In his session at Lean Agile Scotland today, Matt Wynne drew a parallel between cargo cult adoption of agile and the Shu phase of Shu Ha Ri learning, and suggested that this might be OK as long as the adopters didn’t get stuck there. I’ve been mulling this over (while sipping a wee drop of Scotch) and I think this is probably an over-charitable analysis.

One of the examples Matt gave was of the daily meeting being more of a status report to the project manager than open communication within the team. This doesn’t fit with a literal interpretation of this definition of Shu (taken from Wikipedia) which instructs us to “repeat the forms and discipline ourselves.” This sort of standup is really a travesty of recommended practice, rather than a disciplined observance of standups as described in any of the agile gospels. However, this common anti-pattern does fit the description of cargo cults (also from Wikipedia), which talks about “ritualistic practices” and “mimicking behaviours.”

And I think the same can be said of other oft parodied ceremonies, such as the non-self-organising team and the ignored retrospective.

My experience is that teams that adopt agile by a hollow recasting of existing practices don’t proceed further without some extra stimulus. The rituals eventually wither and die, since they provide none of the expected benefits. On the other hand, teams that adopt these practices by rote, having made some effort to understand the reasons that underly them, are in the Shu phase of learning and may derive some benefit.

I don’t have James Shore’s “The Art of Agile” to hand, but I think there’s a statement in it to the effect that you shouldn’t try to customise an agile process until you’ve had enough experience to understand how the prescribed practices work together. This shouldn’t be taken as dogma, just practical advice.

When baking a cake I follow a recipe. If I did it often enough to understand how the ratio of egg, fat and flour affected the consistency or how to modify the oven temperature and cooking time to compensate for size and shape of tin then maybe I’d take a more relaxed approach to baking. Until then I’ll restrict the expression of my culinary muse to the making of soup.