The Cargo Cult Agile Approach

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.

So what is a cargo cult?

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.

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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