Cargo Cult Agile: The ‘State of Agile’ Checklist for Your Organization

TL;DR: The Cargo Cult Agile Checklist for Download

You want to know the state of agility in your organization? Here we go: Download the checklist, distribute it generously among your colleagues and run a quick poll. It will only take 5 minutes of their time–and then run an analysis on their feedback. If the average number of checkboxes marked is higher than nine, then you are probably practicing cargo cult agile. Consider changing it. Or abandon your agile experiment altogether. But don’t refer to it as “agile” any longer.

The State of Agile: the cargo cult agile checklist for your organization by Age of Product

Everyday Failures in Applying Agile

Agile methodologies, like Scrum, have been on the rise across organizations of all kinds and sizes for some years by now. Many consultants responded to the increasing demand for agile practitioners, particularly from corporate organizations, with rebranding themselves.

I do not mind professionals pursuing new career opportunities. But pretending to be able to practice “agile” by taking a shortcut, for example reading some books, has increasingly resulted in collateral damage to the agile community. And the damage is tainting the reputation of a great way to build software. A significant part of the developer community meanwhile seems to despise Scrum, for example.

In my experience, “agile” — e.g. Scrum — isn’t learned from books or from attending workshops, but in the trenches when confronted with real problems and the urge to ship the product. Hence, it is not too difficult to figure out, when the introduction of an agile methodology or framework to an organization didn’t work out as planned.

If some of the following observations are common in your organization, you might be experiencing a phenomenon often referred to as “cargo cult”.

A cargo cult generally describes a movement that applies a set of rules to the letter without understanding for what reason they should be practiced.

One of the well-known cargo cult examples with regard to technology was described by Richard Feynman:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war, they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head for headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential because the planes don’t land.

Source: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“, page 340.

It turns out, that Scrum seems to be particularly well suited for cargo cult agile. So, best practices become rules overnight. And rules need to be enforced. And if the people don’t live up to them, if metrics are not met, then you need–of course–more structure, more rules “to fix agile”.

What Is the Purpose of the Cargo Cult Agile Poll?

The purpose of the whole exercise is to start a conversation about what part of your agile transition is going well and where action needs to be taken. The cargo cult agile poll supports this approach in several ways:

  • It is anonymous—no one will hold back, contrary to retrospectives as a competing format to gather feedback.
  • The poll delivers data, it’s no longer a gut feeling, and hence a good basis to start talking to the management.
  • It is very affordable.

Download the Cargo Cult Agile Checklist as a PDF

You can download the following list of 25 issues as a PDF, print and use them for yourself. If you do so, I would appreciate your feedback on how this worked out for you and what manifestations you would add to the list.

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The Cargo Cult Agile Checklist

Now let’s have a look at some typical manifestations of cargo cult agile within an organization. The checklist assumes that you are using Scrum, but can be applied generally to other agile practices accordingly. (A final note: The list may become less applicable with an increase in the size of the organization in question.):

  1. (Product) vision and strategy are not communicated
  2. Roadmaps with fixed release dates are provided for a year ahead by the CTO
  3. No one from the organization is talking to customers
  4. CTO and stakeholders insist on every change to be approved by them in advance
  5. Offline boards are banned for confidentiality reasons
  6. Product owners are bypassed by stakeholders talking directly to the CTO
  7. Stakeholders decide on shipping product increments, not the product owner
  8. Projects are shipped only when completed, but not incrementally
  9. Stakeholders are prevented from talking to the Scrum teams
  10. The product backlog is defined by a product council
  11. Features of doubtful value are being pushed through, e.g. to secure bonuses
  12. Sales is promising non-existent features to close deals w/o including the product owner
  13. Deadlines or fixed schedules are still in use for noncritical issues
  14. Product management isn’t granted access to business intelligence to make informed, data-driven decisions
  15. Stakeholders communicate to product and engineering in the form of requirement documents
  16. Product owners spend time mostly on the creation and administration of user stories
  17. Sprint backlogs are changed on short notice after the sprint started
  18. There is a dedicated Scrum team even for bugs and minor change requests
  19. Scrum ceremonies are never attended by any stakeholders
  20. Velocity matching commitment is the main metric to measure the success of Scrum
  21. Developers are not participating in user story creation
  22. Scrum teams are changing in size and composition, depending on the number of simultaneously running side projects and task forces
  23. During stand-ups, the team members are reporting to the Scrum master
  24. Retrospectives are held regularly, but no changes follow
  25. Scrum teams are not cross-functional and therefore depending on other teams or departments.

