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The Cargo Cult Agile Approach.

June 1st, 2009 12 comments

After training dozens of teams, I have found another disturbing trend, the trend of cargo cult agile teams.  The term cargo cult comes from the author Richard Feyman and was described in detail in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feyman!  The terms roots were even earlier than its use in his book, originally being used in his 1974 commencement address where he warned of learning to not fall into the trap of fooling one’s self.  And unfortunately, this is just what I am seeing more and more lately, agile teams fooling themselves into believing that they are truly utilizing agile.

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So what is a cargo cult?

Cargo Cult Built Plane

The term cargo cult describes the phenomenon of natives from the islands of Melanesia in the South Pacific. During the war, the islands of Melanesia served as a staging area for the military where they built up temporary operations. The natives of the island observed everything that the allied forces were doing and, more importantly, also observed that with the allied force’s actions came cargo. The natives had little or no knowledge of the civilized world from which this cargo originated, but instead incorrectly correlated the actions of the foreigners with the pre-requisites for obtaining the cargo they so desired.  Ultimately, after the war ended and the allied troops left the island, the cargo also disappeared.  There were no more shipments of the riches that the cargo represented, so the natives did what they assumed would bring this cargo back.  The natives, these cargo cults, decided that to entice the return of the cargo they must duplicate the actions and efforts of the foreigners that were so successful in obtaining such items.  So in light of their mistaken beliefs they built dirt runways, bamboo control towers, offices and planes, sewed crude uniforms, and even crafted bamboo headsets in their effort to entice the return of the cargo.

Cargo Cult Troops

These natives learned the foreigners ‘rituals’ very well, performing them over and again in hopes that planes would return full of cargo.  Over time they learned that even though they may be able to duplicate the ritual, it does not guarantee the same result.

How does the term apply to an agile team?

Cargo cult agile teams do much of the same thing as the natives in the story above.  These ‘agile’ teams use the correct terms, they may hold stand-up meetings, they may use story points, they may even segment their work into iterations, but fundamentally their culture does not truly change to match that of a real agile team and organization.  These teams have simply replaced their old, static project process with a new static project process, but instead have labeled their new process agile.  These teams represent the possibility of an ‘agile backlash’ that I feel is in the making (something I am currently working on for this blog.)  These teams, not completely devoted to open and honest inspection of their own processes, will likely not find agile to be the panacea of processes and will instead associate the problems they find as being caused by agile.  Any agile veteran knows that these problems are more likely to simply be problems that these teams have always had, just never knew.

How do we change from cargo cult agile, to true agile?

The hallmark of a good agile team is the ability to respond to change.  Change that can come in the form of customer initiated requests for the product as well as change in the form of guidance that comes from effective retrospectives.  Good agile teams are willing to risk, they are willing to act outside of the guarantee of a positive outcome.  They decide to risk because the possibility of great things come from endeavoring outside of the strictly known software development universe.  Organizations that are steeped in process and that have a heavy handed corporate culture face a challenging endeavor in moving to an agile approach.  A culture of following a process because we have always followed this process is likely to find that agile does not play well in that sandbox.  These types of corporate cultures, those companies that are most susceptible to becoming a cargo cult in their agile approach, simply do not put in the effort to change their deeply rooted culture, where it is required to change, in order to take advantage of what agile has to offer.

So how do we avoid becoming a company using a cargo cult agile approach?

Take an honest look at the company’s current culture, and recognize where the culture and the agile principles may be at odds.  Honestly evaluate the effort that is required in order to effectively change the culture where necessary.  Be painfully aware of the danger that exists in becoming comfortable with simply going through the motions.  Implement a mechanism in which agile teams that employ self-discipline are recognized and rewarded; self-discipline that is required in order to maintain sight of the goal for each project.  Embrace your team’s ability to risk and address any portions of the culture that are at odds with a team’s ability to risk for the greater good.

Make sure that every portion of the organization that’s involved in using an agile approach has the appropriate training.  When agile is taken out of context, when only bits and pieces are explained or used, it may be difficult to get the appropriate amount of mindshare required to truly affect a paradigm shift of the company culture.  Too often I have seen the tides turn against agile simply because the people being asked to use it do not have a complete understanding of the pieces that make up the whole.  When you are able to elevate the team’s understanding of the benefits and the ‘whys’ behind the ‘whats’ of agile, it will becoming self-reinforcing, which is the best possible approach to changing a company’s culture.

