Cargo Cult Agile — A Checklist to Open the Discussion

TL; DR: The Cargo Cult Agile Checklist for Download

Do 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 analyze their feedback. If the average number of checkboxes marked is higher than nine, then you are probably practicing cargo cult agile in one form or another.

If running the cargo cult agile survey is the ‘inspection,’ then consider adapting your approach to being agile by kicking-off a discussion among the stakeholders of your organization’s endeavor.

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

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Update 2020-10-25: I added the updated the ‘State of Agile Checklist,’ and fixed some content debt.

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Everyday Failures on the Path of Becoming Agile

Agile frameworks, like Scrum or Kanban, have been on the rise across organizations for many, many years now. (2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Scrum.) Consequently, many consultants responded to the increasing demand for agile practitioners, particularly from corporate organizations, by 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, by reading some books, has increasingly resulted in collateral damage to the agile community in general. And the damage is tainting the reputation of a great way to build software in complex environments. A significant part of the developer community meanwhile seems to despise Scrum, for example.

In my experience, Scrum—like all other agile frameworks—isn’t learned from books or from attending training classes, 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 introducing an agile 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 well suited for becoming a victim of cargo cult agile. So, good 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 Scrum.”

What Is the Purpose of the Cargo Cult Agile Survey?

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 “The State of Agile” checklist 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 as it requires little to none resources.

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 survey 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. (Please note: The list may become less applicable with an increase in the size of the organization in question.):

  1. (Product) vision and strategy are neither transparent nor regularly communicated.
  2. Roadmaps with fixed release dates are provided for quarters in advance by the management.
  3. Members of the organization are barely talking to customers as their requirements are apparent.
  4. The management insists on every critical change to be approved by them in advance.
  5. Offline boards are banned for confidentiality reasons.
  6. Stakeholders bypass Product Owners by talking directly to developers or the CTO.
  7. Stakeholders, for example, sales, decide on shipping Product Increments, not the Product Owner.
  8. Projects or products are shipped only when completed, but not incrementally.
  9. Stakeholders are prevented from talking to the Scrum Team members.
  10. A steering committee defines the Product Backlog.
  11. Stakeholders push through features of doubtful value, for example, 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 frequently used to pressure Scrum Teams.
  14. Product management isn’t granted access to comprehensive business intelligence to make data-informed decisions.
  15. Stakeholders communicate to Scrum Teams in the form of requirement documents.
  16. Product Owners spend time mostly on the creation and administration of user stories.
  17. Stakeholders change Sprint Backlogs on short notice during the Sprint.
  18. There is a dedicated Scrum Team even for bugs and minor change requests.
  19. Stakeholders do not attend Scrum events but rely on reporting from the Scrum Masters.
  20. Velocity matching a team’s commitment is the main metric to measure the success of Scrum.
  21. Developers are not participating in maintaining an actionable Product Backlog.
  22. Scrum Teams are changing in size and composition, depending on the number of simultaneously running side projects and task forces.
  23. During Daily Scrum events, the team members are reporting to the Scrum Master or line managers.
  24. Scrum Teams have regular Sprint Retrospectives, but no improvements follow.
  25. Scrum Teams are not cross-functional and therefore depending on other teams or suppliers.

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 five minutes of their time. Then run an analysis on their feedback and assess your situation:

  • 0 to 2 boxes: I’d like to talk to you how you managed to do that. Care for a Zoom-call?
  • 3 to 5 boxes: Well done! You’re on the right track.
  • 6 to 8 boxes: There is room for improvement, a lot of improvement.
  • 9 to 14 boxes: If you haven’t recently embarked on your journey to becoming a learning organization, it is probably time to change your approach.
  • 15 to 20 boxes: Okay, start over with becoming agile–it is not working in your organization’s current set-up.
  • 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.
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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. Consider starting doing so by testing things that other organizations have successfully used in the past; see the checklist’s questions above. If those work for you, too, great–stick with them. Otherwise, move on: it is a journey, not a destination.

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13 thoughts on “Cargo Cult Agile — A Checklist to Open the Discussion”

  1. I know this is a super-old post, and the world has moved on, but I’d just like to observe that I don’t think a lot of these are good examples of cargo-cult. If the definition of a cargo cult is when the practices ARE being adhered to, but the results aren’t happening…then this is mostly a list of where practices are NOT being adhered to – so they are Scrum dysfunctions, and not evidence of “cargo-cults”. I think that when an organization is doing Scrum perfectly, but is not seeing any measurable increase in either Customer Value or Business Agility, that you might say you have a Cargo Cult going on (surely!?). From a SM perspective this is a crucial distinction as there is this idea that if you just perfect the process, then the desired results will magically appear. In other words, SM’s start to believe their job is to Do Agile, rather than Be Agile, if that makes sense.

  2. 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”)

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

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

  6. 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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