Monday, 23 November 2015 11:15

Is Agile a Cult?

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Agile: a set of software development principles in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Agile software development is insanely popular at the moment. It offers a responsive way of developing, and companies are adopting it at a rapid rate.

I’m not going to talk about the benefits of Agile – a simple Google search will tell you more than you need to know.

What I do want to touch upon is a comment that someone made to me – “Agile is too much like a cult“.

So, let’s have a look.  Is Agile a cult?

Definition of a cult

  1. A small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.
  2. A situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much.
  3. A small group of very devoted supporters or fans.

– Mirriam-Webster

Which applies?

Looking at the above definition, it is obvious that Agile does not fit into the first explanation. What about the second one? (Or the third?)

The Cult Checklist

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. published an article in which he describes patterns found in cultic environments. Let’s see how Agile measures up.

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

I’ve got to admit that I have met lots of Agilist that are of the opinion that anything non-Agile (aka Waterfall) is inferior and wrong. In fact, any discussion on “Agile vs. Waterfall” can turn quite heated with those supporting Agile to be very  passionate about the “truth”.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Refer to my comments above.

Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

I haven’t seen any evidence of this. (Unless you can consider the “weekend Hackathons” that are often held by ‘self-organising teams,' as a debilitating work routine.)

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Nope … 

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

Well, I have detected a certain “elitist” tone when Agile supporters talk about their passion. I’ve even heard someone say “We are Agilist – we don’t believe in …”. How well this fits the description?  You decide.

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

Definitely a polarized us-versus-them mentality. Primarily when discussing non-Agile development methodologies but, to the best of my knowledge, this does not cause conflict with the wider society.

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

It is true, however, not even relevant.

Related Article: 5 Lessons From Working With Agile and Waterfall Teams

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

I burst into laughter when I thought how Agile could fit this description …

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Laughter again….

Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

Nope …

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Not really.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Aren’t we all?

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

See my comments above on Hackathons.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

If this is happening, I feel that I have missed out. No one every encouraged me to live or socialize with other group members.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Well, I know that the Agile “true believers” are unwilling to consider anything that is non-Agile. To even mention the phrase “fully documented requirements up front” would result in feeling the true wrath of the Agilist. (Note – this is not something that I am even recommending. It can be dangerous). However, most Agile supporters that I have met do not fit this description. (There is no fear of reprisals.) 

So – is Agile a cult?

Yes and no.

Looking at the Mirriam-Webster definition, Agile is something that people admire and care about very much (or too much). True Agilists are very passionate about the Agile methodology and often have disdain for anything that isn’t Agile. You see more Agile “groups” than with Waterfall (for example). And there seems to be a need to identify with each other, and promote Agile to both “non-believers’, and well as to those who already are followers.

However, Agile certainly does not have all the characteristics that Langone describes in his essay. There is no “mind control”, or strict, unquestionable, rules.

All-in-all, I think we can all sleep safely in the knowledge that our children are not going to be dragged off to some Agile compound somewhere.

Do those promoting Agile seem a little over-enthusiastic (albeit zealous)? Or is it just healthy passion for something that is a good idea? Leave a comment below.

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Mark	Owen

Learning is good....Applying is even better. On a journey...


+4 # Adam Alami 2015-11-24 16:01
Interesting! It’s like reading my mind. I’ve been to few job interviews where ‘Agile’ is used as a project execution method. And each time, after the interview I had this funny feeling that ‘this is not ok!’ I felt like I was interviewed by a ‘cult’, none of the questions where diving in the core of my set of skills. All questions where ‘Agile’, ‘Agile’ … At once stage I started questioning whether they hiring me for my ‘analyst’ and ‘IT consultancy’ skills or to be a member of a ‘cult’. ‘Agile’ doesn’t make me a better ‘analyst’. My Value Add is not ‘Agile’, it’s analysis. ‘Agile’ is the method and the execution process to achieve the outcome. Without analysis, design, development, testing, change management, etc. the execution process is handicapped.
‘The group is elitist’. Because I have extensive background in phased project management, I felt I was looked at with inferiority and each time I questioned ‘Agile’, the reaction was aggressive! In each of these interviews, after approximately 10 mins, I decided ‘this is not for me!’
Recently, I published an article regarding whether agile ‘reduces complexity?’ Some of the comments from ‘Agilists’ where emotional!
This over enthusiasm and subjectivity makes me concern about how ‘analysis’ and project managements would look like in the near future?! Especially, we have no quantitative or qualitative data to assert ‘Agile’ claims. We should not forget that the phased approached helped delivering trillions dollars worth of projects in the last decades! Like anything else it has it flaws and strengths.
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+1 # Mark Owen 2015-11-24 16:44
Thanks for your comments Adam. I don't deny that Agile is useful, but, as you noticed, sometimes people forget that Agile is just another way of running a project. It certainly has its strengths, but it doesn't mean that a non-agile method is inferior.
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+3 # AM 2015-11-30 16:37
Agile may not be a cult, but it may be better to ask why so many agile proponents fit the "zealot" definition far too well: "a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals". The way they discuss "Waterfall" (which doesn't seem to exist as they describe it) seems to resemble the way early Christians talked about Judaism and "blood libel".

How about we all just be open-minded and take whatever works best for the situation you are in? What that is "agile", "waterfall", or picking and choosing from as many processes and philosophies as seem appropriate?
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+1 # Adam 2015-12-02 02:57
I couldn’t agree more! It’s about the best fit. Each project has its unique ecosystem (complexity, constraints, organization culture, scope, etc.). It’s naïve to assume that one methodology or process will work for every ecosystem!
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0 # Mark Owen 2016-01-25 14:32
Haha...I like your thoughts.
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0 # Anonymous 2017-02-16 15:35
I found this today b/c I had the exact same thought...agile really is a cult, great analysis....but in my experience I would change 2 of your "nopes" to yes. I work for an organization that's trying to use Agile for infrastructure. ..its a difficult fit. We spend hours per week in meetings saying roughly the same things we said in the previous meetings, but we aren't allowed to say "same thing as last time" we're told to actually repeat the same things as if they're new every day.

"denunciation sessions" are called retros...where you point out things that aren't working and are told not to think that way.

"The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel"-today I was told that we all have to get on board and only say positive things "or it would go badly for us." We have meetings to talk about what we're going to talk about in upcoming meetings. Our mgmt is telling teams..."That team is more agile than your team...why haven't you guys bought in?" Our stories are treated as units of work, when some take 2 seconds and some take 2 weeks...they're all equal and used to point at people to say they work slowly or they work efficiently.
Deming would roll over in his grave.

At the end of the day, we work to get paid and if they want to pay us to be inefficient...i ts frustrating, but the options are to suck it up or quit. Lots of people have quit, so the dissenting voices are getting fewer and quieter. Soon, everybody will agree Agile is perfect for infrastructure.
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