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practicing agile
Last Updated Oct 21, 2021 —

How are organizations practicing agile in the year 2021?

Based on the data we've obtained for our 15th State of Agile Report, here are the most relevant insights on how agile is currently being practiced worldwide.

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We've talked about the boom in the adoption of agile concepts and practices in 2020, fuelled largely by remote work during pandemic-related office closures. How are organizations actually practicing agile in the here and now? What frameworks are more popular? Who's using it?

Based on the data we've obtained for our 15th State of Agile Report, here are the 6 most relevant insights on how agile is currently being practiced worldwide.:

  1. Agile has grown tremendously among tech teams and is spreading to non-tech departments
  2. Most companies have experience with agile, meaning that new agile adoptions among teams are most often seen in organizations that already have some experience
  3. Scrum is by far the most practiced Agile methodology at the team level
  4. Many Agile tools, techniques, and rituals are consistently practiced among organizations
  5. Use of DevOps and Value Stream Management is growing among enterprises undergoing digital transformation
  6. Agile isn't without its challenges, which is why many organizations are turning to VSM

Agile becoming more ubiquitous in tech, and has spread to traditional business areas

The biggest gains in agile adoption over the past year are seen, unsurprisingly, among tech-related depts. Agile usage in software development exploded from 37% of respondents in our 14th State of Agile Report to 86% in our current Report. Similarly, usage of agile in IT leapt from 26% to 63% of respondents. Agile in operations also more than doubled from 12% to 29%. While we don't have data on historical agile use in the following departments, 17% of tech security teams and 10% of hardware development teams now report using agile.

One of the most significant transformations observed, however, is the growth of agile in non-tech areas. Agile usage in marketing surged from 7% to 17%. Its use also more than doubled in sales, from 5% of surveyed teams to 11%. 10% of finance teams also now report using agile.

Non-tech teams are, naturally, having to adapt agile methodologies in order to best leverage them outside the typical digital product-focused mentality. Research shows that the following agile concepts and practices are becoming more common among enterprise teams:

  • Embedding of departmental subject matter experts in cross-functional planning and review teams
  • Flexible reallocation of budgeting in response to emerging situations or metric performance
  • Recurring review of business line financial performance, taking a similar approach to VC funding models
  • Creation of milestones and short-term goals for marketing campaigns, as opposed to one long run-up to a single launch event
  • Usage of Kanban task management systems and user stories to guide priorities in marketing teams
  • "Small scale [HR] initiatives are piloted within a specific team, job family, or business unit. Feedback is gathered early and often to determine whether the initiative should be expanded or scrapped."

Clearly, departments outside of "tech" disciplines have begun to embrace agile. Agile adoption among non-tech teams is critically important for consistent organizational practices and true agile functioning from within all levels. As we wrote in a recent blog: "To be truly agile, the [core operations teams] must act in agile planning and execution cycles. The organization should also be built as the sum of respective teams, with each department and core discipline reflected at the top/macro level. With this architecture, work can be performed in an agile manner at the very top level of corporate governance, mirroring the work cycles conducted within even the smallest agile teams."

Pressures initially triggered by COVID have encouraged businesses to spread agile development practices beyond where they are traditionally found, encouraging innovation in areas that before had a largely entrenched approach to the structure and nature of their work. Importantly, agile adoption among non-tech teams either signals buy-in from top-down leadership or can directly encourage it, which is "crucial to the transition because it aligns all teams behind a unified goal and a set of methods to achieve that goal," as we have also recently stated.

Agile adoption spreads most often in already-experienced organizations

Despite the increases we saw in agile adoption among teams in general, the reported pervasiveness of agile among corporate enterprises as a whole has not changed much in the past few years.

In our recent report, 94% of surveyed companies stated that they had some experience with agile, and 87% have had at least one year of experience. The breakdown for how long agile has been practiced in surveyed organizations is as follows:

  • 22% 1-2 years of experience
  • 33% 3-5 years
  • 32% 5+ years

That's 65% of respondents saying they have significant experience of at least 3 years!

