Agile transformations prove their worth, shows academic research

05 July 2021 6 min. read
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Agile working has long been heralded for its apparent benefits – however much of the praise so far comes from agile institutions, self-proclaimed experts or from anecdotal evidence. A challenge for practitioners, as it is difficult for them to understand the expected benefits and how those benefits relate to investments. Now, there is finally an academic case to back the bottom-line results agile can bring.

Having initially grown from the software industry, agile working emerged from a growing dissatisfaction with IT techniques used in the late 90s, such as the waterfall method. The approach – which has since expanded well beyond its initial industrial settings – puts speed, collaboration and autonomy at its core, advocating a process characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.

Despite its rapid rise to prominence, the adoption and maturity of agile differs widely across organisations and per industry – as do the accounts of its effectiveness. In order to help quantify and corroborate the impacts agile working can have, Netherlands based academics Christoph Johann Stettina, Victor van Els and Joost Visser of Leiden University and Job Croonenberg of Tilburg University set out to build a more empirical account of agile’s value.

Agile transformations prove their worth, shows academic research

In the process, they surveyed over 130 leaders who have experience with agile, before scrumming the results through a rigorous analytical model. Participants were asked about the strategy used to implement large-scale agile within their company. Around 42% of companies used a bottom-up, team-by-team strategy, whereas only 29% used the department-by-department strategy, and 11% used the big-bang strategy, 7% used the new department strategy, and just 1% the new company strategy. Meanwhile 8% of the participants said they used another strategy or no strategy at all.

Running a correlation analysis on agile maturity with organisational performance across the layers of teams, programmes and portfolios, the researchers eventually discovered that across the board, there were five fundamental aspects of business which were boosted by agile working: (1) productivity, (2) responsiveness, (3) quality, (4) workflow health, and (5) employee satisfaction and engagement:


Perhaps the most common benefit cited by agile’s proponents is that it is incredibly effective for productivity. This is because it is aimed at helping keep everyone focused on one task at a time – precisely what teams need to do in order to complete large scope projects. Becoming distracted by other remits, or trying to do too many things at once, has long seen teams working in a non-agile way fail from being overwhelmed and disorganised.

In this case, the researchers pointed to large-scale agile frameworks, most prominently the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) – a set of organisation and workflow patterns for implementing agile practices at enterprise scale.

Overall, the study found an average reported improvement of productivity by 60%, with one prior study even citing improvements reaching as much as above 400%.


By improving visibility and continually adapting to customers’ changing priorities, agile has long been said to boost the responsiveness of businesses, improving customer engagement and satisfaction, and bringing the most valuable products and features to market faster and more predictably.

In the last 12 months, this adaptivity has been increasingly important, due to the volatile markets left in the wake of Covid-19. By delivering product features and functionality that offer value to the customer, it is said that agile organisations are better positioned to keep the customer happy and satisfied.

“Responsiveness in software development is generally associated with a mature use of agile practices and processes and team configuration,” stated the academics. “We report… time-to-market improvements at 67%... an improvement of 24% and 64% on customer service request turnaround time and lead time per feature respectively. This shows that responsiveness can be expected to improve, but depending on operationalisation, different results may be achieved.”

Christoph Johann Stettina, Victor van Els, Joost Visser, Job Croonenberg


Agile has long been sold as a method which not only sees teams operate in a fast, flow-based system to quickly develop and release capabilities, but also improve the quality of those capabilities. This is because agile divides the work into different sprints such that every unit is manageable and with better quality. In every iteration, testing and reviews are done so that in the next iteration the previous errors do not repeat. Hence, the quality of the work is improved.

The researchers said, “While the complexity of quality may not be fully covered in existing agile literature, results seem to unite in finding benefits of agile transformations. [There is] fair degree of agreement on Increases the quality of the product and enables the earlier detection of defects, which is mirrored by our results of 61% and 67% respectively.”

Workflow health

An agile workflow can be defined as the set of stages involved in developing an application, from ideation to sprints completion. According to the researchers, the results they presented “correlate with existing literature in emphasising the benefits to be achieved by pursuing an agile transformation.”

They continued, “A transformation makes work more organised by 55%... A workflow can be called healthy, when the work is well organised and planned, in which case individual tasks are executed and (intermediate) products are delivered at a steady pace. Thus, the notion of workflow health concerns the internals of the work process, which is linked to, but distinct from, the other categories such as employee satisfaction or productivity.”

Employee engagement

Engaged employees are more likely to work diligently and expend discretionary effort in their jobs, supercharging productivity and innovation. Today, businesses need innovation to stay successful – and engaging with a company’s workforce is seen as a key way of doing that. Following the definition that higher satisfaction and engagement leads to higher individual performance, the researchers asserted that agile working can boost these key fronts.

“Literature has found a positive relationship with firm growth as well as retention rates,” the study stated. “All metrics except one (‘makes work less hectic’) improve by 10% up to 50%.”

All in all, the researchers conclude that “practitioners should not expect a single monolithic impact from an agile transformation, but rather a variety of impacts at various levels of varying degrees, depending on the specific situation.”

Further reading? The full paper of the four academics can be accessed on this page.