Lack of upfront specifications kill agile projects

Research looking into IT project management has found almost two-thirds of projects that use the Agile Manifesto fail.

The research, conducted for a book called Impact engineering, found 65% of software projects adopting Agile engineering practices fail to be delivered on time and within budget to a high standard of quality.

While it focuses on valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools, a poll of 600 UK and US software engineers found that projects adopting Agile Manifesto practices are 268% more likely to fail than those projects not using it.

The study showed that projects with specifications or requirements documented before development started were 50% more likely to succeed than those that didn’t, projects that had clear requirements before starting development were 97% more likely to succeed, and projects that did not require making significant requirements changes late into the development process were 7% more likely to succeed.

Junade Ali, author of Impact engineering, said: “With 65% of projects adopting Agile practices failing to be delivered on time, it’s time to question Agile’s cult following. Our research has shown that what matters when it comes to delivering high-quality software on time and within budget is a robust requirements engineering process and having the psychological safety to discuss and solve problems when they emerge, whilst taking steps to prevent developer burnout. This is fundamental to the philosophy of impact engineering.”

The research also looked into why transformation initiatives fail. Despite the promise of transformation methodologies, 70% of digital transformations and 96% of Agile transformations fail.

The UK Public Accounts Committee estimates that £20bn is spent annually by the UK government on digital change. The research found that projects using impact engineering were 50% less likely to fail and, in the US, could result in $115bn less being spent on wasted R&D annually. A 50% decrease of 70% failing projects would result in an estimated annual saving of £7bn in the UK.

In a recent article discussing the findings, Ali wrote: “Having the freedom to discuss and address problems increased success rates by 87%.”

However, the study found that software engineers in the UK were 13% less likely to feel they were able to discuss and address problems than those in the US; the largest difference of all engineering practices between the two countries. The finding comes after a November 2023 study conducted by Scottish IT consulting firm Engprax that reported 75% of software engineers in the UK faced retaliation the last time they reported wrongdoing.

When Ali previously explored software failure, he concluded that IT systems should be treated as socio-technical systems where both human and technical systems play a role in their safety. For instance, in an operating theatre, the doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff work alongside technology to ensure safety. Similarly, he said, in the cockpit of an aircraft, it’s the fast-thinking intervention of the pilots that has the potential to save lives when computers go wrong.

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