Why Agile Is So Hard

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
August 5, 2013

Is agile a dirty word in your company or among the members of  your UX team? Do you hear the term lean UX and groan? It’s okay—and not really surprising—if your answer is yes. Agile is hard, and we all know it. But since agile is likely to stick around for a while, I’m sure you’ve thought about how to make it easier.

However, the question shouldn’t be how to make it easy; rather, it should be about understanding why agile is so hard in the first place. That way, we can get at the root problems and maybe have some hope of turning what can be a frustrating experience into an amazing one.

By nature, designers are well-organized and linear people. Logical flow is something we can grasp easily. We work well within structure. We are perfectionists and want all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. We thrive on recognition and success. But being agile or lean goes against these tendencies and forces us to step into an uncomfortable zone.

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There are three aspects to this discomfort that I think majorly impact our experience of the agile philosophy and methodology that I think are worth considering:

  • We deceive ourselves that being agile means you don’t need a vision.
  • We don’t understand the pace that an iterative process requires.
  • We don’t allow enough space for experimentation and failing within a safe environment.

Stop Deceiving Yourself

The biggest problem that I see again and again with agile teams is their thinking that you can dive into sprints and figure out what you’re doing as you go along. Vision is a major premise of the agile methodology. But we often forget that there is more to the work than the day-to-day grind.

It doesn’t matter how big or small your project is, you need to set a vision for it beforehand and make sure that someone is responsible for keeping an eye on that target throughout the process. Understand the end goal and define small, incremental blocks of work that will enable you to achieve it. Measure success by increments.

And the most important part—given that agile is an iterative process—is that you continually need to do ongoing work to maintain the current state of the vision. These statements may seem contradictory, but if you set the vision and forget it, there wasn’t really a point to your defining a vision in the first place. Things morph during the process, and ultimately, being agile is about being responsive. It’s okay for your vision to evolve, but it’s not okay to start without a clear vision to begin with.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in the chaos of iterating yourself into an incoherent whole. Find the balance between your ultimate vision and the natural progression of iterative processes.

The Truth About Iteration

We call the iterations of work that we do when following the agile methodology sprints, but many times I think that we forget the true meaning of the word—and that causes a breakdown in the process. For iterative processes to work well, there is a certain pace and rhythm that you have to maintain as a constant. When iterations constitute a broken, choppy cycle, we fall down, lose momentum, and get stuck in the weeds. To be successful, iterative processes need to remember these key factors:

  • Iteration must happen quickly—without too much time to think in between sprints. If it doesn’t, you risk losing focus, forgetting the valuable insights that you need to address, and missing out on experimenting with ideas that occur in the moment. In essence, you’ll spin and lose time.
  • Iterative loops must be small enough to be digestible. If they are too large, you risk slowing the pace—or in some cases, overwhelming people with too much at once and allowing things to slip through the cracks.  
  • Feedback needs to be constant. It is almost impossible to execute an iteration that actually moves you forward without getting feedback. Lapses in your feedback loop hurt your ability to make meaningful moves in a positive direction.

If you are feeling a little scared after reading these key factors, I don’t blame you. Rapid iteration is a rigorous exercise. I won’t lie about that. It takes effort to maintain the pace that will make you most successful.

It’s not surprising then that many teams find iterative processes so hard in comparison to the more traditional waterfall process. But you don’t have to kill yourself to make this work. Remember to give yourself breathing room. Plan time to check in on the big picture. Plan empty or catch-up sprints into the process if you need to. What is key is to work in the breathing room around the iterations, not in their midst when it might upset the pace.

Why Failing Doesn’t Always Mean You’ve Failed

One of the biggest advantages of an agile process is the one thing that usually gets left by the wayside: the fact that quick, iterative changes should allow us room for experimentation, which means failing with some ideas. The whole idea behind iteration is that you should test ideas as quickly as possible, find out which work, keep and refine those that do, and drop the rest.

Unfortunately, human nature often doesn’t want to test imperfect ideas—never mind admit that we had unsuccessful ideas to begin with. And at times, it’s difficult to accept the reality that we must let some ideas go because they don’t fit the vision, especially when we think they’re the most brilliant ideas in the world.

