Sustaining Agile - A Research Perspective

05 Oct 2022

Sustaining agile is something that has concerned us for a while at the Agile Research Network (ARN). Having surveyed practitioners, (Barroca et al 2018: Sustaining Agile Beyond Adoption - CORE) we realised that challenges around agile seemed to be moving away from the typical ‘how do we adopt agile?’ to ‘how do we keep agile going in the long term?’.

We asked practitioners what they thought agile sustainability meant, and we identified four themes:  

  • being completely agile 
  • being independent 
  • focused on business value   
  • being consistent across time.  

Looking at the literature, we realised this is an under-researched area and have since been working on it in more depth.


The idea of sustainability in an agile context may seem strange as nowadays, the term ‘sustainability’ is mostly associated with sustainable development goals (UN 2021). However, the term ‘sustainability’ has also been widely used in other areas, in particular, reports and articles on organisational change, such as the following paper by Buchanan et al (2005): buchanan et al (2005) no going back - a review of the literature on sustaining organisational change.pdf (oliverfinlay.com), which, although written a while ago, is still very relevant today. This paper has been cited by another 670 authors, with some of these citations in recent publications. In this paper, the authors define sustainability as “the process through which new working methods, performance goals and improvement trajectories are maintained for a period appropriate to a given context.” They identify the reasons why this is not a more widely researched area (including the need for longitudinal studies) and they propose a provisional model for the processes influencing sustainability, supported by an extensive review of the literature, as follows: 

  • “Substantial: will the scale of change consolidate opposition and is the change perceived central to organisational performance?” 
  • “Managerial: are management plans and ideas seen as credible and legitimate?”  
  • “Leadership: is leadership strong and persistent?”  
  • “Political: have challenges to management been defeated as lacking credibility?”  
  • “Processual: has a period of relative calm allowed management to stabilise change?” 
  • “Contextual: does external stability mean no challenges to the status quo?” 
  • “Temporal: do the timing, sequencing and history of the change process contribute to sustainability? (p.19-20)” 

The studies reviewed by Buchanan et al (2005) are pre-agile, at least in our use of the term agile; some processes identified will need to be adapted in the context of organisational agility and the authors are the first to recognise that the factors listed above may be disputed. The important highlight is that there are many such factors, that they are interlinked and that they may have different weight. In an agile context, for example, we would at least reword these processes to highlight the values and principles that emphasise customer focus, adaptability to uncertain environments and team empowerment.

 
This paper is a relevant source to understand the challenges of sustaining change. In a case study we have been working on, we have identified factors that would not be covered by this categorisation and would require evolving this framework to the context of agile organisations; for example, factors around collaboration and a light touch approach. Mapping the factors affecting sustainability of change to what we have been finding with sustaining agile requires further work.

 
Barroca, L., Gregory, P., Kuusinen, K., Sharp, H., AlQaisi, R. (2018) Sustaining Agile Beyond Adoption, in Proceedings of the Euromicro Conference on Software Engineering and Advanced Applications (SEAA), 29-31 August 2018, Prague: Sustaining Agile Beyond Adoption - CORE

 
Buchanan, D., Fitzgerald, L., Ketley, D. Gollop, R., Jones, J., Lamont, S., Neath, A., Whitby, E. "No going back: A review of the literature on sustaining organizational change." International Journal of Management Reviews 7.3 (2005): 189-205.


UN (2021)The Sustainable Development Goals


The Agile Research Network (ARN) is a collaboration of researchers from two UK universities at the forefront of investigating agile methodologies. 

  • The Open University has a strong record of research in the use of agile methods in practice 
  • The University of Central Lancashire has a stronger teaching focus amongst Undergraduate level, a practitioner-focussed Masters programme, and a growing agile research group 

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Agile Research Network

Agile Research Network

ARN

The Agile Research Network (ARN) is a collaboration between researchers at two UK universities at the forefront of investigating agile methodologies:

  • The Open University (OU) has a strong research record in using agile methods in practice.
  • The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has a strong record of linking research, teaching and practice through industry-based research and practitioner-focussed Masters and doctoral programmes

ARN is funded through a number of sources; currently, it is funded by the two university members and the Agile Business Consortium.

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