Blog: The #1 Reason Agile Fails its Promises

The #1 Reason Agile Fails its Promises

You could probably come up with a long list of reasons why Agile transformation might struggle in your organization, and I would likely agree with many of them, but when you really break them down, they all align under one overarching reason for why your organization struggles to see the full promises of Agile.

The #1 cause of struggle in Agile is not enough focus on aligning with Agile principles – the why. In other words, getting stuck in Shu-Ha and never crossing over into Ri. More on Shu-Ha-Ri below.

Doing Agile vs. Being Agile

I would not have to look far to find folks that say they are doing Agile. After all, they are doing Agile practices such as ScrumKanban, or Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) every day. This is true.

The problem I have found, however, is that teams and organizations lock in on the things that are done so much that they overlook why they do what they do.

It becomes more about adopting new practices and following the latest trends in methodology than developing a foundational mindset for how work should be done in the first place. The thing is, many focus so much on doing Agile without enough focus on being Agile.

Therefore, I am strongly asserting that too much focus on doing Agile (methodology) may be the biggest obstacle to Agile transformation success.


ShuHaRi, or Shuhari, or Shu-Ha-Ri is a Japanese stages of learning concept that applies well to Agile transformation.

Shu is that stage where you are learning from a teacher and follow exactly what is taught and how to perform the tasks without much regard for theory or why. Even if there are multiple ways to perform a task, you will concentrate on the one way instructed.

Ha is that stage where you are now learning from other teachers and beginning to think about why and the theories behind the practices. You may mix and match some teachings from various teachers.

Shu-Ha is where most people stop, so when situations present that do not fit the learned prescriptions, they do not know what to do.

Timeless Agility is about going from Shu-Ha to Ri.

Ri is where you aren’t really learning from other people any more. You may borrow and edit practices you learned along the way, perhaps sharing ideas, but you are also more likely creating your own ways of working based on your own experience and learned mindset based on what your specific team or circumstance requires.

Shu-Ha is “doing” Agile and Ri is “being” Agile.

The Agile Misunderstanding

When the term Agile becomes synonymous with a methodology or a set of practices, it is natural then to see it as something you do or implement. This leads to phrases like, “this project was implemented using Agile” or “our team is doing Agile.”

Then, if you fail to see results from these practices, somehow Agile is at fault. But I challenge you to think about this differently.

Consider that Agile is not something you do, but rather it is the way you go about what you do; the reason you do what you do. Consider that Agile is really the values and principles you work by, the concepts you believe in, from which everything you end up doing is built upon.

It is not as important that you use Scrum, or any other Agile methodology, as it is that you develop a strong, timeless, Agile mindset and determine what you do based off of that.

“Agile is not something you do, it is something you are,” is not just some catchy slogan, it is truth.

Agile Does Not Fail, You Do

I will be the first to admit that prescribed agile methodologies are not a fit for everything. But as I write in Why the Agile Manifesto is the Foundation for Timeless Agility, it would be a hard sell to suggest that the Agile values and principles cannot work well for any organization in any industry.

It is important to first understand where the blame sits for any Agile transformation struggle. It sits with you and your organization.

You may execute your methodologies perfectly (ShuHa), but still be at risk of failing to fulfill the promises of Agile because you fail to equally develop the required Agile mindset.

As I ask in 3 Reasons to Value the Agile Mindset Over Methodology,
“You are focused on executing your Agile methodology well, but the question is, are you more focused on doing Agile or being Agile? Is there even a difference or is this some semantical nuance wrapped in a cliché?

It may sound cliché to say something like, “Agile is not something you do, it is something you are,” or “do not focus on doing Agile, but rather on being Agile,” but make no mistake, failing to embody the values and principles of Agile, to become Agile, is the number one reason for Agile transformation struggles.

Agile is a mindset, a way of thinking that informs how work should be done. What you actually implement, the methodologies and frameworks, that is where you can go wrong. You cannot go wrong embracing timeless agility concepts, but you can definitely go wrong in what you attempt to do as a practice.


Success in Agile is not about how well you implement and perform your methodology and practices – it is about how well you live out the values and principles that define agile and lean thinking.

You first need to understand that Agile is a mindset, not solely tactical things you learn to do. Frameworks are great ways to learn and move in the right direction, but ultimately what you do does not matter so long as it aligns with the core values and principles of Agile thinking.

It is also important to understand that Agile thinking works across all sorts of industries and workflows. While Agile may not fit every situation and team, failure sits in the lap of people, not the concept. People fail to embrace the proper mindset. People fail to use frameworks and practices appropriately and in alignment with those values and principles. People fail to push beyond Shu-Ha and into Ri.

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