Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Interviews Glen Ford on Cargo Cult Agile

Glen Ford on Cargo Cult Agile


1. [...]For our first question, for those who aren't familiar with the term "Cargo Cults", can you briefly explain it?

Ben's full question: This is Ben Linders for InfoQ and I'm here together with Glen Ford at the QCon London Conference. Welcome, Glen. I saw your talk today when you talked about Cargo Cults. For our first question, for those who aren't familiar with the term "Cargo Cults", can you briefly explain it?

Yes. The term originated from the Second World War when the Americans were fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Pacific is obviously huge, lots of violence, lots of islander communities. There are effectively Stone Age cultures. The Americans would land on an island, they would build an air strip and of course they'd bring supplies in. So the islanders would see the aircraft come in and deposit cargo and they would benefit from that, they'll get food, drinks.

As the war moved on, and the Americans would abandon these bases, the islanders would want the cargo. To them, it was manna from heaven and from their perspective it was a great metal bird coming from the sky. So they started replicating the things that they saw the Americans do. They would stand at the end of runway and wave their arms or sit in the control tower with coconuts on their ears talking, expecting these birds to come which of course, they never did. So they were just copying what they thought would bring them the result but obviously didn't.


2. How does this apply to Agile if you look at Cargo Cult?

In Agile, we see it in culture, we see it in a lot of places in our industry where people see a company that's been successful but they only see a very small portion of it and that's the portion that they try and copy and in copying it, they're missing the real substance. So it's actually quite dangerous just copying that small slither you can see.


3. Why do you think that organization decide to go for imitation?

I think it's a natural human tendency. Particularly in our industry, we're paid to be lazy basically. We're smart lazy people. We're employed to make things easier but there is a risk there that you would try and do things too easily and you would copy and pasting of stack overflow for instance and the common complaint but we even do it at senior levels. We copy things without really understanding.

Ben: So for people it's an easy way to get the culture in their organization at least. That's what they're aiming at.

Yes. They think if I buy a pool table that would make everybody happy, it will make our culture great. Well, in reality that's not going to happen.


4. Do you have examples where organizations tried to copy your culture without understanding it and what happened when they try to do this?

I've seen a few instances of particular facets of culture being copied. Things like a pool table or a football table or something being introduced to make people happier but what tends to happen is the staff are not engaged to begin with. Now, you're just giving them another distraction. Now they spend more time playing pool and they're working and I've seen that happen or people focus the idea of trying to engage their teams and really overemphasize that engagement, forgetting that actually they also have a job to do.

Ben: So it can actually be dangerous is you try to copy your culture like this.

Yes. I think it can be very dangerous. I think it causes a lot of problems. You risk introducing almost perverse incentives because you're rewarding a behavior that you don't fully understand.


5. What do you consider to be essential in organizations that want to change their culture?

I talked about in my talk that culture from an organizational perspective is a reflection of values and reflection of the most rewarded behaviors and the worst permitted ones. So an organization needs to look carefully at the sort things that it rewards and the sorts of things that it punishes when it's thinking about its culture. But I think also organizations actually need to step back and think about what they want their culture to be and think about it from the ground up rather than just tinkering at the edges.

Ben: So they really have to plan time, take time for that, to think about their culture, think about how they want to do it.

Yes. Setting aside the time to think about it and obviously in smaller organizations, that's more feasible and getting the entire company together to work through a culture can be extremely valuable.

Ben: What about a larger organization because that would involve a lot of time if they want to do it.

In a larger organization, it is much more difficult and it's better if it comes from the top. It's conceivable the senior team can take the time out to think through what their culture should be and what behaviors they want to reward and punish and then let that trickle down. Obviously it's going to take longer and a bigger organization, the more people, the more time but it's worth the effort.


6. Do you have an example where a culture change didn't go that smoothly and how did your organization deal with that situation?

We had during the evolution of my own company, we had a few instances where we thought we were changing the culture but in reality, we were only tinkering at the edges. One was a major focus in employee engagement and we wanted our staff to be happy, we wanted them to feel like they're engaged.

We put a lot of time and effort into asking them every day, are you happy? At the end of the week, was that a good week. Adjusting things to really make the employees happy but it back fired because we drifted away from what we wanted to deliver as a company. We failed to fulfill that purpose, if you like, because we were too interested in making people happy.


7. How did you find out that you were drifting away?

When you take a bench mark and you fail to deliver software on time and when you upset a client because things didn't get done that should've been done so pretty stark measurements, pretty cut and dried.

Ben: Sounds like a hard way to learn.

It is a hard way to learn and it was a painful way to learn. It's not a good way to learn but we learned from that later when we started addressing our culture properly.


8. Do you have an example of a successful culture change and what was it that made the difference?

My own company went through a massive culture research if you like when we decided that we weren't happy with the way things were working. It was about a two-week period, we had lots of discussions, lots of arguments, we tried to distill why we we’re doing things, how we wanted to do them and what exactly we wanted to do.

So it took a quite a bit of time. We didn't get a lot of real work done but we thought it was that important. We needed to get it right and it made an enormous difference to the company going forward. Our team is much happier with the way we worked, we were much more productive as a company and as a result, the outcome as a company improved markedly and we made our clients much happier.


9. What about some of the main things that you learned during those two weeks?

I think the main thing was that most of the team had very similar values and had very similar ideas on how we should work and it was much easier to bring that together than you would've though and even as a senior team looking down, I think a lot of senior teams get quite scared about adopting all these different things and different crazy ideas that the teams have but when you start distilling them all down, it actually makes a lot of sense how teams had very similar ideas.

They wanted a strong purpose, they wanted to do things right and I think that it was really enjoyable actually at the end of the two weeks to see how much commonality there was and how we were able to distill, we actually distilled the two weeks we did down into nine principles and in three groups – the why, the how and the what.


10. So this felt very rewarding also?

Very rewarding and it's also something that we can point to and guide ourselves against now and we can look back at the work we do now and say does that meet our principles? And conversely gives us an opportunity to question our principles if we think we're doing the right thing but it doesn't meet our principles.

Ben: So you have to remain focused on that.

You do. You have to revisit it. It's never static.


11. Any final advice that you want to give to people who are involved in the culture change?

Understanding how complex a culture is. It's not simply people interacting. Culture is much deeper than that. It's the rituals, the environment, all of those things that surround you. So you have to put a lot more thought into it and you have to put a lot of effort into it that is worthy doing.

Ben: Okay. Thank you very much, Glen.

Thank you.

May 23, 2016