In 1962 a research group arrived with their boat on a small Melanesian island in the south pacific ocean.
Their goal was to study the local tribe of the island. Soon after they arrived, they started to observe some very odd behavior.
Every noon, the whole tribe gathered around a huge tower-like construction made of bamboo. One of the tribesmen would then start to climb the tower. Once he reached the top, he would sit down and put two coconut shells over his ears. Both shells were held in place by a piece of rope. The sight reminded the researchers of earmuffs. Strange, if you consider how close the island was to the equator.
Anyway, on the ground, the rest of the tribe started to hum. Then every member would lift their arms until their hands were level with their shoulders, and they would begin to walk around the tower. With every round, the tripe would walk faster. And the humming would get louder. Were they imitating birds?
After the ceremony, the researchers approached the tribe and asked: “What were you doing there?”
“We were praying?” one of the tribespeople responded.
“What were you praying for?”
The islander replied: “We were praying for the thunderbird to return and bless us with food.”
The scientists were confused. “What do you mean by thunderbird?”
“Let me show you.”, the tribesman responded.
He let the group into the jungle. After walking through the brushwood for a while, they arrived at a clearing, and the scientist finally understood what the tribesman was talking about.
Here’s what they saw:
The tribe was practicing a Cargo Cult
It turns out that a nearby Melanesian island hosted a military base during World War II.
The indigenous people got scared when the soldiers arrived and went into hiding. What then happened didn’t make sense to them, but it changed their lives forever.
The military cleared a strip of the jungle to make space for a runway. Then they built a control tower. And soon enough, smaller airplanes started to land on the island delivering fresh supplies for the soldiers.
Soon after World War II ended, the military abandoned the base. And the islanders returned to their everyday lives – kind of.
Over the next few years, the word of what happened spread among the tribes of the surrounding islands:
“Build a tower, climb the tower, cover your ears, and the thunderbirds will come and bring food.”
The tribes started to practice a Cargo Cult – a belief system in which they performed magic rituals that they believe will cause a more technologically advanced society to deliver goods.
Cargo Cult Agile
Many teams in software engineering also practice a Cargo Cult. When asked, what they are doing, they usually answer with something like: “Scrum” or “Agile.”
Over the last 25 years, Agile and Scrum have been sold to managers as the solution to ever-failing software projects.
But the promised improvements never manifested. In some teams, the term “Scrum” is so burned that you will stir a minor uproar of anger in individual team members if you only mention it.
I personally jumped on the Agile train in 2009 when it arrived in Germany. Since then, I’ve worked with dozens of teams. And I’ve tried to spread the word – as a team member, then as lead, then as a coach, and in recent years also as a trainer.
And I learned that most teams that say that Agile doesn’t work for them, in fact, practice a Cargo Cult.
They never truly understood how Agile works. When looking more closely, I observed that they were just imitating.
Here are a few examples of Cargo Cult behavior in Agile software engineering:
Examples of Cargo Cult Agile
Daily Status Update
One of the Agile practices that most teams get wrong is the Daily Standup ceremony.
At some point in the past, someone suggested that during the Daily Standup, everyone answers the following three questions:
- What did I do yesterday?
- What will I do today?
- Any blockers?
If you now nod in agreement, understand that the three questions above are actually poor modifications of the original questions.
The objective of the Daily Standup ceremony is for the team to devise a strategy for collaborating during the next 24 hours on getting closer to the iteration goal.
That means the first question, “What I worked on,” is the least important one.
Yet, every team member spends most of their turn talking about what they did rather than how they will collaborate. In some cases, it’s even worse; they talk about what they did, even if it had nothing to do with getting closer to achieving the iteration goal.
Another common Agile Cargo Cult practice is the attempt to have a Retrospective ceremony.
Usually, the team comes together and uses a whiteboard to gather answers to the following two questions:
- What worked well
- What didn’t go well
The problem is that the team now starts to bring up all the things that annoy them: The parking situation in the front of the office, how loud and rude the people from the sales department are, …
But that’s not the point of having regular Retrospectives.
The objective of the Retrospective ceremony is for the team to figure out how to sustainability deliver more in upcoming iterations without burning out and compromising on quality.
I’ve never met a team that was truly great at shipping features and, at the same time, had a clean, maintainable codebase. There’s always something to improve.
If the team comes out of the ceremony without any action items, they practice a cargo cult. They didn’t really get it.
Dedicated “DevOps” Team
Not too long ago, I joined a team and noticed that my latest code change did not show up in the production environment.
I started looking for the CI/CD pipeline that would deploy the latest software version, but I couldn’t find it in the project. So I asked one of the established team members where I could find it.
The answer stunned me: “We have no access. The DevOps team manages the pipeline.”
So it turns out this organization had a team to write code and a different team to deploy and operate the software.
The idea of DevOps is to combine software development (Dev) and IT operations (Ops).
The philosophy is:
That organization practiced the opposite of DevOps. But re-branding the IT ops team as “DevOps” seemed to have satisfied the CTO, who once read an article about the benefits of DevOps.
How to avoid Cargo Cult Agile
Here are a few more Agile anti-patterns that can be indicators of a Cargo Cult:
- Pull-Requests (the most inefficient way of conducting Code Reviews)
- Backend and Fronted User Stories (there’s no such thing)
- Estimating Story Points (congrats if you measure complexity and not effort, but there are still better alternatives)
- Continuous Integration (everybody claims they do it, when in fact, most of them don’t)
I could go on forever, but I want to discuss how to avoid becoming a Cargo Cult.
In the second part of this article series, I will provide some advice on judging whether your investment into Agile was or is potentially a good or a poor investment. And I will explain the four steps you can use to avoid becoming a Cargo Cult.
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See you soon,