When Success With Agile Looks Like Failure

The tone on the call was dour and gloomy. The international team I was leading through an Agile transformation had completed its third sprint, and all three were 'bad' in terms of work completed. A senior VP was on the line with me, the co-product owners, a couple of teams leads, and one or two others from the business. We meticulously talked through the various reasons why things hadn't gone to plan, referring often to the retrospective notes that I'd compiled at the end of each sprint with the team. Chief among our problems were story point estimates that were too optimistic, 'emergency' work that came in, and extra work finding its way in without being accounted for. As I've indicated, people weren't happy. And then, it occurred to me that the group wasn't seeing the bigger picture.

"Let me ask something," I said, "would these issues have come up if we hadn't changed anything?"

Long pause. I asked again:

"If we had not adopted an Agile approach, using scrum, would there still have been emergencies, extra work being done and crowding planned work, and estimates of what can be done that were too rosy?"

Various voices spoke up in agreement.

"Okay, so that means what we're doing is working. If we hadn't adopted an Agile approach, with scrum, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now because we wouldn't understand as clearly that there's a problem. We might feel like something's wrong, as this team did before, but we still wouldn't know what."

The mood on the call suddenly shifted, and I could almost hear the lights blinking on over people's heads. We then proceeded to discuss and plan next steps to address the problems surfaced, and got off the call feeling not that terrible. Over the course of the next several sprints, with executive support and plenty of the co-product owners and me running interference, we got it under control. The team began more consistently forecasting, planning, working, and delivering. It happened because scrum gave us the transparency we needed to collaborate effectively and work more efficiently.

Sometimes it isn't failure we're looking at in an Agile transformation. It can be, in reality, success.

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