The Cargo Cult Agile Litmus Test For Your Organization

Now, here is a fun game for everyone involved in agile processes in your organization to check the health status:

Print out this post–or download the printable PDF version instead–, and distribute it generously among your colleagues. Ask them to go through it and check all boxes that apply to your organization–it will only take 5 minutes of their time. Then run an analysis on their feedback and assess your situation:

  • 0 to 2 boxes: I would like to talk to you how you managed to do that. Care for a Skype-call? Or would you like to contribute a guest-post to my blog?
  • 3 to 5 boxes: Well done! You’re on a good way.
  • 6 to 8 boxes: There is room for improvement. Lot’s of it.
  • 9 to 14 boxes: If you haven’t very recently embarked on your agile voyage, then it is time to change your approach.
  • 15 to 20 boxes: Okay, start over with agile–it is not working in the current set-up within your organization.
  • 21 to 25 boxes: You either haven’t started going agile yet. Or you are sugar-coating command-and-control structures to look “agile”. It won’t work, by the way.

Conclusion: The Cargo Cult Agile Checklist

There is no “agile by the book” that automatically works well within your organization if you only stick to the letters. You will have to identify your version of “agile” by yourself. Start doing so by testing things that have been successfully used by other organizations in the past.

If those work for you, too, great–stick with them. Otherwise, move on. It is absolutely okay to adapt or even drop standard agile rituals in the process if it helps to figure out, what is working within your organization. And don’t hesitate to change or adapt any best practices as you see fit to make them work within your organization.

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12 thoughts on “Cargo Cult Agile: The ‘State of Agile’ Checklist for Your Organization”

  1. quick nit-pick: the correct english name of Feynman’s book is “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” 🙂
    here’s a few simple ones:
    1. team is collocated, but does standups and other ceremonies on the phone
    2. team doesn’t show up for standups if Scrum Master isn’t available
    2. roles and responsibilities are clearly demarcated and no one steps outside of their role (“good AC were the PO’s job. they didn’t do it, that’s why we didn’t deliver”)

  2. Hi Phil,

    thanks a lot for the comprehensive feedback; it’s much appreciated! 🙂

    (1) Question #4: “Stakeholders” is here referring to internal stakeholders, for example, other departments of the organization.
    (2) Question #8: Agreed, “incrementally” can be misinterpreted. I am referring to postponing the shipping of valuable products increments, thus missing the opportunity to learn from the reception.

  3. Hi there, responding following your request on Twitter. The above is a good approach. I like it., and can imagine myself using something like this.
    Question 8 I find really important and I don’t think you quite do justice to it. Have you gone live, have you challenged the product strategy to agree to release something that is workable in production (even if if gives no user value – there is value in the knowledge of being able to go live) but not EVERYTHING. So does the project have a production release schedule of multiple iterations of the product to reach the originally anticipated end point (which will probably change by the time you get there). Be careful with the word incremental…
    A lot of cargo cult implementations I have seen are from third party suppliers, where CTO, is really the Senior Delivery manager / programme manager from the supplier, might want to define your actors at the start of your checklist. Stakeholders mean?

  4. Great checklist for Retro! would it be ok for me to translate the list to Chinese and reference back to this article? Thank you

  5. Very insightful and comprehensive list in my opinion! I would like to suggest one extra item “The product owner does not continuously collaborate with the Team” since I heard from others that this happens very often, in such cases the Scrum Master acting as “product owner placeholder”.

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