agile Success
Cultural Barriers to Agile Success
Cultural Barriers to Agile Success
Cultural Barriers to Agile Success

Cultural Barriers to Agile Success

Adaptive, reactive, responsive, incremental… Excuse the buzzword bingo, but these are words that are bandied around a lot in the world of Agile.  What do they mean to you? More importantly, what do they mean to you, your team and your organisation? Embedding the philosophy of Agile is a massive challenge and takes a lot of hard work.

“The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean there are no processes. We have great processes and they make us more efficient. But that’s not what it is about. It’s ad hoc meetings, talking in hallways and calling each other at 10:30 at night to discuss a new idea or something that shoots holes in how everyone’s been thinking about a problem. This is how Apple works” – Steve Jobs

An excellent quote from Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs when asked about the inner workings of his teams. It seems like this idea of incremental, ad hoc and a seemingly loose set of processes and principles underpins how some of the biggest organisations in the world are operating.

It’s been nearly 7 years since Headforwards first came to light and Agile has been with us from the beginning. We’d never say we are 100% Agile. How can we? There isn’t a predetermined end to the process; it’s work-in-progress. But we know we’re on the right path. There will be a whole host of different issues which will stand in the way of onboarding a new methodology. Breaking through these barriers will take time and effort.

The Most Common Barriers

Fear of Experimentation

One of the biggest roadblocks by far is an organisation’s fear to try. Trying something new and untested sounds too risky. What if it fails? The fear that the failure lies with a single responsible individual is a scary thought. How will people look at us if it goes wrong? Customer perceptions of us might change. What if we lose money over this? Lots of questions that are faced when moving towards an Agile future. A willingness to change and become truly agile requires, to some extent, a leap of faith. It’s important to remind everybody that it doesn’t have to happen all at once – set up a small team who take on a project and work through it using agile processes.

Lack of Creative Time

Thinking time. Space to go over new ideas. Creativity and innovation take time. Allocating a percentage of the working day to think is a big step in the right direction. Google gives their employees 10% of a working day to do whatever they want – literally, anything work or non-work related. Coupling freedom and the absence of pressure which comes with assigned tasks will allow your team to explore their creative side.

Reluctance to Change

This goes hand in hand with the Fear of Experimentation. People will often be defensive and hostile at the idea of new things. Especially if the new “thing” is an entirely different way of thinking, operating and planning the way you work. It takes time to get buy-in from everybody. Take it step by step and, eventually, even the most reluctant people will step onboard.


What’s going to happen? How do we know what the outcome of that will be? Being uncertain is not a comfortable feeling. Agile can create an air of uncertainty and that’s okay. Creating an environment where it’s safe to feel uncertain is a challenge but essential to the success of an Agile framework.

Processes Controlling People

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” – This should be the groundwork of any organisation who is pursuing business agility. When processes and tools are seen as a way to manage a project, the way in which people approach each sub-task will require them to conform to said processes and tools. Conformity stands in the way of creativity and innovation. Value people over processes – focus on the team and their ability to innovate and problem solves without the constraints of rules defined by management style processes and tools.

Organisational Scar Tissue

“Organisations often build up scar tissue because of failures in the past” – This is a brilliant quote by Dan North at Agile on the Beach 2017. Do not allow failures to stand in the way of progress. Failing is part of life. The right way to fail is to fail fast – this is key to agile success. Testing new ideas in small iterations means it’s easier to pick up the pieces when it doesn’t work out. It’s very easy for somebody to say the old classic “We tried that once before and it didn’t work” – this might be the case, but analyse and assess what went wrong. It could have been something minor which stalled the whole project.

Competitive Advantage

A classic and often overlooked problem is thinking that what you’re doing right now, will continue to keep you ahead of the curve and, more importantly, will keep your direct competition behind you. Innovation doesn’t stop for a breather, so why continue to drive on the same slow road? Find an alternative route, adapt to change. Respond to new threats. Find a better way of doing something. Get your customers on board with your new ideas – test them in a sandbox environment.

Baby Steps

Agile requires a significant change in people’s mindsets, behaviour and an overall shift in organisational culture. The majority of these barriers can be categorised as a fear of change. Perhaps the fear comes from the idea of failure. Larger and more complex enterprises must delicately and tactically avoid conflict and rejection by taking small steps. Agile allows failure to happen quickly with minimal collateral damage.

“You need to cut through bureaucracy and prioritize ruthlessly, focusing your effort on a few key goals rather than engaging in multiple initiatives. All of these things can be difficult to do because they often require significant cultural and behavioural shifts. In my experience, the biggest barriers to agile working are a tolerance for poor behaviour and an acceptance of a conservative mindset that supports the status quo and is resistant to change.” – Leadership Connections Research in 2015, Cirrus, Simon Hayward

In the world of software development such as ours, Agile comes into its own by demonstrating the need for small, iterative releases with fewer dependencies. If something fails to achieve its goal, it can be either roll back, or in most cases fixed and re-released; all in a short enough timeframe that doesn’t affect the overall outcome. It’s a work in progress, but we’re on the right track.

We fully invest in Agile and can see the benefits first-hand.

Agile Excellence