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Cargo Cult Agile

12/10/2009 by Manoj Vadakkan

Cargo Cult Agile

By: Manoj Vadakkan, CSM, CSP

We have been saying "there are no silver bullets" over and over again. But do we really believe that? In some ways, it is like the disclaimer we add to the end our e-mails. Nobody reads it, but the legal department makes us put it there. Aren’t we (the IT industry) treating Agile like yet another silver bullet? Everyone wants to "adopt" it! Everyone wants to say that we are Agile! It is becoming more like a "Cargo Cult" (See Notes 1).

During World War II, materials such as food, clothing, and tents were airdropped to equip the soldiers and the natives in the Pacific Islands. At the end of the war, the soldiers went home and the air cargo stopped coming, but by then the natives were used to the airdropped materials. Soon, they dressed themselves as ground controllers, wearing carved wooden head sets and waving landing signals in the hopes that these activities would attract those cargo planes.

In some cases, it seems like we just have a need to say we’re using Agile practices, even if we’re really not. We don’t use those old school requirements documents anymore, instead we create user stories. We estimate in story points; Fibonacci series is fun, and so are poker cards! Sure, we do release planning. We also do a Daily Scrum; well, we cannot really do it daily because our team members already have too many projects and meetings, so we just meet twice a week. Regarding user stories, we have to write them down in the form of detail specification because our testing team is busy with other projects and not available for the first few months to really participate. Additionally, we are required to have those documents signed by all parties, scan them, and upload them to the document management system. Otherwise, how would we know what we agreed to?

So if we think adding a daily (or mostly daily) standup meeting, estimating in story points, and implementing a few other things we find in the Agile/Scrum books will save us, well, good luck! Like the Cargo Cult, we can keep wearing our wooden head sets, lighting those run ways, and hoping for the planes to land.

Like the Cargo Cult, we are getting some of those superficial elements correct. But can we really attract the cargo planes with those elements alone? Do we really know what problems we are trying to solve? Do we really understand what we are doing and why?

In order to solve problems in your organizations, you need to look inside, not outside, to adopt yet another practice, process, or tool. You need to look at what problems you need to solve and identify solutions to those problems. Certainly, Agile/Scrum practices are proven in the industry. So bring that knowledge to your organizations in the form of training, coaching, or hiring. They can seed some of the options to get to your solutions. However, the solutions need to come from within the organization. That should be what "adopting" Agile/Scrum means. These practices need to solve the problems and achieve your organization’s goals.

Here are some activities that will help you identify problems and move towards a solution.
      1) Do some soul searching: One way of doing this is to have an open space meeting. (See Notes 2)
             a. This will help you identify some of the problems you are trying to solve. (e.g. concept to cash takes too long)
             b. Help identify some of the possible solutions. (e.g. remove some of the communication barriers)
             c. Bringing people together will help the team take ownership of these problems and solutions instead of yet
                 another mandated process that comes from upper management
      2) Create a Product Backlog of concepts that the organization wants to try to solve the problems.
             a. Break those into tasks and assign resources.
      3) Get senior management sponsorship.
             a. There comes a time when you will have to rethink the organizational structure in order to solve some issues. 
                 You can remove some of the organizational barriers only if you have senior management/leadership support.
      4) Consider getting a coach, advisor, or someone who has done this before.
             a. A good coach will be able to guide you to possible solutions for your issues. Instead of just "adopting" some of
                 those silver bullets like daily meetings and iterations, they will be able to guide you to solutions to the
                 problems. A good, experienced coach can reduce the costly expense of experimenting.

There are a lot of articles out there that will help you in this transition. A comprehensive analysis can be found in Succeeding with Agile, a new book by Mike Cohn.

Have you seen Cargo Cult Agile in action? Tell us about your experience with Cargo Cult Agile.


      1. About Cargo Cult:
      2. More about open space: