Why Agile Is Hard to Sell

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prompted by this frustrated tweet

As an ex employee in big consultancy, I got to know the terminology: ‘Fixed time/Fixed price’, and ‘Time and Materials’. The first meant you were on a death march, trying to finish a project within very tight deadlines, badly negociated by overconfident salespeople. The second was a dream for every consultant: you were on a retainer, with enough room to get everything done. But for some reasons those projects were few and far between.

Agile is a methodology invented by developers for developers. It is based on simple common sense – instead of wasting time writing specs in advance, let’s start development and grow docs organically as we go. Instead of promising to nail meaningless deadlines, let’s make projections for a couple of weeks at most.

But that last point is exactly why agile is hard to sell to management.

As a manager, you’re either accountable to higher management, directly to your shareholder, or to your bank or family. So you don’t need the journey, you need the destination.

This is probably why the waterfall methodologies exist in the first place: they offer reassurance. Your boss can turn to his boss and hand over technical specs, use cases, architecture documents, and most of all a timetable, effectively saying everything is under control.

Even though those documents are full of useless drivel, and the milestones are a joke: there are risk assessments, man hours, budgets, and all kind of numbers that can be used as proof that yes, something is being done.

Now as an agilist, you arrive and say, very zen-like: we will do what we can, it will take the time it takes (but you will like the result). This kind of talk will probably drive your average manager’s blood pressure through the roof.

Ways I see to address this:

  • PR: make sure they understand they will have full disclosure of the process. They might not have documentation upfront, but they will be informed, and even involved every step of the way. Control in the process, not in the snapshots.
  • Corollary: the process must very clearly be controlled. The impression outsiders get is that agile is vague and we-invent-things-as-we-go. It should be clear that a strict methodology is being followed, with focus on the end result.
  • there’s no way around it: you’ll need to make sure the customer has a result they can use at the end of the day. There will be some sort of deadline: if you don’t think you can have anything meaningful by then, on the budget they’re on, it might be better to leave it at that.

What are your experiences ? How do you sell agile ‘Time and Materials’ projects to your customers ?