It isn't easy being agile, as Universal Credit and BBC DMI have learned

It is becoming a truism that if you want to be a digital business, you need to adopt agile software development.

It’s certainly true that most pure-play e-commerce companies are built around agile thinking, as are most tech startups. And there is growing acceptance in big corporates too. But it’s increasingly clear that agile is not a panacea, and if it’s handled badly it’s something of a curse.

Two high-profile recent examples demonstrate this.

The BBC’s Digital Media Initiative, scrapped at a cost of nearly £100m, has already led to the sacking of chief technology officer John Linwood – although he is now taking legal action against the broadcaster in response.

In evidence he submitted to a Public Account Committee hearing, Linwood said that agile methods were adopted from the start, but added, “After the business objected to this approach, we stopped.”

Analysis of the project by the National Audit Office implies that many of the problems started at that point, as development continued with unclear and changing requirements, and little ownership from the business.

Look too at Universal Credit, the government’s troubled welfare reform programme. It also started as agile – heralded by secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith as the magic bullet that would avoid IT failures.

Agile proved too much for the project to handle, and they soon reverted to conventional methods, and down a path that led to millions of pounds of IT work being wasted.

What seems common to both of these projects is a lack of engagement from the business – or perhaps to put it in another way – a lack of the IT department making sure the business understands the detailed involvement that users need to have in the agile approach.

The old cliché says there is no such thing as an IT project, only business projects. It’s certainly true to say there is no such thing as an agile IT project, only an agile business project.

Agile requires a change in thinking and management that crosses departmental and functional boundaries. It’s not just a different way of writing code. It’s a sure fire way to break down historic barriers between IT and the business, and to get IT managers intimately involved with the priorities of their business counterparts.

But it’s increasingly apparent that agile will only succeed if the implications are understood by the business, and there’s no getting away from IT leaders having to take the responsibility for educating them.