Is your company using a cargo cult approach to agile?  Will you be the one to ask the questions that start the discussion?  Dare to risk!

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Categories: The Agile Team Tags: , , , , ,

Why Agile Teams Need to Embrace Risk

May 28th, 2009 2 comments

When I first started providing Agile training for software development teams looking to abandon their waterfall approach, I found myself consistently working with mavericks, teams of developers looking to push the envelope on what was possible.  These teams were on the bleeding edge of innovation, and as such, they often were habitual practitioners of risk taking.  Not the risk that those of us with a project management background may have traditionally defined it as, but a simple willingness to explore the unknown in search for a better outcome, where such an outcome is not guaranteed.

Those teams from just a few years ago are no longer the risk takers they once were.  Those teams have been replaced by teams comprised of nervous individuals, afraid to do much of anything that does not come neatly packaged with a guaranteed outcome.  The willingness to risk has been wholly replaced by an inflexible adherence to metrics that measure the team’s ability to meet expectations and estimates, but say nothing about product quality and the importance of a happy customer.

Risky

Software development teams are losing sight of what is truly important.  These teams are worried more about satisfying internally defined processes as opposed to building great software and endeavoring to satisfy their customer.  And sadly I am seeing this trend on the rise rather than the decline.  In this battered economy, I am seeing teams of talented people under-promising in their efforts and estimates, so that they can minimize the risk of falling short on a deadline or a deliverable.  I am not saying that missing a deadline or deliverable is a good thing only that  I am seeing these teams behave from a place of fear because their employers are rewarding the wrong results and inadvertently punishing, or at the very least discouraging, the right behaviors.

How have we so quickly become adept at management from this place of fear?  Is it the economy that has created this fear based professional economy of cowards?  Partially, possibly, but I started seeing this trend before the economy passed the event horizon.  So what type of organization, company, culture, or management approach is cultivating this crop of individuals?  (I use the word ‘individuals’ loosely, based on the herd mentality I have also noticed.)  What is being put in the drinking water at these IT companies?  Probably most importantly, what can we do to reverse course on what is likely to become the silent killer of innovation and workplace happiness.

The answer is simple.

Failed efforts to improve must be celebrated.
Failed attempts at a new approach must be cheered.
Failed attempts at doing anything out the circle of comfort must be rewarded.
Failure itself must be de-stigmatized.
Failure as a term must be taken off our list of bad corporate words.
Failure must be redefined as the hallmark of a team on a path towards greatness.
To be great, we must fail.

Failure is a product of good Agile teams.
Failure is an absolute necessity for great Agile teams.
Failure redraws the lines that bound the area of comfort which typically define an average team’s actions, as they rarely or never act outside of this zone.  They rarely act outside of this zone because anything over this line represents effort without a guarantee of positive outcome.failgreatly

For great Agile teams, this line, this ‘boundary’ defines the point at which they have the possibility of improving, growing, producing results that exceed their own expectations or understanding.  This line does not bound their actions, it simply provides measure against which they can judge their ability and extent to act outside this zone.  Great teams are defined by their ability to constantly re-evaluate and re-draw this line.  The ‘boundary’ for great teams fails to bind at all and becomes a reflection of the great team’s greatness.

When I began training teams on the tenets of Agile, I trained great teams.  Today I see average teams.  And the discouraging trend is towards average being the preference.

Now I am not all about simply pointing out doom and gloom trends as I see them, I would also like to offer a practical approach to how to stem this tide.  I stated above that we need to embrace failure.  Sure, I said that in a very specific way to elicit some response, but in truth if we, as a team, only pursue those actions that have a guarantee of successful outcome, then we will only ever produce the known.  Agile teams, with short design and production cycles can actually fail, and fail quickly, while still being successful.  Short term failures are then replaced with the possibility of long term innovation.

If you always do what you have always done, then expect to get what you always got. Agile teams embrace change and often strike out into the unknown for nothing more than the possibility that they may be able to create something greater than for which they could have planned.  Agile teams are those mavericks from the past.  They are the explorers.  We must encourage breaking the chains that I see are binding teams today, teams that see their boundary as insurmountable.  We are creating teams, environments, and cultures of mediocrity.  Nothing great was ever created by individuals that made their decisions from fear.

We are either growing or dying.  We are either deciding to do great things or deciding to shrink our influence.  The decision is ours to make.  And I know what I have decided.

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