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Has Agile become the modern-day tyranny?

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

By: Kristen Ardito | September 13, 2022 | PMO & Project Management | Agile Transformation | Change Management

Great project managers do this.

Part II of our Agile Transformation series.


Now that I have your attention, what was your gut reaction to the headline?


Defensive? Curious? Angry? Indignant? Sometimes it’s important to step back from what we spend our days defending to ask some deep questions. This is how we, and the systems we support, grow and change to support changing dynamics in organizations. Let me take a step back to explain why I am writing this article.


About 5-6 years ago I was at an Agile conference in midst of my daily early morning internal debate about which sessions to attend that day when I saw a catchy topic that caught my eye.

It was called “The Tyranny of Structure”.

This session was classified as an open discussion format, which frankly sounded like a blessing after days of being talked to and lectured to with minimum chance for discourse. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about Agile which is why I attend these conferences, and the networking opportunities are amazing; however I do grow fatigued a couple of days in with information overload. I didn’t hold high hopes for this session and thought maybe, at best, I would take away a bullet point or two to share with my teams.


I was wrong. Fast-forward to probably a half of a decade later and I vividly remember this session more than any other session I’ve ever attended, in any conference, ever.

How could this be? I’ve gone to numerous conferences, attended countless sessions, and have gotten every certification under the sun in my thirst for knowledge. Certainly, this one provocative session couldn’t be the most memorable.


I think the answer to this question comes down to a simple truth: this was a very uncomfortable, tense, and dangerous session. It broke open the possibility that everything I believed was wrong and that I was blind to the fact that Agile as it was being used in many organizations, was broken. I would actually say it felt pretty terrible at the time. I believe that I hated it so much at the time that I bothered to write a pretty scathing review of it (sorry about that).


As I’ve had time to process why this session got under my skin so much, it became more clear to me over time. It got under my skin because it triggered me. The topic, the conversation that ensued, the feeling of fury that people believed how they did, and the overwhelming fear that I was wrong about everything I believed.


Let me rewind back to that session to see if it engenders the same feelings in anyone else.


If this article provokes you, then I’ve done my job. If not, then I applaud your steadfast belief in Agile as a framework.

Back to 2017

(or somewhere around that time).


I was nearing the end of day two of a 3-day Agile conference. So far everything was going as expected. I was talking to vendors about the latest innovations from the creators of the top 3 Agile Tools that would change my life. I was eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with strangers who were bonded over things like the best formats for Retros and attending morning keynote sessions meant to spark inspiration for the rest of the day. In the evenings, I was answering work emails and re-writing my notes to take back to my teams to share. In essence, everything was going to plan as most conferences do.


Exhausted but excited about some of the things I was learning about and how I would take these lessons back to the company I was working for, I decided to take a break from the typical teacher-student formula and participate in an open discussion. The topic was “The Tyranny of Structure”.


I recall that this session was right after lunch - 2pm I believe. Just late enough in the day where we were all fatigued but not bone tired yet. About 30 of us were in the small room and there were sets of chairs and tables (and I also recall couches) on each side of the room.


The gentleman who was leading the session (although leading is probably not the right term as he declared off the bat that he had no intention of leading the session but rather opening the conversation to see where it headed), asked us a few questions about how we felt about Structure.


There was some awkward silence for a bit, and perhaps a bit of squirming. Finally some bold folks, myself included asked what was meant by the word structure.

The leader, let’s call him Jim, said that he had no intention of defining the word for us. It meant whatever we thought it meant.


Huh?


By now I was starting to get annoyed. Why was I wasting my time here? How could I possibly learn anything from this 2 hour session during prime time on the second day? Clearly this guy did not come prepared. Couldn’t he help us out by at least defining what HE meant by structure?


But I stayed. More out of morbid curiosity than anything else.

After a bit of debate, the room started to shift. Two sides were forming. There were those who were open to and embracing of the word structure, as long as it didn’t exclude individuality and there were those who, without exception, objected to any semblance of structure. Without wading into any political debates, I will say that it seems to me now, in retrospect, that elements of this conversation are relevant to feelings and sentiments I hear when I speak with people of different political ideologies.


As, with most discussions nowadays, things started to get pretty charged, pretty quickly and battle lines were being drawn.

