Most Software Development Projects Fail: Here’s Why (And What to Do Instead)

Mallory Merrill

Agile Projects

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If Agile works, why are there so many failed projects?

Studies show that the Agile Method has a 64% success rate compared to traditional models, and 97% of organizations believe that a sustainable project management process is critical to success.

But when it comes to Agile, successful implementation isn’t always guaranteed. There are a number of reasons Agile projects fail, but the good news is that there are also ways to avoid these pitfalls.

Here’s what you should know to improve your chances of seeing positive results.

Why Agile Projects Fail

In VersionOne’s Annual State of Agile Report, they cite five major reasons for Agile failure:

1. Company philosophy or culture at odds with core Agile values

The breakdown of Agile often happens at a higher leadership level. Management is either not aware of how to change, or not fully committed to the process. If an organization’s culture is ignorant or even hostile towards change, then projects will ultimately fail at every level.

2. A lack of experience with Agile methods

Many organizations don’t have the budget to properly train and coach teams in using Agile. Or they’re not as familiar with Agile as they think they are, and often implement strategies that are “Agile-like” without fully embracing the Agile Method. Because the learning curve for Agile is steep, proper training and implementation is required to see it through successfully.

Source: Clearcode

3. A lack of management support

A significant change in development flow – one that’s often necessary when it comes to implementing Agile – requires cultural changes as well as additional client involvement, shifts in workflow management, and significantly more teamwork. If leadership is ill-equipped to handle these changes and support team members through the transition, it will be harder to succeed. If the Scrum Master fails, everyone fails.

4. Lack of team support for transition

In one survey, 36% of respondents cited that one the biggest reasons Agile projects fail is because “senior leadership holds the most leverage in facilitating the transformation of an organization’s culture to one that embraces agile.” Agile success is dependent on teamwork and cooperation, but projects can fail if leadership takes on too much of the process. In his paper, The Story Behind The High Failure Rates In The IT Industry, Robert Goatham notes that the primary reason IT projects fail in general is due to too many (of the wrong) people involved in the process.

5. Inconsistent practices and processes

Successful Agile projects require time, and rushing jobs, skipping feedback, or taking shortcuts can short-change the process. If the entire team is not committed to seeing a project through and practicing elements of Agile the way they’re meant to be practiced, success rates will drop.

Source: VersionOne

How to Improve the Agile Process

While there’s no quick-fix solution for overcoming these obstacles, there are still things you can do to improve the Agile process to see better results.

1. Collaboration

Agile projects require significant collaboration, of which the Scrum Master is the key. The Scrum Master’s role is to help the team accomplish the necessary tasks without being overloaded. Part of this requires team members to have more control over their capacity.

For example, if the Product Owner is asking for a particular story in a Sprint, but the team doesn’t believe they can finish it in time, there may be conflicts in capacity that arise. The Scrum Master, as a “team coach”, should encourage team members to set their capacity and make sure that the rest of the team is following Scrum best practices.

Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum, has stated that one of the primary causes of a successful Sprint is management not overloading or adding work in the middle of the process. Teams who can focus on single tasks are ultimately more productive.

2. Communication

The first guiding principle behind the Agile Manifesto states that: "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software."

This means that it’s the Product Owner’s responsibility to identify the desired outcomes of the project and the value it will provide for the customer, and to clearly communicate that to team members at every level.

These outcomes may need to be reassessed on an ongoing basis, and feedback from team members, the Scrum Master, and the clients are all essential to the process. The Product Owner must take charge of sharing the vision so the team can accomplish their goals.

Source: VersionOne

3. Planning

Another key to successful Agile project management is roadmapping. According to VersionOne, project managers were 13% less likely to use roadmapping tools in 2014 than in 2013.

A roadmap is every bit as important to an Agile team as it is to a Waterfall team because it provides context to daily work, helps teams respond to shifts in workflow, and assists in completing projects quicker.

In most agile product development organizations, the backlog defines the product features for the immediate future, keeping the development team aware of what Sprints or Iterations are coming next. But roadmaps provide a more strategic view that can help the team overcome roadblocks and work more efficiently.

It's important to create a goal-oriented product roadmap, sometimes called a theme-based roadmap. Goal-oriented roadmaps focus on goals or objectives, like acquiring customers, increasing engagement, and removing technical debt.

By ensuring that every team member – from the Product Owner to the Scrum Master to the development team – is fully aware of what’s happening at any given stage, you can improve productivity and spot errors sooner in the process.

Leadership could continue to communicate vision during sluggish periods where workflow is backed up, and find ways of helping the team collaborate effectively.

Final Thoughts

There are many other reasons why an Agile project may fail, but for the majority of teams it comes down to lack of experience and support from both management and team members.

Proper training and coaching through the process can help alleviate some of these pain points. Management and higher levels of leadership must also accept the necessary change required for successful implementation.

Having a goal-oriented plan (roadmap) in place can help give vision and provide strategic solutions to problems throughout the process, ensuring that every team member is properly supported and can achieve the necessary objectives in the right amount of time.

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