Culture Wars: Agile vs. Colonization

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I don’t feel like I fit in the world of Agile software development.

At least, not always. My background is as a creative performer and artist — I went to school for theatre, and continue to explore my creativity in various side-gigs and hobbies.

Yet somehow, I landed a career in Agile, first as a Scrum Master and now as an Agile Practitioner. Regardless of the how and the why, I’ve been working in the field of Scrum/Agile for about seven years now, and recently I’ve been analyzing my relationship to Agile: why I’ve stuck with it, what resonates with me, etc.

The answer seems simple to me:
Transparency. Authenticity. People.

But for a long time now, I’ve had a sour taste in my mouth for certain aspects of Agile — and I think recently I’ve figured out why.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m relatively new to Agile. In the past seven years, I’ve been a member of a Scrum Team (doing QA testing), a Scrum Master, and now an Agile Practitioner (working mostly with Scrum and Kanban teams). In addition, I’ve only been employed at two organizations. So my first-hand experience is limited, but what I’ve seen is:

It doesn’t work.

The Agile Manifesto is all well and good, but inevitably, the processes and structures that are put into place by well-meaning Agilists…crumble. It may be due to new leadership. It may be due to underlying problems. It may happen while the leader of the Agile transformation is there, or after they’ve moved on to new opportunities. But from what I’ve seen and heard from many in the field…it doesn’t last.

I should clarify that my definition of “not working” here means generally one of two outcomes:

  1. The company at large fails to adapt or adopt Agile methodologies, so an Agile team remains somewhat trapped working in the confines of something more rigorous and “structured.”
  2. The Agile transformation is all well and good, but completely steam-rolled when new leadership or executives come on board with their unique game-plan. That’s not to say their plan is wrong, but often lacks context into a current structure and team dynamics. They see where the team is, not how far it’s come. Thus, that Agile transformation can get overlooked or ignored/rewritten/distorted/etc.

This creates an odd contradiction. Every lecture, conference or book that I read says Agile works. Every instance I’ve seen or heard from people’s anecdotes says otherwise.

So which is right?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I asked this question of a well-known Agile coach at a recent Agile conference, and finally found the words to express the discomfort I felt, figuring out why I felt so uncomfortable with this contradiction. Paraphrasing slightly here, I essentially stated the following:

“As someone relatively new to the Agile space, there’s a lot of evidence to the fact that it is not sustainable or does not ‘work.’ Meanwhile, experts and coaches and speakers say it does. So my belief in Agile becomes nothing more than Faith. Speakers and ‘prophets’ of the Agile Manifesto become like televangelists, preaching a gospel that I must somewhat blindly believe in.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think the values in the Agile Manifesto are overall, excellent. Placing people first is in my mind, the morally responsible move. But my issue here is that Agile has become like a religion.

  • We have our “Holy Book” in the Agile Manifesto.
  • We have religious leaders and speakers in our coaches and panelists at conferences.
  • You could even say we have standards in how we practice our belief, with Stand-ups, etc.

The problem is…I have a deep distrust of religion, some of which I know comes from many faiths deeming my sense of love and sexuality to be sinful.

To place my faith in something I can’t see is frankly terrifying for me.

I think those of us in the Agile world value trust. It’s really hard to establish trust based on faith alone. So I’ve been in a bit of an identity crisis, to dramatize this (but hey — my background is in drama, and you saw my headline, so don’t act so shocked!).

The more I think about it, the deeper the connection goes. To analyze it further, we have to look at how religion has traveled through the world’s countries and cultures throughout history.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

History is not my strong suit, I’ll be real clear about that.

But what I do know is that it’s not pretty. The United States in particular has a sordid history around colonialism, slavery, cultural appropriation (and frankly, outright theft).

Religion in particular plays a large part in Colonization throughout history, but to break the analogy down to bite-sized pieces for the sake of this thought-piece:

Culture is either eradicated by force, or transformed dramatically, by an emerging player who deems that their way of life and their culture (or religion) to be superior.

This is (while cutting out many of the complexities) the basic element of Colonization that I want to focus on here: to replace what is existing with what the powerful force deems to be “better.”

And THIS is where Agile gets real murky for me.

Agile professionals are frequently brought in as agents of change and transformation: our purpose is to change the way things have been working (or not working, depending on your point of view), and a lot of that comes down to changing Culture.

I suspect many Agile professionals are going about this the wrong way, or are forced to, by the trappings of their work environment and existing hierarchy/expectations, etc. If you come in and start radically changing the culture at a company, then you are doing disingenuous work. You are colonizing the company with what you deem to be superior, whether you’re right or wrong.

What should be occurring is a Cultural Exchange, where people discuss the way things are at a company, the way things could be, and then work together to build a sustainable future that satisfies all parties.

That truth can be hard to admit. If you’ve been brought on to change something about workplace culture, and discover that changing it too much would be the wrong move…it’s incredibly difficult and scary to limit your goals. To show restraint. But at the same time, that’s showing trust in the people at that environment. Isn’t that what’s important to us? Not how well we “succeed” in our roles.

Sometimes I think Agile, being born in a corporate Capitalist environment, was unintentionally biased towards domination rather than collaboration; dictatorship rather than democracy.

Take a look at the words we use, for example:

  • Scrum Master
  • Product Owner
  • Agile Manifesto

It’s very “my way or the highway.” And I’m not the first to write about that. Heck — there’s a whole forum of folks asking about it on Scrum.org

Even Scrum itself is a term originating from a fairly violent and aggressive sport (no shade to Rugby though, I’m originally from the town where it was invented in the UK), although I can see the case for sports being about team-work, etc.

When we go in hard as change agents, sometimes office cultures and processes struggle to adapt, especially long-term. We encounter more resistance, we start bending the Agile frameworks more and more to “make it work,” and slowly can transform into dictator-like roles over the people we are trying to help, or we eventually we move on to better opportunities elsewhere. What remains behind…usually doesn’t remain too Agile. At least not in the long-term.

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

So, where do we go from here?

Honest answer? I don’t know.

I think it’s on each of us in the Agile field to examine what it is we do, WHY we do it, and whether it is not only successful for our companies and teams, but sustainable after we move on. Too many in the field provide Mary Poppins experiences: they fly in to assist a team or company, make their lives better, and then leave.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen the sequel: Mary Poppins Returns, but suffice to say SHE HAD TO RETURN. What she set up was not sustainable long-term.

If there is a point to this (and I hope there is) I believe it’s this:

Culture is a beautiful thing. Sharing cultures is a beautiful thing, too. However, there is a right way to share cultures and beliefs.

We as humans have struggled with finding that line between right and wrong time and time again — but if we as Agile professionals wish to hold true to our beliefs, we need to put people first. That means doing it right.

You shouldn’t force someone to believe what you do. You shouldn’t force someone to practice what you do. But you can share it, model it.

Perhaps they’ll find it helpful to them and their work. Perhaps they won’t.

But if they do, that lasts. That’s sustainable. No matter what processes and policies and structure comes after you retire or move to another job, they will have chosen to carry on your culture and definition of “Agile” (whatever that means for you).

History shows us that cities crumble, empires fall. Yet somehow, cultures survive and carry on.

If that’s not agile, I don’t know what is.

Creative professional working in Agile transformation. Singer, songwriter. Digital artist. Queer Agile Practitioner who values honesty and authenticity.

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