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When Agile Harms Learning and Innovation: (and What Can Be Done About It)

by Maria Carmela Annosi, Nicolai Foss, and Antonella Martini

When Agile Harms Learning and Innovation: (and What Can Be Done About It)
Agile approaches inherited from software development can promote flexibility, with certain drawbacks.

Managers are facing increasing pressure to create organizational flexibility in increasingly complex environments. As a result, many companies have adopted Agile Serum practices to speed up project development and execution. However, widespread adoption of Agile in large-scale settings presents issues that threaten organizational efficiency.

Agile: Organizational Challenges and Pitfalls

Negative effects on individual learning and ideation behavior were seen in a case study of an agile transformation of a company. The study revealed high coordination costs due to relevant information being increasingly dispersed across different teams and the lack of effective integration mechanisms, which inhibited knowledge flows between teams. Furthermore, due to the lack of knowledge integration mechanisms at the organizational level, it was difficult to keep technological and customer competences updated and to let individuals acquire new skills. Also, the data revealed tensions caused by the difficulties of combining learning with more exploitative activities (i.e., continuous deliveries). Finally, the data revealed the emergence of separate collective identities and goals: managers stressed the relevance of learning and generating new product ideas to let their existing products evolve and improve, while teams were entirely focused on project deliveries.

By analyzing the case study, we are able to break down these unanticipated dynamics into six pitfalls that can lead to negative consequences for individual learning, creative behavior, and individual exploitation capability.

Six Pitfalls

  1. Learning and ideation behaviors are not legitimized by the team. The author’s data pointed to a divergence between the goals set by managers and the professional norms developed by team members. As a result, team members did not devote time to generate new product improvement ideas or reserve time to explore the software functionalities embedded in the software systems. Thus, they did not gain a better understanding of the required changes before implementation.
  2. Organizational Structure Drifting toward the Prioritization of Urgent Issues above Learning and Innovation. Team members were under constant pressure to deliver and the presence of short feedback loops within each work iteration increased the time pressure and the debilitating effects of stress that accompanied it. These processes often exerted pressure on the teams and reinforced counterproductive behaviors.
  3. Reduced Knowledge Accumulation. Team members reported that the cross-functional and cross-product nature of Agile team activities dragged them into unrelated activities. As a result, they forgot knowledge related to their specific domain. Attempts to learn and absorb the information needed to implement new technologies taxed team members’ absorptive capacities.
  4. Reduced Knowledge Integration. Given the absence of organizational routines to incorporate new knowledge into daily operations and to facilitate access to the constantly evolving organizational knowledge, team members found it difficult to acquire new knowledge.
  5. Loss of Know-Who Knowledge. As a result of the decentralized development of knowledge within teams, individuals found it difficult to easily identify who might have the knowledge they needed. Thus, no role was established to break up pre-existing norms, restructure individual behaviors, deal with teams’ isolation, systematically help team members develop innovative ideas, or determine contingency rewards that would motivate team members to more actively clarify problems and propose novel solutions.
  6. Lack of Individual Self-Efficacy. Individual team members perceived a lower level of personal efficacy related to generating new product ideas, developing high-quality software products, and executing changes in the program code. They showed cognitive inertia in terms of learning and ideation—becoming passive and relying on others to solve problems.

Meeting Agile Management Challenges

However, there are tools for managers to use to reduce the negative effects of agile. These tools help identify elements of an agile work environment that inhibit knowledge accumulation and access.

These tools act as solutions to the agile problem. They include:

  • Balancing conflicting goals through a larger network of agile stakeholders around the team
  • Combining project and learning/ideation tasks at different organizational levels
  • Establishing new relationships between each team and the adjusted network of stakeholders
  • Integrating the competing demands of efficiency and learning/ideation into teams’ agile practices
  • Embedding the coordination of efficiency and learning/ideation activities within managerial meetings
  • Developing task mastery in teams.


Agile methods have been credited as a superior way to quickly increase organizations’ abilities to adapt to changing customer requirements and have become increasingly common in the workplace. In practice, there appears to be some pitfalls to adopting this approach. However, there are ways we can reduce or even avoid many of the organizational issues that arise with agile implementation.

To find out more, please read the full article in California Management Review, Volume 63, Issue 1.


California Management Review

Berkeley-Haas's Premier Management Journal

Published at Berkeley Haas for more than sixty years, California Management Review seeks to share knowledge that challenges convention and shows a better way of doing business.

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