Oppression, Revolution and the Future of Scrum #2

Oppression: The unjustifiable placing of a burden on someone or some group, by interfering with their powers, interests, or opportunities. Oppression may be deliberate, or an unintended outcome of social arrangements; it may be recognized for what it is, or may go unremarked even by those oppressed. — The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy © 1994, 1996, 2005

We tend to think of oppression only in its deliberate form, when used as a weapon to subdue the conquered or to quell the sense of unrest and the spirit of uprising in the lower classes, but oppression exists in many forms, and does not only affect poor, underprivileged people. We can observe many levels of oppression in large organizations today, amongst middle class, well paid professionals.

As an example, consider cubicle culture, so ingrained in our idea of how people work in the software industry — yes still, even after 10+ years of Agile. Isolating someone in a cubicle is an act of control, a way of ensuring compliance. Prisons throughout the world use the concept of solitary confinement as a form of punishment — some would say punishment bordering on the ‘cruel and unusual’, or even torture: it is so deeply unnatural for people to be isolated from one another. One’s imagination does not have to be stretched far to see the similarities between a corporate cubicle and a one-man prison cell. Without the support of their fellows an individual is more vulnerable to suggestion, and more likely to tow the line. Is this the deliberate intention of a cube farm? Possibly not, but it is the outcome.

But it goes far beyond office layouts. Games of power are played out daily — often with great zest within the upper echelons, but with ever-dwindling willingness as we move down towards the grass roots of an organization. The oppression that takes place is sometimes conscious, but more often is “an unintended outcome of social arrangements”, and manifests itself in the phrase “it’s just the way we do things around here”.

Such oppression is usually hidden beneath the niceties of corporate behavior, beneath so-called socially acceptable norms. At its most insidious it hides beneath a facade of ‘fun’, ‘teamwork’, ‘community spirit’ and other such fashionable buzzwords. In the oppressed people it takes the form of silent compliance, the fear of making mistakes (CYA) and a general sense that it is better to make no decisions than to make the wrong one. It is better to delay than to act. The result of this corporate oppression is inertia: it is stagnation. If this oppression is not recognized for what it is, it cannot possibly be surfaced and dealt with. An organization groaning under the burden of such oppression can never be agile, no matter how many nice facades it puts on itself.

As well as oppression at the individual company level, there is the additional fear-based culture across companies of compliance to “standards”, e.g. SOX, ISO 9001, CMMI. I have twice observed the effort exerted to meet such standards by those forced to comply. It was a pathetic sight — fearful workers, terrified of making mistakes, outwardly exhausted and inwardly cowering. I don’t exaggerate. Others may have a different experience; this was mine.

But who is responsible for the way things are? The oppressors? Society? It would be easy to apportion blame, and carry on the same way. The reality though is that the oppressed person himself is the culprit. In a democratic society we have choices. If we are oppressed (and we are) it is because we choose to live that way. “There can be no really pervasive system of oppression . . . without the consent of the oppressed.”Florynce Kennedy

This is all well and good, and a simple two-step solution would be to a) recognize it and b) act differently. The reality though is trickier. Too often the oppressed don’t want change; they simply want to be on the other side of the oppression. That is the ugly reality we live in. We have all seen individuals rise to middle-management and change behavior accordingly, fitting in to the system and emulating their superiors. Many of us have seen teams fall apart through infighting — indeed a key part of the Scrum Master training course is focused on dealing with such situations. Reward systems in most software corporations are based on individual superiority, and to be superior, others must be considered inferior.

Commenting on the syndrome of in-fighting between oppressed natives in colonized countries, Paulo Friere notes “Because the oppressor exists within their oppressed comrades, when they attack those comrades they are indirectly attacking their oppressor as well.”

He goes on to say “on the other hand, at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them.”

If large monolithic bodies such as IEEE and PMI are the oppressors in the software industry, then it follows from Friere’s observations that the smaller process innovators, the ones who once kicked back against the style of management represented by these bodies, will now wish to emulate them, to essentially become them. The Scrum Alliance events, for example, are moving from intimate gatherings of passionate people to corporate sponsored events with big-name keynote speakers, in essence becoming identical to all the other mainstream software conferences. The PMI, champions of the oft-scorned waterfall process, are now being looked to for advice and support. This isn’t progress, it is regression, or at best circularity. The spirit of revolution so apparent in the beginning of this movement has all but disintegrated, as we march to the corporate drum.

Where does Scrum fit into a landscape of compliance and corporate emulation? Quite possibly it will be absorbed back into that culture, watered down, commoditized. It will be made nice. And in 20-30 years time a new generation of dissatisfied, disempowered workers will start the revolution all over again.

We all desire change, but evidence indicates we don’t know how to go about getting it in any deep and lasting way. By recognizing the reality of the oppression we live in, by facing it, acknowledging its truth, perhaps we can shake off the shackles of ingrained behaviors and begin to think and behave in new ways. And in doing so perhaps we can reinvent the world — or for now, at least the software industry.

16 March 2009