Is Agile Communist?

Whenever we start talking about “collectives” and not being completely in the realm of the individual, we inevitably see comparisons to Communism.

So I found this very interesting article written in 2007 called “Does XP/Scrum Violate the ‘Agile Manifesto?’” written by an anonymous blogger who refers to themselves as the “Software Maestro.” (I have not delved more deeply into this blog to figure out if they de-cloaked at any point).  I also found this article, on agileadvice.com, also from 2007, which argues back in a very cogent, unemotional, way.

Ramses II photo by Iamimesis

Ramses II photo by Iamimesis

Software Maestro’s article aligning Agile with Communism should be considered as its very interesting viewpoint starts to pierce some of this puzzling over leadership and the role of the individual within the Agile world.  It’s back to the Big Idea, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the need for leadership and vision for the team.  Who gets to have a vision?  Just the Product Owner? Just the Master? Just Steve Jobs?  Just George Lois? And so on.

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein, c. 1536

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein, c. 1536

To contextualize, my own thinking about extreme individualism and extreme collectivism has always been that they end up at the same point: the will of one single person imposed on all others.  At one extreme you have Hitler and at the other extreme you have Stalin.  Or perhaps at one extreme you have Ramses II or Henry VIII and at the other you have Mao or Pol Pot.

Both extremes have a rich all-powerful guy, who has god-like qualities for “The People,” telling everyone else what to do.  And possibly killing people who disagree. Thus have I personally always preferred the Middle Way.  Or even to be off this grid between two extremes altogether.

And for more contextualization, for those of you who don’t know what “XP” is, it is an abbreviation of Extreme Programming, a coding technique mostly pioneered by Kent Beck, Ron Jeffries and Ward Cunningham.  They co-signed the Agile Manifesto which reads:

Manifesto for Agile Software Development
We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

So, to get back to the point, which is the comparison of the manifesto to Communism (which, incidentally, also has a manifesto), Software Maestro creates an example of a manager who decides to impose XP on a development team that, in this case, is close and working well together. Here’s the scene the Maestro describes:

Let us consider a team of around 7 developers, some of whom are senior, some junior, some who are pro XP, some anti XP, some pro pair programming, some anti; all of them enjoy programming in a way that maximizes their “flow”, but like any creative process, some members are more productive in an office, some at home, some at late hours, some in cubicles.

In the scenario, some of the team members do not want XP. Software Maestro asks what does the manager do?

A) Respect the individuals and abandon XP in favor of keeping their team and all of it’s individuals that they value and trust OR

B) Fire the XP holdouts and attempt to hire replacements for the ones who were frog-marched

Maestro holds that actually to be truly Agile, paradoxically the manager must do “A.”

Next Maestro compares the group ownership of code to communal farms in Soviet Russia (which a later poster comments they should have used Mao and China instead as an example as it would have been more accurate). Maestro talks about expecting generalists to work in specialist ways, or specialists in one area to adopt specialties in another. Everyone is equal, as they would (supposedly) be within a Communist Context.

Kurt Vonnegut's Portrait

Kurt Vonnegut's Portrait from http://www.vonnegut.com

It reminds me of this short story by Kurt Vonnegut, published in the conservative National Review, that begins:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law, they were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else; nobody was better looking than anybody else; nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

[By the way, full disclosure, I was once insulted by Mr. Vonnegut at a party for my old boss, magazine editor Clay Felker.  A friend who observed this said to me “Cool!!!  You just got insulted by Kurt Vonnegut!!” And now I get the pleasure of being able to name drop two masters (literature and media)!] 🙂

You might see Maestro thinking, as Vonnegut does, that in 2081 everyone will be equal because they’ll all be “normalized” onto Agile teams. The meritorious individual will be overlooked, subsumed to “The Team.”

