Beware of Fake Agility ('Fake Agile')

Organizational Agility
Knowledge Center


Hong Sun
Management Consultant, Canada

Beware of Fake Agility ('Fake Agile')

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, going agile is becoming an irreversible trend. But among the many organizations pursuing agile transformation, only a few have reaped huge benefit out of it while the vast majority failed so far. Regardless, too many firms that have no substantial claim to any kind of agile are still eagerly trumpeting their "agility," resulting in a "fake agile" phenomenon that's obfuscating true agile values and principles. For organizations who want to triumph over competitors in this unpredictable business land, understanding fake agile can help them appreciate the essence of true agile and increase their chance of success.

Real Agility
According to Denning, the main fruits of agile are only generated if the entire firm is operating from the same script. So real agile refers to business agility, or the agility of an entire organization or enterprise, and is independent of terminologies, labels, specific processes or brands.
This means operating from the Three Laws of Agility:
  1. Law of the Customer
  2. Law of the Small Team
  3. Law of the Network
True Agile without the Label
There are highly successful firms such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, etc., who shy away from the label of agility, because either they want to avoid being associated with "fake agile," or some of the agile vocabularies, e.g. Scrum, are "unattractive to management." However, these firms are indisputably agile and their business agility is an important reason why they have become the most prosperous firms in the world.

Early-Stage Agile
When a firm is in the early stages of its agile journey, it's often not fake agile—rather, one can call it "early-stage agile." Agile is a never ending journey and mastering the various facets of agile takes time. With the journey proceeding on, the firm can continuously explore new ways to become more agile and thus more capable of adaptation and innovation.

'Agile in Name Only'
Many firms are mistaken for agile because they claim themselves so, not because how they operate demonstrates so. These are "agile in name only" organizations, which are a typical part of fake agile. "Agile in name only" also refers to firms that are implementing agile tools and processes without adopting agile mindset.

'Agile for Software Only' & 'Stalled Agile Journeys'
While the Manifesto for Agile Software Development serves as the North Star for agilists, it also becomes the starting point for those seeking to spread agility beyond software development to achieve business agility. Yet the fact remains that the Manifesto was drawn up only for software developers, so organizations who heavily rely on the Manifesto to become agile can easily limit their agility within software development area.
This limit of agility can also create tension and conflict between software development and other parts of the organization that are operated traditionally. The more agile the software department is, the more frustrated software developers can become with the slow pace with which the rest of the organization uses their products, and so they start to challenge the organization's well-established management practices, which at some point may irritate the top management and sometimes causes the close down of agile implementations.

'Branded Agile'
There are many branded agile methods and approaches promoted by different consultants and trainers, resulting in mass confusion. Although some of these branded variants may lead to true business agility, many of them only focus on the implementation of small teams, which is but one part of agile management. In addition, those consultants and trainers' sometimes claim that their branded version of agile is "the one and only true way" and this distracts attention from the true substance of agile, being a fundamentally different way of running business and a new management paradigm, rather than a branded merchandize.

Scaling Frameworks: SAFe
Due to the rising tension in many firms between their agile teams and the rest part of the organization that's operated bureaucratically, many large scale agile frameworks are created aiming at helping these firms to resolve the problem by "scaling up agile." However, the assumption that "scaling up" is the solution is wrong since the challenge of genuine agile is how to DESCALE monolithic, internally-focused systems into tasks that can be managed by small autonomous customer-centric teams. According to Denning, a particularly disquieting variant is the Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe, which is the epitome of "Fake Agile," as it is essentially a codified bureaucracy that places the customer in a barely visible corner.

'Agile Lite'
Another worrying form of fake agility is something called "agile-lite," which appeared in a Harvard Business Review article explaining how some HR services were trying to become agile by adopting "agile lite." The article states that "HR is applying the general principles of agile without adopting all the tools and protocols from the tech world," whereas the examples in the article show that HR is really implementing agile tools and practices without adopting an agile mindset.

Denning, S. (2018), "The Age of Agile" – How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done, AMACOM.
Denning, S. (2019, May 23). "Understanding Fake Agile", Forbes.


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