Agile as a ‘Cargo Cult’

Tim Malbon
Tim Malbon
Magic Hands by ShironekoEuros under a CC licence

Magic Hands by ShironekoEuro's under a CC licence

In our rapidly converging media world, we hear the word “agile” bandied around a lot these days – sometimes, it has to be said, by people who don’t actually have a scooby about what it really means to work in an agile way. From the outside, agile can look simply like a process for getting things done really fast within less silo-ed teams.

Rapid, iterative, profitable, engaging... blah blah blah. Who doesn't want to put a thick 'done' tick next to each of these on their to-do lists? Saying "agile" is like casting a spell. It's another one of those words with talismanic power - investing its speaker with the magical puissance of understanding digital production, as if its utterance causes the scales to drop from ones eyes in a singular transformative moment of 'getting it'. It's like the "open sesame" of integrated thinking, design and development - literally opening a treasure cave. It's like a silver bullet. It's as easy as swallowing the red pill.

Actually that's bollocks.

Where many fall down is in understanding that there is a huge gulf between the idea that agile is a process (which it isn't) and the need for a philosophical understanding of its potential benefits. It's all too easy to adopt the outward form of agile without understanding the underlying philosophy at all.

This reminds me of the phenomenon of Cargo Cults, described by Wikipedia as:

...A type of religious practice that may appear in traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magical thinking and religious ritualsand practices

The best examples of Cargo cult activity are known from the Pacific region and are recorded in the aftermath of World War II when military bases were closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, indigenous followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them. Sadly, the bases, troops and good times never came back.

My favourite example is from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where cult members worship none other than HRH Prince Philip. The ancestral story of a pale-skinned racist son of a mountain spirit venturing across the seas to look for a powerful woman to marry mutated into the Prince Philip Movement - a myth only reinforced by a royal visit in 1974 when they finally got to meet him.

Stuart promises to follow this post up with another that he says will be about the framework of agile methodologies and philosophies we use, and which we kind of believe are both important.