David Brooks, New York Times

David Brooks, Columnist for the New York Times

What this thinking misses, however, is the fact that Agile teams are a smaller unit, and, if you look in the context of a Scrum team, rather more like a sports team.  The team is facing a challenge together in order to get a goal.  The team, in its retrospective, reviews the strategy they used to make it to that goal line, and revises so they can face off the next series of impediments together.  This way they can succeed together, make the goal.  The team doesn’t hold back a specialist so “everyone can be equal.”  The team wants Michael Jordan to make a basket or, er, Steve Smith (?) to do whatever it is they do in Rugby. Here again I will refer to David Brooks Social Science Palooza series, both I and II. Brooks says (and I’ve quoted this before, but twice is nice!):

Joachim Huffmeier and Guido Hertel tried to figure out why groups magnify individual performance for a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They studied relay swim teams in the 2008 Summer Olympics. They found that swimmers on the first legs of a relay did about as well as they did when swimming in individual events. Swimmers on the later legs outperformed their individual event times. In the heat of a competition, it seems, later swimmers feel indispensible to their team’s success and are more motivated than when swimming just for themselves.

The point being, it isn’t about being equal. It’s about using all the unequal elements to push oneself to one’s limit, not for oneself, selfishly and as an individual trying to get and grasp onto for oneself, but for the team and team’s goal.  Read Brooks’ pieces after reading this critique of Agile based on a view of “human nature.”

Back to Maestro, another criticism is made is of the daily stand-up, with a comparison to a group confessional. For me this has connotations of re-education sessions and really resonates because I know someone who has been through re-education (and re-education, communist style, complete with electricity, has continuously been shown not to work).

There is definitely risk here, that someone’s viewpoint will not be heard, but how much less of a risk than that of the risk that reality won’t be faced by the traditional out-of-touch command-and-control executive, choking on cigar smoke in the executive suite over cocktails brewed from self-delusion!

Maestro concludes that:

..for those of us living in Democracies that really do respect individual rights, this is just another example of not only how inconsistent XP/Agile/Scrum is, but how out of touch with reality it is in terms of respecting the rights of the individual.

(By the way, emphasis is all Maestro’s.)

Hm. “Out of touch with reality.”  “Respecting the rights of the individual.”

In the context of training classes I have indeed seen situations in which an individual chooses to suppress their ideas within the group in order to gain group cohesion.  I’ve also seen groups suppress an individual’s ideas, refusing to consider those ideas because they do not fall within the group’s concept of how to solve a problem.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I myself have stood back from the desire to “take over the group” so that I could force myself to learn to let that power go. So in Agile I have found that GroupThink is a pitfall (among others – see this article by Daan at stuq.nl).

What the Agile Advice blog says, however, is that the political issues that Software Maestro addresses are not the point of Agile.

Alistair Cockburn has said:

Core Scrum is 3 things:
1. Deliver every month
2. Let the team decide
3. Inspect & adapt
XP = self-discipline
Scrum = self-organization
Crystal = self-awareness
Good Agile = all three

Agile Advice points out the following in their refutation of Software Maestro’s post:

  • Communism is the workers holding the means of production; Agile the means of production are still the individual; the code is the output, the product, not the means.
  • Communism aims at producing a classless, stateless society; Agile aims at producing working software, responding to change quickly, and creating value.

To put the final touch, the writer on Agile Advice says:

There is one important way in which agile methods are decidedly not communist: every individual owns their own creativity, experience, and knowledge and is only asked to share willingly (and usually in exchange for pay such as salary, stock options or outright corporate ownership). I believe this passage clarifies things nicely:

Marxists define economic systems in terms of how the means of production are used, and which social class controls them. Thus, in capitalism, the means of production are controlled by the bourgeoisie, (the “capitalists” – the owners of capital), while in socialism they are controlled by the people’s elected representatives and in communism they are controlled collectively by the people themselves. [Means of Production] Agile methods, if anything, tend towards capitalism in this regard.

I added the emphasis on “share willingly.”  I actually think that it is possible that an Agile environment may actually allow for more individualism.

Why?  Because the individual is no longer subsumed to the Mighty Hero.

