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Agile as a Cargo Cult

24 Oct 2012

| Author: Rob Smith

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Agile as a Cargo Cult

I’ve recently been alarmed at the number of examples I’ve encountered of 'Agile as a Cargo Cult' and have a growing concern of the impact of this.

For the uninitiated, Cargo Cults emerged in the middle of the last century when the USA set up airbases on Pacific Islands and the local inhabitants believed that the copious supplies that arrived by plane were sent by gods. This view was reinforced by the ritual behaviours observed on the airbases. Cargo cults still exist today and there are a number of islands with ceremonial runways on which the followers re-enact the rituals. My favourite is the island which worships the god Sydney – the original source of plentiful bounty.

But what has this got to do with Agile?

Unfortunately, as the popularity of Agile grows and the anecdotes of success pervade, there are many believers who see the rituals (the iterations, the daily stand-ups, planning poker etc.) without understanding, or wanting to understand, what lies behind them.

I have seen this manifest itself in two ways.

IndigoBlue has recently encountered a number of potential customers who are seemingly not interested in the underlying principles of Agile, nor in the contextual challenges they face in its implementation. They simply wanted to learn and apply the ritual behaviours believing this will magically achieve the right results.

Similarly, earlier this week I had dinner with a friend who is a senior manager in an organisation with a well-known, established Agile capability. He described a recent situation in which a Scrum Master refused to release some valuable feature into the business because it wasn’t the end of the iteration. I assume the said Scrum Master was afraid that breaking the ritual would invoke the wrath of the Agile God.

Both of these situations are not uncommon and both will ultimately lead to problems, not just for the projects in question but also for Agile as it will be tarred with any failings. I’m not sure what the solutions is, and I am aware that there are “consultancies” springing up that are happy to teach the rituals, thereby exacerbating the problem.

The challenge is real and the answer probably lies with the wider Agile community to work together to educate. Any other suggestions would be gratefully received.

We can help your organisation see beyond the rituals and understand the underlying principles, enabling you to 'be' Agile, rather than simply 'do' Agile – if this would benefit your organisation, please get in touch.

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Rob Smith

Joint founder of IndigoBlue in July 2002, Rob has over 20 years’ experience in IT, and in addition to leading the company he continues to provide strategic management consultancy to a number of clients.

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