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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 month2. Let the team decide3. Inspect & adapt
XP = self-disciplineScrum = self-organizationCrystal = self-awarenessGood 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 pitfalls. Lyssa 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.