A critical realist examination of the inhibitors of double loop learning in an agile adoption

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McAvoy, John
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University College Cork
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The original solution to the high failure rate of software development projects was the imposition of an engineering approach to software development, with processes aimed at providing a repeatable structure to maintain a consistency in the ‘production process’. Despite these attempts at addressing the crisis in software development, others have argued that the rigid processes of an engineering approach did not provide the solution. The Agile approach to software development strives to change how software is developed. It does this primarily by relying on empowered teams of developers who are trusted to manage the necessary tasks, and who accept that change is a necessary part of a development project. The use of, and interest in, Agile methods in software development projects has expanded greatly, yet this has been predominantly practitioner driven. There is a paucity of scientific research on Agile methods and how they are adopted and managed. This study aims at addressing this paucity by examining the adoption of Agile through a theoretical lens. The lens used in this research is that of double loop learning theory. The behaviours required in an Agile team are the same behaviours required in double loop learning; therefore, a transition to double loop learning is required for a successful Agile adoption. The theory of triple loop learning highlights that power factors (or power mechanisms in this research) can inhibit the attainment of double loop learning. This study identifies the negative behaviours - potential power mechanisms - that can inhibit the double loop learning inherent in an Agile adoption, to determine how the Agile processes and behaviours can create these power mechanisms, and how these power mechanisms impact on double loop learning and the Agile adoption. This is a critical realist study, which acknowledges that the real world is a complex one, hierarchically structured into layers. An a priori framework is created to represent these layers, which are categorised as: the Agile context, the power mechanisms, and double loop learning. The aim of the framework is to explain how the Agile processes and behaviours, through the teams of developers and project managers, can ultimately impact on the double loop learning behaviours required in an Agile adoption. Four case studies provide further refinement to the framework, with changes required due to observations which were often different to what existing literature would have predicted. The study concludes by explaining how the teams of developers, the individual developers, and the project managers, working with the Agile processes and required behaviours, can inhibit the double loop learning required in an Agile adoption. A solution is then proposed to mitigate these negative impacts. Additionally, two new research processes are introduced to add to the Information Systems research toolkit.
Agile , Adoption , Critical realism , Information systems development
McAvoy, J. 2015. A critical realist examination of the inhibitors of double loop learning in an agile adoption. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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