Agile cargo cult is one way of describing an organization that has adapted agile but only in name. It refers to the renaming of roles and practices so that they align towards popular frameworks like Scrum but there is little to no change in the spirit or values that drive the organization. It is a result of people who are “doing” agile rather than being agile.
Like many in the industry the thought of an agile cargo cult is something that provoked negative emotions from me. In my mind I would be screaming that these people are doing it wrong or that they’re missing the point. I’ve always had that kind of thinking and it guided the way I way I coached people and teams. I always started with the point. I taught people that it was the values that was important, I coached people on how to live by the values through their practices. I saw the cargo cult as something that’s toxic, something that I should avoid at all costs. This line of thinking worked for me until it didn’t.
Agile is a set of values that guide our decision making. This is something that everyone will agree on. The question then is how do we go about teaching values? How would we go and teach people that people and interactions are important? How would we illustrate how a team responds to change instead of following a plan? We would do it through examples, we would do it through stories and hope that it sparks something inside of them that would make it stick.
As humans, rarely do we make any meaningful change based on the story of others. Meaningful change in how we perceive things and what we value as individuals come from experience. That is where cargo cults come into the picture. Once we stop looking at agile practices as events and start looking at them as skills it opens up the way we can approach teaching them.
Looking at being agile as a skill…
Take for example a skill like cooking. You can read as many recipes and watch as many step by step videos as you’d like but until you get into the kitchen and actually cook something you can’t really say that you can cook. As a beginner in the skill of cooking, you would strictly follow the recipes. Meticulously measure all the ingredients and time the cooking process as accurately as you can. There is little thought that goes into why the steps exist or what they actually do. The focus is on following the recipe and hoping you get the results at the end. You are effectively in the cargo cult of cooking.
As you gain experience in the kitchen you learn to adapt to your own context. Imported ingredients might get swapped out for their local counterparts, the ratio of ingredients would start to change based on your own preference and you would discover new techniques on how to prepare your ingredients. It’s through this experimentation that you grow as a cook and eventually become confident enough to create your own dishes.
The whole experience of learning how to cook starts with strictly following the rules. Without that base of rules there would be no starting point for the experiments and experience that follows. When you think of it that way those who are in an agile cargo cult aren’t doing it wrong. They’re simply beginners in the skill of being agile.
Those in an agile cargo cult aren’t doing it wrong. They’re simply beginners in the skill of being agile.
Going through the phase of being in an agile cargo cult is a necessary step for some people and organizations. It is through the experiencing the cargo cult and subsequently trying to break out of it where we gain an appreciation for the values and principles. The cargo cult phase isn’t bad or toxic. It is a marker of where organizations are in their journey. This becomes toxic when organizations mistake the start of journey for the end of it.
If you like my writing check out my book The Agilist Field Guide. It’ll surely give you insight on how to escape the agile cargo cult.