Using Complexity to Answer 5 Tough Agile Questions

Can a single insight answer five tough questions facing Agile today? Let’s find out!

Here are the topics we’ll be wrestling with in this article:

  1. Why is it so difficult to predict or provide delivery dates in Agile?
  2. Why doubling team size doesn’t necessarily increase team productivity?
  3. Why Agile requires executive and stakeholders to change? Why can’t we change just teams?
  4. How does the role of a functional manager / director change for Agile teams?
  5. Are Agile approaches more successful for complex products / solutions?

And yes, we’ll be using a single insight being… “It is today’s increasing product and solution complexity that requires a different way of working”. When our needs are simple (e.g. basic match calculator), our technology was relatively simple (calculator). But as we use technology for increasingly complex activities (e.g. changing human behaviour), so our solutions greatly increase in complexity.


Below image shows a number of complexity dimensions we deal with in today’s solutions. Notice the green lines identify items with high level of team control. Yellow lines describe complexity which are often external but teams have some level of influence over. Red lines are for complexity teams have very little control over.

Now let’s use these to answer our five tough questions.

1. Why is it so difficult to predict or provide delivery dates in Agile?

Because are products and solutions are a lot more complex, and much of this complexity exists outside of the team. Teams can foresee + manage and therefore predict only some of these complexities. The rest of them are “discovered” as solution gets developed. They can’t be estimated nor predicted.

2. Why doubling team size doesn’t necessarily increase team productivity?

Because adding team members does not reduce external complexity. In fact, it may increase operational complexity. In many cases (as per example below), doubling complexity has an exponential effect on effort or computational duration.

Research Gate

3. Why Agile requires executive and stakeholders to change? Why can’t we change just teams?

Because much of solution complexity resides outside of the team and can only be resolved at the “system level”. And guess who can resolve those larger issues, especially operational ones? That’s right! It’s managers, directors, stakeholders, etc. Team optimization will have a relatively small impact on complexity. The entire system needs to be optimized.

4. How does the role of a functional manager / director change for Agile teams?

Hopefully this is obvious now. Managers and directors have the unique ability to understand and decrease external complexities. These often surface as team “impediments”, especially at higher organizational level. Their operational insights and relationships make them invaluable to unstuck teams, accelerate external teams, and navigate difficult risks.

5. Are Agile approaches more successful for complex products / solutions?

They can be and often are. Highly complex projects do not benefit from large up-front analysis, especially when teams are doing something they’ve never done before. These big “masterplans” slow down execution and forces dangerous early assumptions. Agile manages this complexity by breaking down the problem into smaller pieces and “exploring” it through prototyping. Solution emerges as it’s literarily built, allowing time for feedback and pivots.


There are probably many other questions that can be answered this way? How does the role of a business analyst change for Agile teams? Why set-based design trumps point-based design for large Agile products? What are the advantages or releasing small product increments more often? Post your own questions via comments below.

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