Anti-patterns to be aware of when Scaling Agile — #1 Cargo Culting

A story about “Large Company Inc.” that fell in love with Scrum and Agile.

Marty de Jonge
Jun 28 · 5 min read

When “Large Company Inc.” started with Agile they did this in one of the business units of the company. This business unit was already delivering products and services to the consumer market for a few decades and wanted to see how they could improve their time to market in a fast changing environment. Almost everyone in the business unit was enthusiastic and eager to start with this new way of working. They were aware of the success stories of Spotify, Google or 3M and wanted these for themselves too.

To help start the journey, the company allocated budgets to hire some agile experts. Management showed everyone that they were really willing to set the example by publicly undersigning the Agile Values and principles and promised to live up to them. People were open to become “self organized” and to work in “cross functional teams”.

January 20XX

They kicked it off! And successfully! The first teams were formed and everyone from IT development, customer service to the legal department and human resources became involved in this transition. Not only the way they organized themselves changed, also the mindset of how to work and collaborate with each other changed drastically. Products and services were created and prioritised based on their contribution to the overall business value, instead of based on what manager played the best hand of cards to increase his year end bonus. Products delivered to the market began to outperform customer expectations, time to market, Return On Investment and employee happiness of their competitors in the market.

These successes were reached around the same time the budget ceiling for the hired experts was hit and the results were showing that this organisation was experienced enough to travel the continuous improvement journey themselves. Internal coaches were trained, the valuesteams were firmly implemented. Time to sail ahead to the promising horizon!

January 20YY

Only a few months later “ Large Company Inc.” decided, happy with the success of the experiment in this business unit, to scale up and copy this success to the whole corporation. Representatives of other business units were send on “Safari” to learn, taste and live the vibe that was going on. The other way around, the internal coaches were stationed within the other business units to give a month of training to the assigned scrum masters, product owners and teams. They learned them everything they knew and kickstarted the transition in their fellow business units.

November 20YY

Almost end of the year. Time to start reflecting and see what has been accomplished of the targets and plans for 20YY.

What an unpleasant surprise did the management of “Large Company Incorporated” get there…!!

Although figures for the first business unit kept on flourishing, the results of the other ones were not increasing at all! Even worse, they were showing a downwards trend. What had happened? The C-level managers of the different business units were shocked but could not give a solid explanation. They had done everything the same as the initial business unit did. All Scrum events that were mentioned in “ the book” were executed. They even made attending these events part of the HR rewarding system to promote commitment. The formerly boring center square was transformed to a play-yard with free espresso and informal meeting swings. Since every business unit had his own specifics and background some things had to be tailored to fit, but wasn’t that the idea behind the Shu-Ha-Ri model? So everything was in place… What did go wrong?

Cargo Culting hit in…

Cargo culting developed in Melanesia, in the early 19th century, but really grew during World War II. During this time America stationed military bases on the island to fight the Japanese army. On these islands they builded runways, harbours, hangars and signal towers to coordinate the movements of soldiers and cargo.

To the indigenous inhabitants, who were used to living in very difficult conditions, and who would work hard even just to have enough food and shelter, these cargo planes and -ships arriving meant they became familiar with all kind of wonderful things. From canned pineapple to prefabricated steel huts. The second world war went on and life was good for them.

However, when the war ended, the soldiers left and the cargo supplies left with them. The locals responded to the soldiers’ departure in a surprising way: they used bamboo and palm fronds to build their own runways and airplanes. Why did they do this? Because they thought it would help bring back the real thing! Although they really built very nice copies of the equipment, the cargo of course never arrived again resulting in big disappointments and even fights on the islands.

This is what happened at “Large Company Inc.” too. They experienced that Agile and Scrum methods worked well in one part of the organization, so they adopted these methods and rituals in other business units in the expectation to get the same outcomes as the first one. Trying to scale up this success by blindly copying the visual elements but not investing in understanding the root causes of this success, working on the mindset, inspect, learn and adapt did not bring the same results.

Reality is your friend.

Sometimes, your friends tell you hard things. If you think you’re doing Agile, you must step back every so often and ask: Can I respond to changing requirements easily? Do I have confidence that I could run the current build and see part of the system work? Am I seeing my family on a regular basis? Or did we plan to work overtime over Christmas to make our commitments? If you aren’t seeing easy response to change, regular working deliveries and a regular schedule with a normal workweek, you have a cargo cult.

Did you like the article? Then it would be awesome if you’d clap 👏🏻. I am also very keen to learn what you think about this topic.

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Thanks to Willem-Jan Ageling, Paddy Corry, and Wemanity

Marty de Jonge

Written by

As an agnostic change agent I am a descriptor of what is happening on the various business monkey rocks. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

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