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Agile’s Secret Sauce

Agile – The rose and its thorns


Many times Agile adoption and transformation are approached in a very clinical, mechanical way, and the deep change aspect, where people are concerned, is not considered to the correct levels, leaving people in a confused and uncertain state. These transformations missing Agile’s secret sauce, become stale and leads to all sorts of negative outcomes (retention issues, lack of innovation, wasted time and money, etc.)

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My journey as a student of Agile started about seventeen years ago, just after those seventeen visionaries signed the Agile manifesto at the Snowbird ski resort in the Wasatch mountains of Utah (Beck et al., 2001). Through the years, as I became proficient in the various Agile principles, practices and methodologies, the answer to one question kept on alluding me. Why is it that some companies struggle so much in adopting Agile, whereas the other seems to take it on in their stride? Of course, I was always ready with answers like Management resisting change, a company’s culture at odds with Agile values, lack of Agile training, previous bad experiences, co-location issues, etc. (Dikert, Paasivaara & Lassenius, 2016). These challenges even though quite important to know and to understand, is typically not the true root cause of these companies’ issues. Understanding the true root cause will help to understand the secret sauce that makes Agile work.

Once while attending a backlog grooming session at a very large payments firm, the software development manager became very emotional when a senior leader kept on pushing the teams to deliver more. One of the things she blurted out affected me profoundly. She said, “You just do not understand the heart of Agile!” This woman became arguably one of the most successful Agile coaches South Africa has ever seen. During a Lean coffee event at the 2015 national Scrum gathering, one Scrum Master made really insightful contributions. At one point, she declared, “I really care and am passionate about people.” That was her secret sauce, but could it be that this was the answer I was looking for?

Agile transformation or Agile adoption is something that most companies either aspire to or are busy with. VersionOne (2016) states that 94% of their respondents indicated that their organizations are practicing Agile, even though large parts of these organizations are not Agile. We are quickly getting to a saturation point. The question will then not be; “Who is implementing Agile?” but rather, “Who is implementing Agile best?” The question companies then need to ask is, “What secret sauce is making the one implementation better than the other?”

Agile is far more than the latest buzzwords we hear all the time, e.g. devops, velocity, MVP, release train, MoSCoW, Kano Analysis, planning poker, epics, BDD, TDD, mob development, etc. (Miles, 2011; SolutionsIQ, 2017). I realized very early in my career why I was attracted to Agile. It is because the heart of Agile cares about the customer and the people working to make the customer happy. This, in essence, is what sets Agile apart from all other methodologies. Agile encompasses a number of methodologies and serve as an umbrella to them (Alam & Chandra, 2014:39)

Three of the four Agile values (Individuals and interactions, customer collaboration and responding to change) speak to the caring nature of Agile (Beck et al., 2001). According to Kairi (2011:16) principles 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 all speak to caring, responsibility and motivation. That is a massive 50% of the principles! Kairi (2011:45) observed further in his case study that caring did not fare well among the people, in respect to other practices and principles.

Why is there so much retention issues, even in “Agile” companies? Kotzé and Roodt (2005:50)  warned that people leave managers and not companies and that what employees want the most is fair treatment, care/concern and trust, and better communication.

It has been proven that the shift towards Agile and Agile methods is quite hard (Hajjdiab & Al Shaima Taleb, 2011; Hundermark, 2015). What makes Agile so hard? Agile methods are generally quite simple; the practices are quite straightforward. Why is it that even though half of the principles and 3 out of 4 values speak to caring, that we still fail to care? Caring, is at the heart of the Agile mindset and philosophy. Caring, is where the real mindset change comes into place, the real reason why and how culture is impacted. Some Agile implementations fail because it is rushed and not enough time is spent in transforming to a caring culture. Similarly, if the transformation is not assisted by highly experienced and caring Agile coaches, the implementation might have less than optimal results.

People need to make a conscious decision to come out of their shells, their seclusion, be humble and make a decision to really care about the needs of their team members and for leaders, their subordinates.

Many leaders already realize that and see the façade of caring as a competitive edge. They will speak the words, but in essence, the drive is still for money. The mentality is to do whatever it takes to win the next client or deal. This façade, unfortunately, is for many people transparent and these companies will keep on having retention issues and Agile implementations will fail. In general, the Millennials and Gen Z have proven that they will not stand for fake behaviour. They long for and desire authentic “real” people. What these leaders fail to realize, is that the money will follow true caring. If you really care about your customer and your people, the money will follow.

Of course, the balance also needs to be struck. Marchenko and Abrahamsson (2008:6) indicated that there is something like too much caring as well. Agile values, principles and practices need to be perceived as a full package and not as a shopping cart, selecting what I am graving after for the day and leave the rest. Unfortunately, it is the caring elements of the Agile values and principles that are mostly left on the shelves and hence many companies will keep on with poor implementations of Agile and a workforce that do not reach their full potential.

What is Agile’s secret sauce then? It is truly caring about people. Not that it is so much of a secret, but more of a purposeful neglect, as to really care about people, means moving out of our own comfort zone and giving of ourselves.


Alam, S.S. & Chandra, S. 2014. Agile Software Development : Novel Approaches For Software Engineering. 36–40.

Beck, K., Martin, R., Cockburn, A., Fowler, M. & Highsmith, J. 2001. Agile Manifesto. Available: [2016, May 30].

Dikert, K., Paasivaara, M. & Lassenius, C. 2016. Challenges and success factors for large-scale agile transformations: A systematic literature review. Journal of Systems and Software. 119:87–108. DOI: 10.1016/j.jss.2016.06.013.

Hajjdiab, H. & Al Shaima Taleb. 2011. Adopting Agile Software Development: Issues and Challenges. International Journal of Managing Value and Supply Chains. 2(3):1–10. DOI: 10.5121/ijmvsc.2011.2301.

Hundermark, P. 2015. Do Better Scrum. Cape Town: InfoQ. Available:

Kairi, T. 2011. Coaching agile software development teams : A case study from mentoring viewpoint.

Kotzé, K. & Roodt, G. 2005. Factors that affect the retention of managerial and specialist staff: An exploratory study of an employee commitment model. SA Journal of Human Resource Management. 3(2):48–55. DOI: 10.4102/sajhrm.v3i2.65.

Marchenko, A. & Abrahamsson, P. 2008. Scrum in a multiproject environment: An ethnographically-inspired case study on the adoption challenges. Proceedings – Agile 2008 Conference. 15–26. DOI: 10.1109/Agile.2008.77.

Miles, C. 2011. Agile Buzz words. Available: [2018, May 01].

SolutionsIQ. 2017. Agile Glossary. Available: [2018, May 01].

VersionOne. 2016. The 11th annual state of Agile report. Available:

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