Agile is not legitimate

by | Apr 5, 2021

Since the creation of the manifesto in 2001 agile delivery has not reached the stage of legitimacy. In twenty years there are only 5% of agile organizations, based on the 14th Annual State of Agile report. Taking the Theory of Diffusion of Innovation into consideration, being a truly agile organization has just surpassed Innovators and starting to creep into Early adopters.

This is something that will not seem to make sense as there are teams using agile methodologies all over the world. It is used in other places outside of software delivery. There are countless roles for Scrum Masters SAFe© leads and all things related to agile delivery posted every day. So why would I say it is in Early adoption?

For years there are articles, blogs, studies, and more where they say what causes the failures in agile delivery and management.

  • Lack of support

  • Lack of knowledge on agile methodologies

  • Clashing cultures

Just to name a few. The issue with these and other reasons for failure is that these are symptoms of the real issue. What happens when a symptom is treated and not the issue? There will be some initial improvement only to be short-lived and they will come back, sometimes worse than what they were before.

True agile delivery and management are meant to create an environment of innovation and have empowered employees to get quality output. So part of that would mean higher employee satisfaction. Taking a look at Glassdoor reviews of some “agile” organizations would say otherwise.

There are studies that show strong servant leadership (which is required in an agile organization) has a strong correlation with hige=her employee satisfaction and productivity.

Relationship between Organizational Culture, Leadership Behavior and Job Satisfaction

Yafang Tsai


Organizational cultures were significantly (positively) correlated with leadership behaviour and job satisfaction, and leadership behaviour was significantly (positively) correlated with job satisfaction.

Does participative leadership enhance work performance by inducing empowerment or trust? The differential effects on managerial and non-managerial subordinates

Xu Huang, Joyce In, Aili Liu and Yaping Gong


Showed there was a strong correlation between Participative Leadership and Psychological Empowerment.

Then there is the incorrect focus on agile delivery: Speed. Speed is a byproduct and is not a value of agile delivery. This push is the wrong reason for completing an agile framework implementation. I did not say transformation. There is a reason for that, and I will explain later.

So what is the root cause? In the latter half of the 20th century, Institutional Theory became a discussion point in understanding how things worked within organizations for change. Over the years, some branches have moved off the main train of thought, yet they all have a similar foundation: Dealing with change.

In the recent series of Project governance and agile going through Ralph Muller’s book Project Governance, there was a brief discussion on Institutional Theory. Here we will go deeper as it identifies the root cause of agile transformations that fail to achieve the full value that it can provide.

In Suchman’s 1995 article Managing Legitimacy, he states: “Legitimacy is a personalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definition.”

He then provides three lower forms of Legitimacy:

  • Pragmatic Legitimacy: This is based on self-interest and legitimizes actions that achieve the highest benefits or utility in the stakeholders’ eyes.

  • Moral Legitimacy: bases on ethical approval of actions. It legitimizes activities undertaken within the boundaries of society’s broader norms, no matter what the outcome may be.

  • Cognitive Legitimacy: Based on the comprehensibility and take-for-granted attitude. It legitimizes actions that are predictable, meaningful and self-evident by the perceiver.

    (Muller, Project Governance 2009)

The concept here is that two of the three need to be met to make something legitimate within an organization.

Let’s talk about agile transformation, and we will focus on the word “transformation.” When conducting any transformation, it is about changing behaviours. This is why I said agile framework implementation. There is a focus on implementing a framework and not focusing on the behaviours needed, with the teams that will be using the framework and other components within the organization that need to change.

That doesn’t mean that all the teams and departments must use the frameworks that the teams are implementing. It does mean they need to have the same or very similar behaviours, actions and agile values as those teams to be in sync with them and become high performing and provide high value.

Without that and the leadership moving to a “servant leadership” style full time with self-managed teams through building trust, the previous views and behaviours will clash with agile delivery management because it is not legitimized through Pragmatic. Moral legitimacy.

Cognitive legitimacy fails since teams are “Doing agile,” and the mixed messaging throughout the organization will create a chaotic environment that is not as predictable as it would like to be.

Those that fall within the 5% have created an environment where agile delivery and management are legitimate. They created an environment where they have met all three forms of legitimacy and Institutional theory. Through behaviour changes so that everyone is “Being agile.” They have moved past the implementation of an agile framework; they made their agile transformation a true transformation.

Overall agile delivery and management are growing in legitimacy. Taking the Diffusion of Innovation graph will gain that legitimacy when it moves into the early majority or crossing the tipping point from Early adopters. Wich does sound weird since agile delivery is decades old, and we have yet to see it in the late majority by now. The difficulty in that is explained with Suchman’s legitimacy models.

With articles and blogs that say “Agile is dead,” they have it wrong; it just hasn’t reached the level of legitimacy it deserves.

Want a strategy to legitimize agile delivery/management within your organization? Schedule a Strategy Call.

We are passionate and mission-driven to help teams achieve the full value of being agile. We also know how we’ve been able to help others like you who get frustrated at times. We know we can help you on this breakthrough call alone, and if we decide to continue to work together, that’s great. If not, that’s good too.

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