On occasion, you meet companies that outwardly claim to be agile, but on closer inspection have hardly developed or want to develop an agile culture. Agile consultants use the term cargocult for this, when organisations introduce agile methods without any utility value, but rather for symbolic reasons.
Cargocult is originated as a religious movement on some Pacific islands, where for example parts of airports are replicated out of wood and the activities of an airport operation are symbolically imitated to bring about the return of the ancestors who will bring cargo. Cargo of the kind that American troops brought to the islands in masses during the Second World War.
In my practice, the vast majority of “Cargocult” cases in companies are different. In one situation, I saw that agile methods were introduced into IT. The employees were told about this literally overnight, had no training whatsoever, but were supposed to convert all ongoing projects to agile ways of working. As it was a hierarchically managed company, this was also applied to most of the ongoing projects. The management announced after 4 weeks that they were more agile and better than the industry leaders.
The change to symbolic agile working led to significant delays in all projects. There was puzzling and interpretation by project managers on agile methods, very often with a simple misattribution like: Definition-of-Done is our old familiar acceptance protocol after all. Astonishing nonsense arose, even repressions were to be enforced under the name of agility.
The nightmare story ended after 9 months, with the management lecturing about the inadequacies of agile methods. I was approached during and after this large-scale experiment, I talked to the people. The vast majority suffered from this nonsense. A few have always been politically correct and found all things proper.
It was clear to the majority after a short time that this way of working has nothing to do with agility. Their emerging resistance eventually led to the official termination of the whole exercise. But what about the supporters, did they believe in a cargocult? I rather suspect they wanted to decorate themselves with agile clothes. They wanted to tell the world that they were now also an agile organisation. Inside, everything should remain as hierarchical as possible.
It seems reasonable to conclude that they wanted to appear modern and were not at all serious about it. It’s more like a kind of symbolic agile work to pretend something to the management and the outside world. For me, the term Potemkin villages is more appropriate, as no one expects agile culture to fall from the sky at one time or another.
“New Work” Potemkin villages are, obviously, a pointless as anything. In all the examples I know, they don’t do any permanent damage, the employees are familiar with such nonsense. A few young employees will leave in the short term. By the way, these companies also introduce legally necessary framework regulations in this way. These usually end up in a corporate department, where there are always designated ISO officers.
So the question remains: why do they do this? I spoke with HR colleagues who are usually appointed to carry out such “new work” culture changes. They were annoyed by such projects, there is almost always a lack of support, resources and budget in their companies. A transparent communication about which goals could actually be achieved with the far too scarce resources never existed in their companies.
It would be nice if anyone would say. We just want to have that written outside on the door because everyone is doing it the same way these days. However, that’s not the case…