Scrum Notes 2013-20

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A Consultants' Fable ▶️

A good story can enlighten, can wake us up, and can sometimes strike where it hurts. Here's one I heard recently that did all three.


A zealous 19th-century missionary was visiting an African tribe. He preached to them passionately about the virtues of religion and how they should change themselves and give up their wicked habits of polygamy and tribal warfare and naked dancing and see the one true light and live by the one true moral code in the hope of eternal mercy.

His speech was translated by the chief, who had been educated at an English public school. At the end of each translated sentence, the tribe members would all shout, "Mbala!" with huge gusto and apparent enthusiasm. The preacher reached the inspiring climax of his oration and the people were all shouting "Mbala! Mbala! Mbala!" over and over again, in a rhythmic chant.

The preacher was then shown to the guest hut by the solicitous chief. "I think that went quite well" he said modestly to his host. "Indeed old chap," said the chief, taking him by the arm to steer him through the village, along the dusty track and past the cows and the goats. "Mind, now, or you'll step in the mbala." 1

I've been that missionary, evangelising Agile, preaching its virtues, and frankly just not understanding why everyone else wasn't as enthusiastic as I. How could I help them see the light? Be louder, I decided, be more visible, announce things. Tell them! Yes, a shameful memory, and thankfully this phase was short lived, and ended—perhaps quite rightly—in the organisation firing me, or to put it another way, cleaning up the mbala.

Today I don't know as much as I knew back then. Fourteen years ago I had the answers. Today, I'm not even sure what the questions are. Where once the path was clear, it is now wildly overgrown, a tangled mess. And yet, this wilderness abounds with life in a way the straight, clear path never did, never could. This pulsing of life allows all sorts of possibilities to emerge. All I need to do is relax, and tune in. This is not my default; it must be learned.

A wise friend once advised me, "Take the cotton wool out of your ears, and put it in your mouth." Sound advice, and like most good advice much easier to understand than to practice. Indeed, that same friend later said "Take my advice, I never use it". So I took it, and I put it aside. But today I'm consciously working to listen more and speak less.

But you know how it is...

The Mbala effect lingers in the form of opinions, and self-righteousness, both being like personal demons, rising up when one least wants them, and just when I think I've reached a state of acceptance, an ability to be truly open to the views of others, or at least let it go, along comes another opinion, another 'I need to tell them' moment to reveal how tough personal change really is. And in the aftermath of such moments I clearly hear the whispers of "Mbala!", even if they are mostly in my own head. Still, there are different ways to view this. I can see such moments as pillars of earth, those left by earthwork diggers to measure how far they have progressed.

Seek progress, not perfection, as another pop-philosopher friend reminds me. It's not even continuous improvement, just continual striving with occasional improvements, and plenty of set backs—and of course, from time to time, stepping in the mbala.

1 Story from Transforming Tales by Rob Parkinson, p64

Sheffield, 22/05/2018   comment