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Wednesday, May 24 • 15:30 - 17:00
Agile: Cult or Culture?

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Agile: Cult or Culture? 

Steven Fraser – Panel Impresario

Cults are small communities of individuals with a shared devotion to a person, idea, or thing – particularly when such devotion clashes with the beliefs of others.  In the context of emergent technology, a cult might be seen as an early phase in the adoption of a new practice with new shared norms and beliefs – ideas that are not yet in the mainstream but over time may gain widespread acceptance.

A culture is generally viewed as an achieved state of civilization with stable norms, beliefs, traditions, and practices that have been widely adopted (and accepted).

This panel will discuss whether agile ideas, practices, norms and beliefs have achieved sufficient momentum to evolve from cult of limited influence to a widely adopted culture.  Our discussion may touch on both the scale and scope of agile adoption as well as the degree of diminishing (growing) “ideological fragmentation” of agile values and practices.

Sallyann Freudenberg

Fourteen years or so ago, when I first encountered ‘agile’ the part that really appealed to me, the bit I loved the most, was the cultural transformation. I saw an evolution from an almost silent, stark, cubicled workplace where people communicated via written documents and email – to vibrant, open spaces full of life and conversation. Where plans went from being a Gantt chart hidden away in a manager’s PC to a living, collectively owned representation on a wall. I would ask people how their work was different now and they would say things like “we know each other’s names” and “people look up and say good morning to each other now”. It all felt so much more…human.

It is only in the last couple of years that I have come to realize that this pendulum swing has actually just replaced one mono-culture with another. The tech workplace has gone from one favoring introversion, solitary work and quiet careful thinking to one (perhaps inadvertently) designed for fast-thinking, extroverted verbalizers.   In truth we have (and need) all kinds of thinkers on our teams.  Whilst highly collaborative working practices work well for some, they disadvantage others. I see and speak to people all the time whose gifts and contributions are passed by or their brilliance stifled by the accommodations they have to make to fit in to the environments we have created. If we are to create truly innovative products and solve the very trickiest of problems we need all kinds of minds. So cult or culture? I feel like the culture has itself become the cult. One of our next big challenges as an industry is to understand how to support and leverage the different brains we have. Our diversity can become our competitive advantage if we can make our collaborations truly inclusive. 

Diana Larsen

Agile-as-a-culture began when the groups of people representing different “lightweight” methodologies met over several meetings in 1999-2001 and, ultimately seventeen of them wrote and signed the Agile Manifesto. They looked for the commonalities among their approaches to create the Agile umbrella. 

Almost immediately after, the schisms began as the groups that supported the different methodologies began promoting their “agile” as the right and best agile. As disciples climbed aboard we saw agile-as-a-cult emerge. We heard about “religious” wars, cargo cults, and “are you doing or being agile?” We heard much less about the joy of working together in discovery and how the teams that embraced these more productive, humane, and sustainable approaches to work created the best jobs ever for many team members. We heard high flying promises of high performing teams, but these promises were brought to earth with a thump as stories of “fragile,” “agile is dead”, and scaling-to-fit-our-existing-bureaucracy took center stage. 

Personally, I took refuge in the ideas of fluently agile teams, refocusing on creating teams of learners in productive, humane, sustainable workplaces. Looking toward agile that is neither cult nor culture, but a means to realizing the organization design principle of jointly optimizing the social, technical, and environmental systems.

Ken Power

Though I’m wary of labels, agile-as-a-cult has some implications that the teams and organizations in question are leaning towards a dogmatic, and perhaps poorly-informed, approach to agile. Agile-as-a-culture, on the other hand, has some implications that the teams and organizations in question are actively thinking about what it means to be a more agile organization, and actively embrace learning, experimentation, and continuous improvement. How do we tell the difference?

For the purpose of this panel, I will use four indicators that help distinguish agile-as-a-cult organizations from agile-as-a-culture organizations. The first indicator is the frequency of usage of the word “agile”. In recent years I have noticed an inverse correlation between the amount of times a group will use the word “agile”, and how agile they actually are. Agile-as-a-cult organizations start to label everything as agile-this, and agile-that, and create or hire “agile experts” to be the keepers of the definition. Agile-as-a-culture organizations get on with the business of delivering amazing products and services to their customers, and inherently focus on being agile to help them succeed. The second indicator is grammatical usage of the word “agile”. Agile-as-a-cult organizations use “agile” as a noun; agile-as-a-culture organizations use agile as a verb. This is summed up in the difference between doing agile versus being agile.  The third indicator is attitude to learning and experimentation. Recall the often-overlooked phrase in the agile manifesto – “we are uncovering better ways of developing software …” Agile-as-a-cult organizations want to quickly standardize everything, create playbooks that tell people what to do, and roll out “best practices”. Agile-as-a-culture organizations embody an approach to discovery, experimentation, adaptation, and continuous learning to improve conditions for people in their organization and how they deliver value to customers. The fourth indicator is the metaphors people use to describe their people and development process. Agile-as-a-cult organizations use metaphors that emphasize a desire for repetition and speed, such as factories, machines, or race cars. Agile-as-a-culture organizations use metaphors that emphasize growth, evolution, and emergence, such as gardening, driving, or ecosystems.

