Is Agile a Cargo Cult or a Reality for Your Team?

Mass Bay Chapter

Johanna Rothman works with companies to improve how they manage their product development--to maximize management and technical staff productivity and to improve product quality. She is the author of Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects and the Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It: Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management. She is the author of the forthcoming Agile and Lean Program Management: Collaborating Across the Organization. See her blogs and more of her writing at

A cargo cult occurs when people adopt rituals expecting some good behavior to occur. They really don’t know why they are doing these rituals and don’t understand the reasons behind them, yet they keep doing the rituals expecting great results. In this article, I’ll give two contrasting examples that I’m familiar with: Project A talks the walk, Project B walks the talk.

Agile: The Talk of the Town
Everyone’s talking agile these days: refactoring, iterations, story points. Everyone’s got the lingo. Are they really doing agile to get the benefit of it? And does that matter?

Project A claims that it is working in an agile way. It has a product owner. It uses two-week iterations. It demos and conducts a retrospective at the end of the iteration. And it feels as if agile has “let them down,” a quote from several team members. Why?

Members never finish what they commit to for an iteration. The product owner is only available for the demo, not to explain a feature when anyone on the team has a question. Their retrospectives are no longer than 15 minutes--and they never have action items from the retrospective. And although they claim to be doing two-week iterations, the iterations are a development iteration followed by a testing iteration. The developers and testers rarely work together on a story. Project A has trouble …

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"Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems."

- Rene Descartes