We also put a lot of negative energy around failing that doesn’t need to be there. We don’t need to hold on to ideas that don’t work. And just because every idea doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way shape or form. If you find the one idea that is right through a process of testing and respond by making iterative improvements, you’ve succeeded.

And remember that ideas don’t need to be perfected before you can get feedback on them. That’s why we, as UX professionals, sketch and paper-prototype our initial concepts. It’s not worth making the investment in pixel perfection until you know something is the right idea.

If you need to feel good about your failed ideas—or maybe are feeling pressure to explain why you tried them—figure out the story of how those ideas led to the right idea. What did you learn from those failures that led you to success? Because, if you are doing feedback and iteration right, I’ll bet you can’t tell that success story without telling about the failures.

The Original Agile Methodology: Improv

There’s a fantastic TV show that just came back on the air called “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” In one of the new episodes, there was a prime example of why improv is the original agile methodology. Let me explain.

In the episode, the performers were playing a game that was something like “things you can say about your favorite pair of shoes, but not your girlfriend.” One of the performers starts to do a bit and quickly goes down a very dirty and unintended path. He stops, they all laugh, and move on. The next bit the performer did played on the gaff, but by the third round, he had moved on.

This seems simple, but clearly articulates why improv is akin to agile. He tried something, it didn’t work, he acknowledged it, then tried again. The whole point of the exercise was iterative attempts at coming up with ideas. The ideas didn’t have to succeed, but they still led to some good outcomes. They didn’t agonize over thinking through the ideas that they should try. They maintained a quick pace. Essentially, they got it all right, even when they got it wrong.

Chris Spagnuolo wrote an excellent article in which he talks about key principles of improv that drive innovation. They fit very well into the conversation on agile and can also help us to learn how to be successfully agile.

  • Keep questioning what works. Agile methods do ultimately allow us to attain our perfectionist desires. But they require us to learn that we’ll get there in increments, not in one shot. It’s constantly a question of how you can make things better in the next iteration.
  • Be a risk taker and take chances. There is no reward without any risk. Rapid iteration lets us take bigger chances because we can play with ideas before committing to them. We can be more innovative if we allow ourselves this play.
  • Always be open to making changes in response to what people say and to what happens. Being improvisational means learning how to be a good listener and adjust to the current circumstances. Always being open to new information consistently enables us to understand how to proceed and adapt to the iteration process.
  • Create shared plans and agendas. Having a clear vision and goals is critical. But if they aren’t shared and understood by all involved, they have no meaning. Agile requires a lot more conversation and a lot less documentation.
  • Be fully present and engaged. You can’t be truly agile, move with the process, and keep your momentum if you aren’t always there and engaged. You let your team down the moment you step out.
  • Keep moving forward. Maintain the pace, maintain the pace, and maintain the pace. Looking backward will not get you any further forward. Agile is not a case in which objects in your rear-view mirror are larger than they appear.
  • Focus on the good of the whole. It is important to understand that the strength of the ensemble, or team, makes or breaks an improv or agile experience. Always make sure that you support what is good for the whole team and know what is in everyone’s best interest. That way, you all succeed.
  • Let yourself lose control. Learn how to let go and work with your team. Collaboration keeps the process sane. One person trying to run the show breaks down the cycle.
  • Self-organize. Understanding your role in the group and how to manage yourself makes you a better team player. Being a successful collaborator requires that you hone your interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

The Real Truth

So, why is agile so hard? I think it’s because agile requires us to learn how to become a better version of ourselves than we perhaps have been in the past. It requires a strong ensemble that can work together. It also requires a rigorous pace and our constant attention.

This shouldn’t scare us off, though. We’re all capable of honing our improvisational skills. The basic fundamentals of improv are those that actually play on human nature—such as the initial characteristics that I mentioned earlier. And maybe, by understanding the challenges that agile presents and working through them, we can make agile a little less difficult. 


Spagnuolo, Chris. “Is Improv the Key to Innovative Teams?DZone, January 3, 2013. Retrieved August 01, 2013.

Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Traci LeporeWith over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category.  Read More

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