Don’t put Scrum coconuts on your ears

In the years during and immediately after World War II, the Melanesian Islanders witnessed quite a spectacle. This small population of ‘unsophisticated’ peoples observed the, at that time,  largest war ever fought between two technologically advanced countries: the United States and Japan.

These natives had never seen modern civilization before. They were amazed by the vast amount of material the war opponents airdropped to troops on the islands.

They watched the troops set up an airstrip and a tower. The tower seemed to attract great metal birds who came down from heaven with valuable cargo (manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents… ). These items were shared among the population and brought them prosperity.

When the war ended, the military abandoned the airbases and the great metal birds stopped arriving. Missing the valuable gifts, the islanders started to imitate the routine practices the outsiders had.

The Melanesian people made their own airstrips out of bamboo and carved headphones out of coconuts. They wore those while sitting in fabricated control towers as they called to the great metal birds in the sky.

But no matter how hard they tried, the great metal birds never returned. Decades later, researchers found the island and the natives were still calling out to the sky with coconut headphones. ‘Cargo Cult’ was born.

Our own Scrum Cargo Cult

A couple of years ago, the de facto way of working ‘waterfall project management’,got bombarded by heroic stories about Scrum. This new system transformed organizations and delivered valuable software at a speed we had never seen before.

Can we perhaps say a new ‘superior’ culture forced a predefined process with a set of predefined roles and artifacts on a culture not aware of a better way of working? Did Scrum enthusiasts build towers and call upon planes without explaining properly why and how they did so?

A lot of companies seemed to react like the islanders. They weren’t necessarily enthusiastic about the structural changes but they wanted the cargo. They wanted the speedy results. Scrum Cargo Cult adoption was inevitable: companies started to build towers out of bamboo (figure of speech!).

They adopted the practices, vocabulary and artifacts without understanding why or how they work. Style became more important than substance. I’m sure you remember some of your own examples.

Let’s be honest

Scrum Cargo Cult is bad: it’s accidental and based on ignorance. It’s people seizing the ideas of Scrum and expecting magical, unexplainable benefits from them. They don’t realize informed usage is part of the bargain.

If you preach processes, artifacts, roles… then that’s exactly what you get. Scrum wasn’t the first and will not be the last valuable system that will suffer from assumed leaders selling their best practices using mind blowing propaganda.

Prince2, CMMI, RUP, ITIL,…,  they all suffered from the same adaptation strategy. We’re already starting to see it hurting Scrum’s reputation as more and more Cargo Cult projects start to fail. Scrum gets blamed for not delivering. The metal birds didn’t return with the expected results.

Are we doomed?

We are if we keep inventing methodologies with a copy paste adaptation. But let’s be hopeful anyway.

What would turn the tide? Should we get rid of predefined process, roles, artifacts, and best practices? Wouldn’t that  mean people could just do whatever they want? That’s not a methodology, right? Let’s assume for a second that we have nothing to fall back on: no magic, no special ingredients, nothing. What’s left?

Amazingly, the answer is very simple. It’s right in front of your noise and it always has been. You just never noticed it or didn’t give it the attention it deserved. It’s the system, your system.

The system you and your colleagues work in day in day out, the system that makes your organization unique.  Methodologies  fail when they don’t understand your system. Their goal is to make you behave as required in their theoretical system instead of adapting their theory to your system.

Therefore, I invite you to take a journey with me throughout your own system as we start to explore the wonderful world of ‘Systems thinking’ and ‘Kanban’. Let’s stop building bamboo towers and putting coconut headphones on our ears. Let’s really understand how our systems work.

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