Scrum Notes 2013-20

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A Fresh Look at Transformation ▶️

It's a new year, a fresh start. Time for reassessment, time to confront my own paradigm, and look anew at all I take for granted. My recent thoughts are drawn towards Agile Transformation, and the inevitable question: What on earth does that phrase actually mean?

Since 2004 I've been in the business of organisational change, inspired by the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the XP and Scrum movements, and the work of Peter Block, Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, Alfie Kohn, Lee Devin/Robert Austin and many other confrontational writers, thinkers, movers and shakers.

And yet not only has little been transformed, I would suggest the corporate world is more embedded in its command/comply paradigm than ever before. Only now it's hidden behind a facade of "Agile". And that's my fault. Well, ego aside, it is the fault of me and thousands of other (so-called) Agile practitioners. We've given the corporate pig permission to wear lipstick—we've even supplied the lipstick, indeed that is our revenue.

Cynical? Perhaps a little. It may be that I've just been unlucky over the past fifteen years, or ineffective in my work, or a mix of both. I'm sure there are many out there who would disagree with my assessment and cite their own success stories. I've heard many of those success stories, read the case studies, seen presentations, even been caught up in the rah-rah with more than one company believing real change was occurring. Group-think must never be underestimated. Nor justification.

So, one possibility is that I'm ineffective in my work. A second possibility is that I set a higher bar than most. And I'm going with option two for now. My hope for corporate change transcends what most people in this space set their sights on. I say that not with arrogance, but in truth, forged from years of dialog and a growing sense of frustration, of being unheard, looked at askance, and written off as an idealist. Funny that, as I take the branding of idealist as a great compliment. Thank you. Ideals matter. It is hope and aspiration that lifts our spirits. Without ideals, we cannot be whole. Realism is the realm of the dull and the defeated. So I strive for ideals—for a perfect love, without compromise.

Right from when I started this journey my hope for corporate change never included heavyweight process and procedure, never included hybrid approaches, never included the renaming of roles to include the prefix "Agile". It never included scaling models (none existed) or the madness of people actually taking certification seriously. It never included more layers of management, Agile PMOs, stables of coaches, or a hierarchy of scrum masters [ref]. And it never included almost all the things we see today in the supposed transforming companies: Management 3.0, SAFe, the Spotify Model, Jira, Rally, Version One, Holacracy, and all the other prepackaged, untested commodities sold to companies like drug salesmen sell their untested wares to doctors—and the general public. Yeah, like that.

My hope for change was an anarchic vision of companies owned and operated by the workers—people with personal autonomy, deeply engaged in their work collaborating with one another towards clear, purposeful outcomes, with managers and execs recast as visionaries, guides, mentors, subject-matter experts, advisors, and gardeners of the environment.

I still hold to that vision. What's changed is that Agile is not the method to get there. The few enlightened companies I have come across over the years, e.g. Morning Star, Riverford, Semco and others appear blissfully unaware of Agile. That's encouraging.

Agile as an ideology has become so tainted, so poisoned by consulting companies, tool vendors, and indeed by people like me that is now not only useless, but worse. It is actually damaging. If you work somewhere and your CEO announces the company is about to become Agile, be afraid, be very afraid. You are about to be subjected to all kinds of nonsense in the name of Scrum or Agile, or even "Agile Scrum" which is not actually a thing.

Agile transformation transforms nothing. And this is true whether the transformation comes in the guise of Lean, Scrum, Kanban, or some other weird, often trademarked hybrid of these massively misunderstood and abused ideas. Such implementations only prop up the status quo, giving the corporation a new naming convention for its oppressive, dehumanising system and draining huge amounts of its cash—cash that could actually be spent on increasing people's wages, and doing good in the wider community.

I've come to believe that corporate transformation will never be meaningful or lasting when imposed from the top. When transformation arrives, as it commonly does, on gold-embossed, horse-drawn chariots to the triumphant cries of sycophants and a fanfare of trumpets, it can only herald further oppression. If transformation is to occur at all it will more likely arrive on a donkey, from the wrong end of town to the joyful shouts of the downtrodden. That's you, by the way. Change will come from you—or it won't come at all.

Think about it. And do something different this year. Something altogether courageous.

Sheffield, 07/01/2019   comment