The extent of agile experience in terms of years practiced has, in general, not significantly changed compared to the last few years of State of Agile Report data. The ratio of teams practicing agile in organizations has not grown significantly, either. When comparing our 14th annual report to the most recent one, here is how the responses have changed:

  • "None of our teams are agile": 5% in 2020 → 3% in 2021
  • "Less than half of teams are agile": 44% in 2020 → 46% in 2021
  • "More than half of teams are agile" 33% in 2020 → 34% in 2021
  • "All our teams are agile": 18% in 2020 → 18% in 2021

This data reveals organizations that adopt agile tend to keep it. Further, while there has not been an increase in organizations that declare “all our teams are agile”, there has been a decrease in organizations that say “non of our teams are agile”. 

Gains in agile adoption within organizations from “less than half” to “more than half” have been modest, admittedly. This observation may not seem to gel with the fact that agile adoption increased dramatically among certain teams, but what it indicates is that, largely outside of DevOps and IT, only some teams are adopting agile concepts and practices. In other words, while there has been a dramatic increase in the number of organizations that indicate that at least one of their marketing/finance/sales/etc is using agile, the use of agile among all such teams has not yet become pervasive.

The good news is that as organizational teams pilot agile, the wins they achieve model success that encourages agile adoption among others.

Scrum is by far the most practiced Agile methodology at the team level

Scrum has become an overwhelmingly popular agile methodology for organizations. When the first State of Agile Report was published in 2006, just 40% of organizations said that Scrum was the main methodology they used. In last year's report, 58% said they used Scrum. Now, with the most recent report, 66% of surveyed organizations said they primarily use Scrum.

Scrum usage now dwarfs other methodologies — so much so that the others are in the single digits! Our most recent data indicates the following adoption rates of non-Scrum agile methodologies:

  • ScrumbBan: 9%
  • Scrum/XP hybrid: 6%
  • Kanban: 6%
  • Iterative: 4%

All other possibilities were chosen at a rate of 1% or lower. 2% of respondents indicated that they "don't know", and 5% chose "other".

While Scrum adoption may seem like the overwhelming choice, it is possible that respondents were really trying to indicate that Scrum was just the dominant guiding methodology. A December 2020 report from Scrum.org found that 81% of Scrum users mix in other agile development practices, including Kanban, DevOps, and XP.

Likely, Scrum has remained the most popular Agile methodology because it is relatively simple and has ample resources available for training and guiding workers, including multiple certifications for Scrum Masters and Leaders. Scrum also taps into teams' inherent needs for positive feedback, demonstrable achievements, and a sense of ownership over the accomplishments achieved. A lack of resources and formalized certifications in other Agile disciplines is likely the main reason why they lag behind.

Alongside Scrum, another significant leader in agile methodology usage is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). When respondents were asked which framework they use for scaling agile across the organization, 37% said that SAFe was their choice. While that might not sound like an overwhelming majority, the fact is that all other scaled agile methodologies were in single digits including. interestingly enough, Scrum of Scrums, Scrum @ Scale ( both 9%) and Enterprise Scrum (6%)/

Many agile tools, techniques, and rituals are consistently practiced among organizations

Agile allows for some customization, but the report observed many consistent — sometimes near-ubiquitous — practices among teams.

The most prevalent agile practices chosen by respondents included:

  • Daily standups — 87%
  • Retrospectives — 83%
  • Sprint/iteration planning — 83%
  • Sprint/iteration reviews — 81%

There was also strong consistency among the following agile practices:

  • Short iterations — 63%
  • Kanban — 61%
  • Planning poker/Team estimation — 58%
  • Dedicated customer/product owner — 56%
  • Release planning — 54%
  • Product roadmapping — 52%

There was not as much consistency observed when it came to Agile planning and delivery tools, but kanban board was a clear winner at 77%. Other tools used by a majority of teams included:

  • Taskboard — 67%
  • Spreadsheet — 66%
  • Agile project management tool — 64%
  • Bug tracker — 62%
  • Wiki — 62%
  • Product roadmapping — 58%
  • Automated build tool — 54%
  • Unit test tool — 54%
  • Continuous integration tool — 53%
  • Wireframes — 51%

Overall, there is a strong pattern among agile concepts and practices, but a weaker one among tools used, outside of Kanban. This is a testament to the power of culture-focusing agile practices that align teams — and it also belies the fact that agile doesn't necessarily require specific tools in order to be practiced effectively.

