The Agile Prison

November 1, 2016

I watch with sadness as I witness another brick placed firmly in the wall, the structure is a modern building so tempered glass is used in place of steel. The builders pay attention to make sure they follow the plans closely, as they want to build it well, for the builders will reside here once construction is finished.

Architects called Coaches arrive and are lauded for their building skills, “Yes, we got the right people, they are famous for designing strong structures”, said the blind man to his blind followers.

The grand delusion is that none of these actors realize the building they are so expertly crafting is a prison, the architects who have been designing prisons all over the land do not realize, nor the builders who are prisoners-in-waiting and certainly not the wardens, who unknowingly to them, will also become prisoners and confined within the walls they have paid so handsomely for.

The analogy of a prison comes from the rigidity of the structures that are built in the name of Agile. People are taught to follow a process and success is defined as people knowing how to follow the process. There is some benefit in this, but not much.

Life under the new agile-powered process is better than under the old hydro-powered process. The new process allows us to feel we have some say over what, how and when things are built, it makes us feel we have a voice when before we had none, some happiness can be derived from this and that is a good thing.

However, a deception has occurred and no one can see, or they are afraid to say that the Emperor is naked. Your KPI’s indicated that you had made massive progress, but all that has happened is that you have moved from maximum security, to an open prison; but don’t fool yourself that you are free, you are still very much in a prison, albeit a more comfortable one.

The way in which success for Agile engagements is measured is a key reason that we build prisons. We should be building schools. We should not be teaching people to follow a process, but how to think and react so they can think their way out of problems when their process fails them (under certain circumstances, all processes will fail due to their pre-defined limitations).

The buyers of “Agile” mostly do not understand what they are buying or what this thing called Agile looks like, so they ask questions like “When will we be fully agile?”, which leads good people astray as they get fixated on measuring how agile they are.

I was once told on starting an engagement that my U.S counterparts were ahead of us in the journey and were now 100% agile, then was asked “How long do you think it will take you to make us 100% agile?”, I sighed deeply, as this simple question told me so much about the culture here.

There are a number of other common reasons as to why these transformations are failing to provide the agility and value that they promise and I will pick these reasons up in follow up posts, as the blog advice blogs tell me that you are going to lose interest in what I’m saying in exactly 129 words time.

Most Enterprise Agile implementations are trying to measure success by counting things that should not be counted. It distracts everyone involved, is extremely wasteful and adds negative energy where it is not required.

Use your time and money wisely, focus instead on building Learning Organizations – places which are built to inspire and expand our minds as well as our company’s coffers. This re-focusing of effort will pay back it’s investment at a much higher rate than your current investments in Agile.

The key to this is learning to think, rather than learning to act. At the start of your agile journey it is useful to have a guide rope like the Scrum process to follow (or whichever flavour of agile methodologies you have selected to use), but the aim should not be to get good at Scrum, it should be to understand Agile methodologies and the underlying principles upon which they are based; and then use that information to respond in appropriate ways to the challenges that the complexity of your problems presents you.

Learn and experiment your way towards success. Don’t stay confined within those prison walls. Break yourself out and start your journey towards being a Learning Organization and not an Agile Prison (another promise for another post on Learning Organizations).

Always think, you must, a slave of process, you must not become”….It’s genuinely what Master Yoda would say if he were here.

Bruce Lee did actually say this though, and he was pretty smart “One should not respond to circumstance with artificial and “wooden” prearrangement. In combat, spontaneity rules; rote performance of technique perishes.

Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom, sharing it is the first step to humanity” Unknown

My Request: My belief, is that you knowing what I have shared with you here (and all messages written under the “Punk Agile” banner) will result in better transformations and increased happiness. If you found this helpful, I would be grateful if you could Share and / or Like this posting via LinkedIn, so that the message can spread further, beyond my network and into the lives of others who could benefit from hearing this too – Thank you for sharing the knowledge

This post first appeared here

Ash Sheikh

I think that organizational culture is broken and that it is our duty to mend and heal it for the sake of the people stuck within those dysfunctional, destructive systems. My mission is to help organizations to create humane environments which nurture and inspire so that we can unlock the potential of our people and increase happiness and engagement levels at work.

  1. Ian J FranksNovember 11, 2016Reply

    Many thanks, I am sharing this with my colleagues on our internal wiki. Great article Ash... and just the right amount of words!! ;-)

  2. Ravishankar RNovember 25, 2016Reply

    To the point and a very valid practical problem well narrated. Am roped into a situation where everyone in the client organization are talking about 100% agile by this year end and 100% automation for everything we are doing. Honestly, this shows the real culture behind the system and the glorified prisons they have constructed.

    Am happy as this article resonates my thoughts! Thanks for posting Ash!

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