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...

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