Use of DevOps and Value Stream Management is growing among enterprises undergoing digital transformation

DevOps structures are also becoming the chosen framework for a majority of responding organizations. 56% of respondents said they currently have a DevOps initiative underway, and 18% were in the planning stages. Just 13% said they had "no DevOps initiatives".

More interesting, 31% of respondents stated that DevOps was "important", and 44% said that it was "very important". Just 9% said DevOps was "not important."

In a similar vein, Value Stream Management (VSM) is quickly emerging as a popular companion ideology/framework alongside other agile and DevOps practices. 56% of respondents stated that they have either implemented or are planning on implementing VSM. An additional 23% indicate that their organization is interested in VSM. 

When asked about how their organization was adopting VSM, the following responses were received:

  • Expanding implementation of VSM — 14%
  • Implemented VSM and are currently not expanding — 7%
  • Currently implementing — 21%
  • Planning to implement in the next 12 months — 14%
  • Interested, but no near-term plans to implement — 23%
  • No interest — 6%
  • Don't know — 15%

DevOps as a discipline and organizational structure framework has found a tremendous level of success among modern enterprises. VSM is positioned to be the next wave in agile evolution, spreading the lessons learned from Agile and DevOps across the entire organization while tying in the concepts of value delivery and maintenance of value stream velocity, consistency, and quality.

Agile isn't without its challenges, which is why many organizations are seeking to mature and evolve agile practices

While agile adoption soared in the past year, its growth was not completely uninhibited. Various factors held back agile adoption, or they made adoption more challenging than originally anticipated. 
The most commonly reported Agile adoption barriers were as follows:

  • Inconsistencies in processes and practices across the organization — 46%
  • Cultural clashes between agile and non-agile working groups — 43%
  • General organizational resistance to change — 42%
  • Lack of skills and experience — 42%
  • Absence of leadership participation — 41%
  • Inadequate management support and sponsorship — 40%

Each of these challenge areas presents nuanced situations that are best left addressed on an organizational basis — in other words, there are no easy answers or solutions.

On the other hand, there are a number of common factors that can relieve the pain of agile adoption and speed implementation of agile concepts and practices across the organization:

  • Hard-break transitions between agile and non-agile teams can only be solved through increasing adoptions among all enterprise teams
  • Culture clashes and organizational resistance can be addressed through demonstrable pilot success, but it also takes maturity that can only come from experience
  • Skills and experience can be obtained through talent acquisition and the support of in-house training and certifications

However, lack of leadership participation and inadequate management support/sponsorship can only be addressed through a commitment to agile.

Transitioning to Value Stream Management can be one effective way to achieve buy-in while simultaneously spreading consistent agile practices across the organization. VSM not only helps align teams and spread agile benefits to non-agile teams, but it can also usher in executive buy-in and leadership commitment through demonstrable gains in priority areas like market share, revenue growth, and positive customer sentiment.

Overall, agile usage has progressed greatly, but it still has plenty of room to grow in order to fully diffuse throughout most organizations. When seeking to obtain the benefits of agile, the aim should be for the organization itself to be guided by agile principles, so that the foundational planning and strategy can reflect the way work is done by the most basic-level engineers, accountants, and corporate team members. VSM can help achieve this simultaneous top-down and bottom-up transformation, which is why we feel it is the next big chapter in the agile story as modern events push organizations to embrace agile more than ever.

View more statistics about how agile is used and who uses it in our 15th Annual State of Agile Report.

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