Cargo Cults and Agile Values

What’s a Cargo Cult?

Once upon a time, during World War II, there was an island on which planes landed. The islanders loved the planes landing, because they brought goods that the islanders couldn’t normally get. The soldiers shared the goods with the islanders, and the islanders considered themselves wealthy, lucky, and blessed by the gods.

When the planes stopped landing, the islanders missed the cargo that the planes had brought, and decided they’d try to bring them back.

They did the same things that they’d seen the soldiers do to make the planes land. They created signal fires, waved at the sky, wore coconut-headphones on their ears and made replica planes from wood and straw. The cult which surrounded this sympathetic magic came to be known as a cargo cult.

What’s Cargo-Cult Agile?

As the Wikipedia author says, the islanders mistook a necessary condition for the planes arriving as being a sufficient condition for the planes arriving.

Teams and individuals sometimes make this same mistake with Agile. They believe that by following the practices of XP, Scrum or some other methodology, they’ll be successful in creating a culture which allows them to succeed.

Unfortunately, the islanders hadn’t realised that the soldiers created the airstrips because there were planes that wanted to land. The planes caused the airstrips – not the other way round! Without the planes, there would have been no desire for control towers or signal fires, for radios or waving arms, or for headphones, coconut or otherwise. And although these artifacts made it easier for the planes to land, the soldiers could have experienced some success with just a bare strip of earth and a little caution.

Agile values

In World War II, the leaders who wanted to win the war realised that planes were necessary. The air-strips helped them to use the planes effectively.

In Agile, the Agile practices that we know have emerged from teams that wanted to deliver valuable, working software, and who had discovered certain personal values that were effective in delivery. The practices they used allowed them to leverage those personal values effectively, but really, a bare strip of dirt – or any kind of process that reminded them what they were trying to achieve – would have enabled them to experience some kind of success.

I’ve found lots of different names for the values that allow teams to be successful – collaboration, trust, responsibility, innovation, camaraderie, rapport, honesty, transparency, helpfulness, forthrightness, motivation, responsiveness, agility, idealism, pragmatism, curiosity… the list goes on. They’re all wonderful ways of expressing those personal values, and I’ve seen or heard of teams succeeding with these values, regardless of which methodology they use. Partly this is because the values they’ve adopted allow them to try things out, to feel safe in questioning the processes they follow, to recognise better ways, and to be pragmatic in balancing the adoption of new ways of doing things with the responsibility for delivery.

I’ve also found that the following five values encompass pretty much everything that I’ve written in the list above, either alone or in combination:

  • respect – the belief that other people are valuable, able to teach you something and amaze you, able to succeed given experience and support, interested in others’ well-being and success, and motivated by the desire to make the world a better place; and that any behaviour to the contrary is caused by external pressures or ordinary, forgivable human frailty
  • courage – willingness to try new things which might not work, to accept personal risk for professional gain, to make oneself vulnerable in order to learn, and to lead others to do the same
  • communication – the art of making oneself clearly understood, understanding others and feeding back any lack of understanding so that it can be corrected, listening and imagining, being aware of the impact of communications (verbal and otherwise), and finding other ways to communicate when required.
  • simplicity – the ability and desire to reduce complexity, mitigate or isolate it where it’s inevitable, and avoid introducing it; to start, where it’s possible to start, without worrying about how or where it will end.
  • feedback – knowing that our perception of our world and the ways in which we model it may be inaccurate, actively seeking out those inaccuracies (which may require courage!), trusting any existing mechanisms which can inform us of those inaccuracies, and listening to them when they do.

These are the five values of Extreme Programming, as outlined by Kent Beck (the poor definitions are my own).

As a coach, I’ve run competitive workshops in which these values formed the basis of the point-scoring. I’ve seen companies, especially Screwfix, adopt Agile using these values as a backbone, and seen them successfully release projects with previously unimagined scope and resource constraints. I’ve seen Scrum adoptions that were failing take on these values and begin working out the kinks, and XP adoptions that were rigidly bound by their processes, but whose employees lived by these values, become more fluid and successful as they aligned themselves accordingly.

I’ve also seen methodologies adopted without these values, leading to rebellion and the quick return to known, established practices that don’t leverage them. I’ve seen mailing lists on Agile topics become cliques – at least, I don’t feel I can post in them because of the lack of respect shown by some participants to others. And Kent Beck himself had to add that value – Respect – because it turned out not to be as obvious as he would have liked.

Measuring values

I’ve used the Dreyfus Model of Skills Aquisition frequently to measure how well the adoption of particular practices is progressing. I’ve found it useful to map the levels to these values as well, where:

  1. Novice: still shows anti-patterns, behaviours which are not aligned with the values
  2. Beginner: behaves like a normal human being, and would be pleasant to work with
  3. Practitioner / Competent: is a model for these values, has few “off-days” and is forgiving of others on theirs
  4. Knowledgeable: maintains these values intuitively, not only as part of their work-life, and can lead others in adopting them; has become a better person as a result of adopting these values
  5. Expert: maintains these values in the face of adversity and in environments where these values create vulnerability; can articulate the benefits of holding these values both personally and professionally; can teach others and provide constructive feedback to help them adopt the values and leverage them more effectively.

That “Practitioner / Competent” level, 3, is in my experience the average that a team needs to achieve in each of these values in order to successfully adopt any Agile or Lean methodology. They also appear to lead to more enriched, fulfilling lives at work.

Landing planes

The great thing about these values is that it’s hard to introduce perverse incentives when using them as a metric. One participant in a workshop asked, “What if we just pretend?” Well, you can’t pretend to communicate better without actually communicating better. You can’t pretend to make things simpler without reducing complexity. You can say that you don’t believe in these values, or that you don’t think they’re helpful – but in my experience, teams who’ve tried them have discovered that they’re so much more fun than not maintaining them, they haven’t looked back. Even pretending to value these values leads to good habits, and the reaction of co-workers has often been positive enough to cause them to be subconsciously ingrained.

So, give it a try, and if you’re thinking of adopting Agile or Lean, land those planes first. The practices will follow, and make a lot more sense.

This entry was posted in breaking models, feedback, learning models, values. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cargo Cults and Agile Values

  1. Martin Cron says:

    I’ve seen several cargo-cult scrum projects over the last few years, where people were following what they thought was the rulebook and seriously couldn’t understand why the planes weren’t landing.

    I’ve been meaning to write what is essentially the same article for some time now. Now I don’t have to, I can just refer them to you. Thanks.

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