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Agile development an 'IT fad' that risks iterative failure

Agile promises continuous improvement through an iterative process, but without proper checks, project failure is commonplace

Over half of CIOs have discredited agile development, according to a survey commissioned by London-based technology services firm, 6Point6.

Three-quarters of the 300 UK and US-based CIOs surveyed said they were no longer prepared to defend it. Half said they now think of agile as “an IT fad”.

Chris Porter, CTO of 6Point6 and author of An agile agenda: how CIOs can navigate the post-agile era whitepaper on which the survey results are based, said: “CIOs tell us they expect to undertake six agile projects next year.” According to the survey, CIOs predict two of these fail completely.

One of the key tenets of an agile methodology is that it is an iterative process, where errors can be quickly resolved through continuous improvement.

However, according to 6Point6, while fail fast is an intoxicating prospect, in practice, it can blur the distinction between continuous improvement and genuine failure.

Specifically, Porter believes in agile projects it is hard to know when an agile project is on the road to ruin. He warned the iterative process may lead to iteratively improving, one failure at a time, towards the wrong outcome.

“At no point will this become obvious in the same way it would if you were constrained and measured by a combination of time, budget and scope,” he said.

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“Unless you are paying close attention all the time, your agile project could easily be hurtling towards disaster without you even knowing it,” said Porter. “This may explain why one in three projects fails. It’s a very poor hit rate.”

The study found 44% of failed agile projects did so because of a lack of documentation. According to Porter, this is a symptom of short termism in agile, which does not acknowledge that software development teams do not last forever and handover is inevitable. “That will require comprehensive documentation,” he said.

Projects fail due to lack of planning

Adequate planning is another factor contributing to agile project failures, according to 6Point6.

Its research showed 34% of agile project failures occur as a result of a lack of up-front planning. Porter recommended organisations put in place agile planning, both to reassure CIOs of progress towards strategic goals and to coordinate distributed agile at scale.

Over two-thirds of the CIOs who took part in the survey (68%) believed agile projects would benefit from more IT architects. The architects’ role is to define strategy, champion technical requirements – such as performance and security – and ensure development teams stick with agreed architectural guidelines.

Porter said the role of the architect is sorely missed in the agile space and needs to be reintroduced. The 6Point6 research research found just under a third of projects fail because teams are geographically disbursed. 

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