Rather, as Dr. Cockburn says to me in his email, it is “Let the Team Decide.”

In fact, I would argue that Agile is more individualistic than Command-and-Control methods of management.  With Agile the Middle Way becomes possible.  Otherwise we start to manage closer to the Feudal method in which we have the Knight in Shining Armor, the Grand Hero, coming to save us all.  We lose our responsibility to save ourselves.

In the Communist model we might no longer need to be saved but then what do we really do? The most frequent observation I had from friends coming back from touring old Soviet Russia was that no one wanted to do anything.  Old School Economists might say that’s because there’s no incentive.  What would Agilists say?  I suspect they’d say the team had no shared goal and were still under a command-and-control system.

In fact, I’d hypothesize that the result of the command-and-control system in either a capitalistic or a communistic society can have close to the same results.  In the capitalist society, the workers don’t want to do anything because its all about money, not about values. Take the famous example of the GM plant workers putting coke bottles in the doors of cars to annoy customers.  Some might blame unions. But in fact it isn’t unions or corporations that is to blame, if you look deeply.  It is the lack of value orientation.  In Communist society, we think, workers don’t want to do anything because they won’t get any more money.  But couldn’t it be because there really is no more goal? Nothing to “win?”

Finally, it is possible that the Agile Framework is actually more democratic. The tricky part is what Dr. Cockburn calls “self awareness.”  That means part of the task of becoming Agile is being aware of ourselves and each other so we don’t fall into any of the three pitfallsLyssa Adkins also talks about this in some of her training courses for coaching and emphasizes “serving” over “helping” and “fixing” because Ego is not the controller.

Software Maestro in fact takes an issue with this lack of ego, stating:

There is no right to ego either; everyone is viewed as equally capable on a project and no individual takes credit for any of their contributions. It’s all about the team.

The implication here is that the meritorious rise of the capable person is held back by Agile.  In practice, though, is this true?  In a smaller team, is it possible over time that the village would rather allow the person most capable to be their chief? To be their captain?

In fact, after going through the exercise of writing this post, thinking about it a bit, I am concluding that the individual is better off on an Agile team.  It is on an Agile team that an individual has any sort of chance when faced with monopolizing Big Ideas.  The challenge then becomes for the individual to make small compromises so that the team can get something done. And for some “compromise,” for sure, is a dirty word.  It carries the connotation, for some, of settling for something less than “great.”

It remains for Agile teams now to prove that this is not true, that Agile can incite greatness as much as the whip-wielding master.

Note: I inadvertently clicked on that “Apply All” for Recommend Links in WordPress not realizing what it would do to this post. 🙂  Oh well.

Advertisements

10 Responses to “Is Agile Communist?”

  1. Software Maestro Says:

    Hi

    Thanks for reading and blogging about my post.

    A few comments:

    1) As I pointed out in my blog post, many communists did the collective farms things including Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc

    2) I specifically claimed in my post that Scrum and XP are communist and/or lack of ego; then you go and say Cockburn this and Cockburn that; that is not the same as Scrum or XP

    3) You will often see XP refer to “collective code ownership”, and that it’s all about the team and not the individual

    It seems to be a straw man to say that “Agile/Cockburn” does not fit the pattern I ascribe to scrum/xp; but Scrum and XP do fit the pattern I ascribe to it, especially if you base it on the source literature.

    Software Maestro

  2. magwep Says:

    Thanks for your interesting response! You are right, it could be I have emphasized Crystal Clear over Scrum, being a noobie, not distinguishing between them as much as I should. I’ll give it a think. Thanks!

  3. Phil Ruse Says:

    A very interesting post. However I’d suggest this ‘plight of the individual’ exists to some extent in all companies, certainly the ones I worked for, and very few practiced Agile.

    My own experience is the larger the company, the greater the plight. Alas I haven’t nearly enough exposure to gauge a feeling for how/if Agile affects this equation.

