The Agile Executive

Making Agile Work

I Found My Voice; I did not Find My Tribe

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Various Agile champions within the corporation often find themselves stuck at “level 1.5”, in between the following two levels:

  1. “I found my voice/passion.”
  2. “I found my tribe.”

The Agile champion typically gets stuck at this level in the following manner:

  1. He/she finds his or her voice/passion in Agile.
  2. Various other folks in the corporation agree with him/her and constitute kind of “private tribe.”
  3. However, the folks that agree are hesitant to come out of the closet and throw their full weight behind Agile.
  4. The corporation remains ambivalent about Agile.

This “1.5” phenomenon is at the root of a vicious cycle that dilutes companies, particularly these days:

  1. A round of layoffs is implemented.
  2. Just about everyone takes notice and tries to exhibit the “proper behavior/values.”
  3. Folks in the “private tribe” don’t dare come out of the closet.
  4. The passionate person who found his/her voice in Agile is like a fish out of the water. Sooner or later he/she looks for a tribe elsewhere.
  5. The company becomes more diluted on folks who are willing to try new things and have the drive to make them happen.
  6. The products and the supporting processes continue to be mediocre.
  7. Goto step 1.

IMHO The failure of many corporations to preserve Agile talent, and the resultant vicious cycle described above,  is rooted in lack of appreciation how deep  the connection between boredom and loneliness is. A young child does not know (nor does he/she have the vocabulary to express) what boredom is. The feeling the child expresses is that of loneliness. Only at a later stage does boredom get cognitively differentiated from loneliness. However, the two continue to be tied together emotionally.

Once the child grows up to become an Agile champion who found his/her voice, the boredom in the office is usually relieved. However, the twin sister of boredom – loneliness – cannot be satisfied through a “private tribe.” It requires full recognition and commitment within the corporation. In other words, it sort of demands that the corporation goes beyond recognizing the value (singular) of Agile and adopts the values (plural) expressed in the Agile Manifesto. If such adoption does not take place, an essential step to the formation of the tribe is curtailed . Without a full fledge tribe in his/her corporation, the induced feeling of loneliness sooner or later wears out the Agile champion.

This phenomenon, of course, applies to any professional passion an employee might pursue. John Hagel‘s Edge Perspectives post Pursuing Passion is a must-read for anyone who wonders how the corporation is impacted by losing the folks who got stuck at “level 1.5.”

Written by israelgat

December 14, 2009 at 5:15 am

7 Responses

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  1. Not sure I buy this at all.

    Most people I know are quite open about being “Agile”. Agile practitioners focus on business value and delivery. Two things that allign us nicely with the corporations within which we work.

    Its perhaps we are Agile practitioners rather than Agile Salespersons. We see Agile as a set of tools to help us deliver business value. Agile should NEVER EVER be the goal. Probably why “Agile Salesmen” hide in secret tribes.

    Chris Matts

    December 14, 2009 at 5:55 am

  2. Chris: Good call regarding the Project Management aspects, but would you agree that this post is correct for the developers pursuing quality in their work via Agile practices such as TDD, continuous integration, and Pairing?


    December 14, 2009 at 9:57 am

    • Dean

      I would say it applies to developers as well.

      A message of “I want to focus on delivering value. I want to be able show my code works as it should (TDD). I want to know if any changes I make break what used to work (TDD). I want to reduce the cost of deploying to production (CI)”.

      Pairing is cultural. Some places do it, some dont. Its effectiveness is less clear cut. If people want to pair they should say “This means more than one person understands this bit of code… i.e. it mitigates risk”.

      In other words explain it in how it enables the business.


      Chris Matts

      December 15, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  3. Israel, you read my mind. For the last couple of years, I have been working on transitioning our team to Agile and 90% of the team, even though it has lost its motivation, is excited about the idea of adopting this process. Alas, management fears the switch thinking that their current ad hoc process works and that Agile is just another fad that will fade with time.

    Yet after each release, management looses hours of the teams time discussing what we could have done to make the release a success. This would be positive if the information were used; however none of the discussed changes are ever followed through. The result: The next time we find ourselves in the same meeting, the team either repeats the same things or stays silent with the adage of “what’s the point?”

    Truth be told, no target dates have been met in at least 4 years (although they are constantly pushed back to give the impression that they were), work items have not been prioritized, are not sized by developers, and the majority of the team sit in their silos twirling their thumbs and not knowing what they are supposed to be working on while they wait on the others to complete whatever work they were assigned. Requirements change daily and un-prioritized (quite honestly less important features) get sneaked in, meanwhile our huge unmanaged backlog continues to grow. To make matters worse, no unit tests exist and builds are not automated.

    The sad thing is that this team just needs a push in the right direction, something to motivate them. They want to be better and know they can do better, yet they remain an unhappy “private tribe” afraid to speak up while the one with the voice, the one who is ultimately looking out for the organization and this closeted tribe, gets ostracized. Go figure.


    December 14, 2009 at 10:17 am

    • A friend of mine sent me an email on the post/thread. Here is an interesting excerpt from it:

      “I also once had a professor who talked about boredom in the active sense, that it had to do with the verb ‘to bore’, which is akin to being drilled into/ violated. Rather than a passive feeling, it is active and there is a sense of violation as a result. Absolutely this is correlated with loneliness, but in the way I have come to think of it, there is much more under the surface of boredom than disinterest. It is often an explosive state, center around being subjected to someone else’s incursions.”



      December 15, 2009 at 8:24 pm

  4. […] another recent post – I Found My Voice; I did not Find My Tribe – the vicious cycle that leads to loss of passionate Agile talent was described as follows: […]

  5. One concern I have about Agile is that it does not extend beyond the software team within an organization. Thus, the non-software teams do not understand it, especially since they do not directly use it.

    My thought is that Agile can live well inside of an organization that is on a path to become Lean. The culture of continuous learning, respect for people, and constant lookout for waste – all of this will enable Agile to succeed for the long term.

    So much of the struggle for Agile to succeed has to do with the impedance mismatch with the organization. If a specific VP is the champion for Agile and then one day he/she is gone, it is not good for the organization stability regarding the future of Agile at that firm.

    Andrew Cahoon

    December 21, 2009 at 9:26 am

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