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Form without Function – Acting without Effect

You have to be very strong now: A few user stories and daily standup meetings won’t make you agile. All right, now it’s out. There’s no point in cloning Spotify. mitating the form, rituals, and practices without understanding the essence of them and the logic behind them are ineffective cargo cult.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
Richard Feynman, 1974

Agile methods and especially scrum have tremendous potential for cargo cult. For the simplicity of agile practices, on the one hand, because the agile manifesto was created as a countermovement to heavyweight software development models. On the other hand, because of the principles that are difficult for hierarchical tayloristic organizations to implement and, in some cases, even unimaginable.

Self-organized teams, that take full responsibility for their product and therefore gain extensive decision-making power? We’d rather not be that agile. Teams that all work differently and nobody centrally dictates a common working method? Where would we go! Looking into the eye of uncertainty and accordingly preferring to sail on sight instead of planning large-scale programs in detail for three years – mind you: for approval? Difficult when the only career path leads through projects and programs to line management.

Nevertheless – or precisely for this reason – the results of agile organizations have a seductive effect on traditional industrial companies, especially when they have to compete with new and usually more agile competitors due to new technologies with enormous disruptive potential. Admittedly, they want to become as adaptable and innovative as those. So no longer thick concepts, just user stories. And quickly the work packages in the large-scale program called epics. A little planning poker to estimate and a daily stand-up every day. A few more foosball tables and ready is the cargo cult: form without function – acting without effect.

Agility essentially means adaptability. The aim is to deliver something useful at short intervals, to obtain feedback on it and, based on this insight, to adapt the strategy and plan the next steps. Agility means sailing in unknown waters as a team on sight, instead of confronting uncertainty with detailed plans and then clumsily putting them into practice in the typical tayloristic division of labor with many handovers. Research studies in epic breadth to clarify the scope to the last corner are not very agile, but rather testify to old thinking. Of course, you can name the complete requirements for the next three years user stories and the work packages of the associated large-scale program epics and plan them in detail, but this won’t become agile despite the foosball tables.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
Louis Sullivan

Form follows function. Not vice versa. Agility is based on principles. The known practices and methods are only phenomena of the principles and not the essence of agility. The fact that Spotify and other agile organizations have similar practices is due to the common agile principles. However, the practices alone do not lead to agility. Here too, as is so often the case, correlation must not be confused with causality.

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Filed under: Agile


Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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