Patrick Kua

As an individual, I see agile mostly as culture – living with an agile culture means adopting its values, and principles and drawing on different practices to best suit the situation. An important facet of this culture is the relentless focus on continuous improvement which means adapting practices, and sometimes inventing new approaches. Adaptation and new practices often means stepping away from the norm.

As a consultant, I see many companies and communities suffer from agile-as-a-cult. Their focus explicitly means drawing boundaries about what is, and what is not, allowed according to their rules of the cult they identify with. Strict and non-negotiable boundaries constrain those innovators who truly adopt the agile culture. Companies and communities that adopt agile-as-a-cult prevent themselves from being truly agile.

Nancy Van Schooenderwoert 

Agile is not a cult - but that hardly matters if you are one of the people who has been steered away from Agile (maybe forever) by behaviors that refuse to deal honestly with problems around the use or introduction of Agile methods.  I see 3 common situations that lead to a perception that Agile is a cult:

  • Management has put their weight behind “Agilists” (of some definition) and employees are made to feel that they dare not say anything critical about it, even if true
  • Agile is being shoehorned into a situation where it is not the best approach but advocates will not hear any criticism
  • Overly-enthusiastic Agilists, pushing too hard: For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not, no proof is possible.

Each of these has the effect of being too one-way; of not being open to all the effects that the process changes are having.  It is a steam-roller pattern when what we need is a pattern that truly invites teams to bring their expertise and to continuously shape the rules they will operate by.  This has to be based on experimentation and honesty - on the scientific method.  The rules of Scrum and even the Agile Manifesto are merely a starting point, not an article of faith.

Credentialing has its place but 14 years of certification mania has taken a toll on the Agile movement. It’s time to balance that with real inquiry, experimentation, and peer review because Agile is not a finished static thing. We need to build a culture of exploration and listening.


avatar for Steven Fraser

Steven Fraser

Impresario & Principal Consultant, Innoxec (Innovation Executive Services)
Steven Fraser is based in Silicon Valley and has served as an innovation catalyst with global influence for HP, Cisco, Qualcomm, and Nortel. In addition to a year as a Visiting Scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute (SEI) consulting on domain engineering... Read More →

avatar for Sal Freudenberg

Sal Freudenberg

Sallyann is a neuro-diversity advocate and an Agile Coach, trainer and mentor with 25+ years in the IT industry, 14 of which have been firmly in the Agile and Lean space.She has a PhD in the Psychology of Collaborative Software Development.Along with Katherine Kirk, Sal is co-founder... Read More →
avatar for PATRICK KUA


Patrick Kua is the CTO of the mobile bank N26 (Berlin, Germany), where he is building the engineering group that will change modern retail banking for people like you and me. Formerly a Principal Technical Consultant at ThoughtWorks, he is the author of three books, The Retrospective... Read More →
avatar for Diana Larsen

Diana Larsen

founder, Agile Fluency Project LLC
An international authority in Agile software development, team leadership, and Agile transitions, Diana Larsen co-authored the books *Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great*; *Liftoff: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams*; and *The Five Rules of Accelerated Learning... Read More →
avatar for Ken Power

Ken Power

Software Engineering Leader, https://kenpower.dev/
Ken Power has held multiple positions in large technology organizations. His current responsibilities include leading global, large-scale engineering organization transformations. He has been working with agile and lean methods since 1999. He holds patents in virtualization and network... Read More →
avatar for Nancy Van Schooenderwoert

Nancy Van Schooenderwoert

President, Lean-Agile Partners, Inc.
Nancy was among the first to apply Agile methods to embedded systems development, as an engineer, manager, and consultant. She has led Agile change initiatives beyond software development in safety-critical, highly regulated industries, and teaches modern Agile approaches like Mob... Read More →

Wednesday May 24, 2017 15:30 - 17:00
Jan von Werth 1 12th Floor

Attendees (29)