As long as you treat every stage of agile as a necessary stage in continuous improvement, you will achieve mastery. Here I set out some mitigations for common problems, but ultimate agility requires acceptance that you have stalled.

There is a fascinating article about Pacific Island Cargo Cults on the new Historian website:

Cargo Cults developed during the Second World War as US forces island-hopped on their inexorable route to Japan. “… cults worshipping the American goods appeared in islands around the Pacific. …the Americans went back home. The islanders, however, continued to worship their newly evolved deities in an effort to convince the gods to return and bring with them an abundance of cargo.”

If you’re an agile leader and have served several teams around New Zealand, you’ll have seen plenty of versions of Cargo Cult agile. The gods of agile provide benefits just because you attend a few ceremonies. But I’m not using the phrase Cargo Cult in it’s usual pejorative, agile sense, but in a sense of it is what it is — organisations do their level best to introduce agile thinking but fail to progress from doing agile by rote. 

You’ll recognise the cult from some of these symptoms that show up when simply going through the motions:

  • Teams pull in far more work than they can deliver, but few question the fact
  • Standups regularly lasting half an hour or more with only one or two people speaking
  • Retrospectives that blame shoulder tapping
  • Standups of project or program managers without delivery teams
  • Sprints that don’t deliver any incremental value
  • Stories that straddle multiple sprints
  • Planning sessions that simply pull in everything that wasn’t finished from last time
  • Job descriptions that maintain specific roles when the company has “moved” to Scrum
  • Nobody reports anything as finished during a standup
  • Agile is seen only as a technology delivery issue
  • When retrospectives are more deja vu than problem solving.

It’s easy to see why organisations get stuck. Raising and maintaining the rigour that agile demands expends considerable energy and requires commitment to continual change deep into the business. It requires truth and courage to call out bad news and failure. It requires evidence based prioritisation and the subservience of the individual to the benefit of the organisation. You must abandon individual KPIs and heros, and elevate the team.

Most SMEs let alone large enterprises simply don’t have the skills or resources to inspect, adapt and change at the intensity required, and agile stalls once everybody is visibly conducting ceremonies and talking in agile-speak.

So here are some tough mitigations to common cult problems.

  • Don’t start work until you’ve finished what came before
  • Reporting the ruthless truth about what you completed and what you didn’t
  • Control access to delivery teams
  • Fund work by quarterly or smaller production changes. Better still, fund teams, not projects
  • Manage scope ruthlessly and empirically at program and portfolio — never take in more than you can absolutely finish in any period
  • Train your program and portfolio managers in lean, agile and kanban even if they are not in delivery — while you’re at it, educate your stakeholders, steering groups and governance forums to read agile metrics and insist on evidence
  • Align and organise your teams (or allow them to self-organise) based on the value of priorities today, not on last year’s priorities
  • Engage in quarterly program and portfolio planning and ruthlessly limit work in progress by value and capacity forecasts
  • Strategically manage your technology stack to enable how you want to work.

I know you’ll have seen all these ideas before, and that’s because they are tough to implement so we keep falling back into the cultish trap. To escape, you must find the spare capacity to cover the needed ramp up of communication, training, coaching and leadership.You have to take your company values seriously (we all have them, and they will include some form of courage and honesty). You will have to say “no” to important stakeholders and then engage honestly so they understand why you had to say no. You will have to prioritise strategic, enabling-technology over and above tactical business improvements … and more besides.

I’m bound to say you can find help with all of this outside your organisation, but, as so often, it starts with recognising the problem and committing to action.

But regardless of these suggestions, remember that process, ceremonies, strategies, plans, frameworks etc. etc. are only as good as the improvement they delivery to your customers’ outcomes — the work still has to be done, and delivery of value is king.

Forget this, and you are accepting an invitation to the Cult.