At some point, I want to say about 15-20 min into the session, Jim advised us to move to one side of the room if we believed in structure (again, the word had not been clearly defined yet) and to another side of the room for those who believed in no structure. Anyone who was undecided, or wanted to hear what the two sides were going to come up with, could sit in the middle; however, he urged us to choose a side that most resonated with us.


Agile Transformation

He asked each side to debate the meaning of structure, and come back with a pitch to the other side about why we believed we were right.

You see, what I had failed to understand until that very moment was that such a chasm existed. Clearly, there were those who believed in structure and those who didn’t. Stated another way: some people inherently distrust any form of rules, no matter what the consequences and some people want enough rules to minimize chaos.


“But..wait,” my poor brain protested despite the obvious signs I was not going so win this, weren’t we ALL here at an Agile conference to talk about Agile? Wasn’t Agile itself a structure? Confusion set in.


I think you might guess what side of the room I chose.


Me and the “Pro-Structure” folks were a bit of a hodgepodge. There were some C-level executives, some project managers, some product managers and designers. I believe we may have had a single engineer or two but the engineers were mostly in the “No-Way” group. A few folks left the session altogether. . “See,” I told myself, this is a waste of time and I’m just too cowardly to leave.


We got to work discussing what structure meant to us. This was where I felt like I was at the right conference again. We talked about the pros and cons of capital “A” Agile vs lowercase “a” Agile. We talked about Scrum vs. Kanban and Lean. We also scratched our heads as we duked it out with our opponents on the other side of the room as we talked about governments and city planning. Certainly, we all agree SOME structure is necessary for the functioning of society right?


Not according to the other side of the room.


As we got more into the session and the debates took on more heat, I realized that maybe it was I who was wrong. Was I in the wrong profession? If all of these people have paid the money to attend an Agile conference and they don’t believe in any structure at all, what does that say about Agile?


You see, the anti-structure side of the room felt strongly that being told how to do something, in any form, is inherently stifling to innovation. To them, as soon as they are given orders to do something in a certain way, or order, they have lost their flow. The level of anger they had about the WRONG structures that had been put in their way their whole lives compelled them to lean into the chaos.


Secondly, they felt that most of the strong teams they have worked with have flourished despite the rules and processes thrown in their way. Let me repeat that: they felt that the strongest teams would have been better off left to their own devices. Scrum or Kanban didn’t help the teams do better, and only created frustrations and delays.


Hmmmm…I mean, this was hard to argue with. Yet, my side of the room persisted.



But What About Traffic Lights We Argued

But what about traffic lights we argued?

Wouldn’t we all agree that without them, chaos would ensue? It turns out the anti-structure folks would also prefer less rigid traffic rules as they felt it ended up slowing everyone down more often than not.


I’m not going to answer this question for anyone, but I’ll summarize what this conversation has done for me in the hopes that it reaches someone else out there in a position to lead Agile at an organization:




Are we really helping teams flourish by giving them structure?

I’m still not sure if I am as convinced as I once was. I can identify with the sentiment of wanting to flout convention. I get frustrated to the point of fury when I am forced to follow rules that make no sense. It actually makes it hard for me to relax if someone tells me how to do something or what to do. Tell me what you want to be done and then back off. How many times has a boss or leader told me HOW to do something, rather than telling me what they wanted me to do? Countless. And it takes me twice the amount of time to figure out their method.


My takeaway from this session and for my career is to find the right balance between lightweight structures and autonomy for individuals and teams. There will forever be a nagging voice in my head from this session when I work with individuals, teams, departments, and organizations that forces me to find the lightest weight approach to solving challenges.


While my conclusion is that Agile is not a form of tyranny in and of itself,

if it is done in a way that imposes endless rules and restrictions, takes away autonomy, or feels bureaucratic, then it may be starting to head in that direction.







About the Author

Kristen Ardito - Partner

Kristen Ardito is a Partner at Gravitas Consulting.


She is an accomplished leader in Enterprise Agility and Program Management. She has delivered a diverse portfolio of projects spanning the hospitality, QSR, retail, and media industries. Kristen believes that the success of any endeavor begins with effective change management strategies. Kristen has built her career on finding the right toolkit for each organization to unlock its potential in an ever-changing and disruptive world. Kristen is based in Florida. Get in touch with Kristen




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