  4. magwep Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve had a rather different experience in which at times the individual can hide in the context of large corporations whereas the smaller company makes that harder. Within my industry it may be possible for teams to decide to do “stealth agile” – adopt agile practices without the company rolling it out formally. Certainly even an individual can take the approach of “inspect and adapt” and thinking of work in iterations. I suppose it depends on the context.

  5. iredmedia Says:

    Great article. I personally feel that agile is a methodology, not a prescriptive method. As with any social order, you fall on a spectrum. I believe in “Inspect, and Adapt” and the core values. I can be reasoned with, where ‘value’ must be rationalized.

    Extremism, in any form, is ignorance. My team uses extreme programming, but we debate/discuss what we wish to do.

  6. Andrew Phillips Says:

    Thanks for the great post. I started writing about this in my blog many years ago (just posted – see http://devmethodologies.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/scrum-communism.html).

    What you wrote helped me to clarify what I was trying to say. In essence I found that Scrum is like Communism. The question is then why does Scrum sometimes work (as I and others have experienced) when Communism fails? I think the answer lies in the Ringelmann Effect and the fact that Scrum teams are kept small. Communism just doesn’t scale.

  7. Remi van Dongen Says:

    Agile 100% sure is communist since they use Mind Control, only communist do that other people respect freedom of choice. You MUST accept the Agile doctrine or you will be excluded. Agile is no technology, it is an Ideology with a Manifesto. An ideology refers to a group of people, not a skill. If you don’t accept what they force upon you, you will be excluded. I react VERY allergic to FORCE, since using force is an act of VIOLENCE and a doctrine a weapon against all people not accepting it. This is one dangerous ideology!!

    • Kevin Says:

      Remi, I understand you have strong feelings about the fundamentals, but I think you’re confusing communism with totalitarianism.

      I think one of the most interesting things about Agile, is the fact that it’s self organizing, and the teams have absolute control to completely ignore everything that is agile. That’s the beauty of agile, the force comes from self organisation. Agile can look like anything it needs to look like for that team to work, they just need to be ready to inspect, adapt, and reflect regularly. What’s wrong with that?

      If one person can’t see the light, you don’t change the world for them. Teams generally come to the best conclusions for themselves, agile is about empowering the individuals to do so.

      An ideology is only as dangerous as the hands it’s placed in.

      • Kevin Says:

        I will add, Agile done wrong, is very, very scary. A lot of professional tools done wrong is very scary. That’s life.

  8. Remi van Dongen Says:

    Message from Section 21 S21/MI21 PsyOPS, “Oversight”

    You all don’t even have an idea. Agil/Scrum/Kaban is a PsyOP. A psychological weapon of mass destruction.

    Ideology is a weapon, NAZI ideology only killed 50 million in 5 years, and that had not even been engineered like Agile/Scrum/Kaban AkA Avenger 3 Psy-DEW) there is military logistics behind it. Problem is ideology is self destructive, look how Germans 1000 year Empire ended in 5.

    We know exactly where Agile came from and we are currently investigating the logistics behind it.

    The Militairy unit responsible for this weapon Special Forces unit C102 PsyOPS.

    Invented Avenger 3 Psy-DEW better known as Agile/Scrum, all our intelligence confirms it.(Since they claim it is a laser weapon, Sure they use lots of lasers in PsyOPS and Psy in “Avenger 3 Psy-DEW” does not stand for psychological, but for laser… And we already made a backup of their original story, for security. BUSTED!)

    Ideology is always a weapon against RANDOM people, making it terrorism basically.

    Read our intelligence report, (military source of information C102 PsyOPS). Agile, REALLY is a weapon. No doubt. C102 PsyOPS says it is the most destructive weapon ever built. (Self destructive, it’s not a bullet, you need to be infected by the Agile VIRUS first)

    Read the article and our intelligence report that is just the information, plus our take on it and sources and we (Section 21) are THE experts in Counter Mind Control

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blackstar-death-what-blinds-us-remi-van-dongen-ph-d-compsci-?trk=prof-post

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: