Opinion: Racism in the Agile Community Hinders Learning

| by Amr Elssamadisy Follow 0 Followers on Sep 13, 2009. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes |

Earlier this month we published The Role of Project Managers in Agile by Vinay Aggarwal which contained some non-mainstream ideas concerning self-organizing teams.  Unfortunately there were racist remarks left by readers.  These remarks were removed and the offenders were banned.  But this brings up another question, that of, "how does racism affect or ability to write and deliver software?"

Vinay made an argument for project managers as very highly qualified individuals who are absolutely needed on teams to shore up the weaknesses of the members of a self organizing team:

Agile coined a new term called ‘self-organizing team'. I am personally a big fan of self-organizing team. It works fine many times especially in those cultures where people display very high standards of responsibilities and duties in public life. This is because people carry forward these high standards to office also and become a perfect match for ‘self-organizing' team. To have every employee working in a self-organizing mode is the dream of all corporate. But like all human beings are different and unique hence not everyone can be eligible to be fit into ‘self-organizing' team. e.g. every doctor cannot become surgeon or dentist or orthopedic but still every doctor is useful to the society. Similarly it's impossible to expect from everyone to work in a ‘self-organizing manner'. Though same individuals (who does not fit into definition of self-organizing) can still be great contributor provided handled differently. This is where role of project manager becomes very useful who with little or more (depending upon individual) supervision can extract the best work from a team member.

When we decided to publish Vinay's article at InfoQ, we did so because his point of view was contrary to that of the crowd. Here is a man who is reporting weaknesses of self-organizing teams as he has seen them and suggesting a solution that his teams have used. What we had hoped, was that this would spark a debate where the mismatch between Vinay's report and others would help clarify when self-organizing teams work and when they don't. Unfortunately, what we found were several racist remarks and a few more dismissing his understanding of self-organizing teams.

Which brings me to the point of this editorial. We - the members of the Agile community - owe it to ourselves to welcome confrontation and be diligent in calling out places where those who question us are dismissed. Only by questioning the way we work with an open mind can we really learn and grow. This is true for us as individuals, and as teams, and as a community. This example is a glaring one, but every day I see many in the community dismissing new ideas by labeling the ideas (or in this case, their authors) instead of addressing the issue.


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Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Michael Hart

I didn't seen any of the now-removed comments, so I can't comment on the racist aspect of those, but I was struck by the language used by the author in the original article:

"[The] concept of authority is more relevant in those societies which are still evolving and yet to reach a maturity level"

Societies that are "still evolving"? At best this is culturally insensitive, at worst, it in itself is just plain racist. Who's to say that one society is "more evolved" or "more mature" than another?

It's thinking along these lines that led to tragedies committed against indigenous cultures, my own country Australia being one, where a Stolen Generation was borne out of a government policy that involved removing children from Aboriginal parents "for their own good" under the assumption that the white culture at the time was somehow "more evolved" or "more mature".

Now I'm not sure exactly what the author was trying to portray with this sentence - and I'm sure it wasn't intended to be inflammatory - but it doesn't surprise me in the least that there would have been reactions to this in a racial context (and that's not, in any way, an excuse for any comments that arose that were out and out racist - two wrongs, etc, etc).

If you don't want a racial debate to start, it's probably best to steer clear of such comments altogether.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Przemyslaw Pokrywka

I hope that Vinay just meant "different" and not "still evolving" that is a very unfortunate wording. I would put a clear distinction between good and bad points of the overall message.

It is bad to judge societies, to tell which society is more evolved. As Michael noticed, who is to say that?
It would be also bad to ignore differences between societies, each of having its own strengths. Agile has clearly western origins. Applying it in other societies probably has better results, when the differences are taken into account.

Agile and ... by Lars Nielsen

Agile and general mood of people, agile and racism, agile and personal life, agile and how your boss is behaving, agile and performance reviews, agile and religion, agile and ... when we talk about agile it seems to me that any aspect can have an agile angle as long as someone needs to be published.

Re: Agile and ... by Dave Rooney

Because Agile puts much more emphasis on the people, all of the other aspects of your message come into play. If you want to believe the Taylorist view that the process is everything, then your comments are bang on. However, people aren't made with a cookie cutter - everyone is NOT the same.

Dave Rooney
The Agile Consortium

Impact of Culture by Dave Rooney

I too didn't see the original comments, so I can't, um, comment on them.

I have, however, coached and trained Agile teams in North America, Europe and Asia. There are differences in the cultures in those areas, and even difference between the U.S. and Canada. I had to adjust my approaches at times in order to accommodate those differences.

I think that Vinay's use of "still evolving" has to do with the culture and not physical aspects of the people. In the U.S., for example, I saw a very distinct tendency to push people as hard as possible for as long as possible to "increase productivity", Sustainable Pace be damned. Canada does this too, but at nowhere near the same level. In France, Sustainable Pace is a way of life! :)

These are by no means racist, but simply differences in our respective cultures. That isn't a bad thing - I personally don't want the entire world to have a homogeneous culture! It means, though, that we have to be open to accepting these differences and at times adjusting our approaches accordingly.

Dave Rooney
The Agile Consortium

Re: Impact of Culture by David Liu

I didn't read the comment either. However, I think any comment is just personal opinion. You can agree or disagree. I agree with Dave that we need to be open.

The purpose of Agile is to develop and deliver high quality software fast. Maybe we need to slow down the development. The greediness leads to competition; the competition leads to fast development; The fast development is damaging our environment, our earth...

Re: Impact of Culture by Amr Elssamadisy

However, I think any comment is just personal opinion.

Yes, but some comments are appropriate for a public forum and some are not. I did see the comments and they were of a derogatory nature towards people from India.

At the same time, I would like you to consider a further point, the point of some comments creating an environment of animosity and fear and therefore do not allow the free exchange of ideas.

Re: Impact of Culture by Kurt Christensen

Very true - it's always very easy for the offenders to accuse the offended of being overly-sensitive. If, as agile practitioners, we care about building community, then we need to think hard about how to have conversations like this.

Having said that, I do believe the conversation is important, but is usually ignored because it is difficult. I have worked with fantastic and, um, less than fantastic developers and testers from Canada, China, India, Germany, the U.S. and the U.K. In every case, culture mattered. But never was culture a purely positive or purely negative factor. Treating the members of your team (or teams) as unique and worthwhile human beings is the starting point. And probably the ending point, too.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Vinay Aggarwal

Hi Michael and Przemyslaw,

I am not a good cricket or soccer player. I am still evolving – trying to learn these sports. And we have great cricketers and soccer players who have proved time and again. In front of those players, I am very immature in these sports. Similarly, I am not a good doctor as well.

Now if someone calls me – "Vinay is still evolving" to be a good soccer player, good doctor– it’s absolutely OK even if they directly mention my name in this statement. I don’t mind in fact this is the fact that I have not attained proficiency in these areas. Where is the problem?

Now, I just extended this to a very broad level without naming anyone. Anything becomes racist when it is directed to a single person or community representing common behavior. I still fail to understand where is racism in this very generic and broad level statement.

Globally, crime is on the rise. Pains and problems are also on the rise. This of course means something somewhere is wrong. That also means some of the people (be it leaders or common man) are not mature enough. Again, I just summarized this in one small phrase at generic level saying “…societies which are still evolving…”. I didn’t target anyone but it could not be or could be applicable to anyone on this planet. What is racism here and where is the problem?

I suggest one should try to understand the concept in a holistic way with bigger picture in mind instead of getting offended by a few words from the article. I am open to further discussions.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Fay Simcock

Surely all cultures evolve all the time? If you look at any country today, aspects of its culture are widely different from the same country 50 years ago. Logically one could assume that the western countries are the most rapidly evolving because they have the shortest history.
I thought Vinay wrote an excellent article and made some points that I could certainly relate to. Incidentally, I saw a post yesterday on another linked in group that considered the role of project manager to be most closely linked to that of product owner. If you think about what the product owner does,then it's not so much a question of supervision but more about communication of what the organization and its clients find important. After all, the only reason for making any software is to fulfill a need from someone for that product. If that need is not communicated then the self-organizing team will have difficulties to satisfy the client.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Clint Farleigh

In my experience, culture has nothing to do with the personal responsibility required for self organizing teams. I've worked with responsible and irresponsible people from many different cultures. I think the problem in the summary above is with this statement "especially in those cultures where people display very high standards of responsibilities". I have yet to experience this culture you mention.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Clint Farleigh

In my previous post, I really mean "my problem", not "the problem". My point is really that people are people across all cultures. In this world we tend to go between "all people are great and will make the best decision" (no regulation) and "people are evil morons and we need to make sure they make the best decision for the greater good" (heavy regulation). The reality is closer to most people are well intentioned will make the right decision but you always need to account for the few that are not. This applies to all aspects of life. I think this is what Vinay is suggesting. However, I think my point is that all cultures are still evolving.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Matt Giacomini

Clint, great point!

"especially in those cultures where people display very high standards of responsibilities"

I have not experienced this culture either.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Clint Farleigh

To refer to the actual point of this post (how racism affects ability to write software). I don't think it does.

I think what happened here was a couple of people felt that Vinay was making reference to his own culture as displaying high standards of responsibility (which I doubt he was) and decided to handle this the childish way rather than making the comment that culture may not matter in determining whether a person needs supervision to be effective.

This type of reaction is very unfortunate, but it certainly appears to be common. In the United States (where I currently live) you don't have to look very far to find it.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Vinay Aggarwal

Hi Clint,

You are absolutely right. Be my guest :). First of all, I didn’t make any reference to anyone. Second, even in my wildest dream – I will not refer to my own culture as displaying high standards though at the same time, I am proud and passionate about this. In fact, whole mankind is evolving and this is very much applicable to me and my surroundings as well.

And you are also right that couple of people might have mistakenly felt that Vinay is making reference to his own culture as displaying high standards. This might have led them to react sharply. This makes me wonder how someone can misinterpret in a big way. To some extent, I being author, I own this communication gap. But I also expect people before reacting sharply in public space, they should be very sure if their understanding is correct.

That’s why I always give so much emphasis on explicit communication. Communication is the root of all conflicts and happiness. If we make a little attempt to be careful and show sensitivity to others – life can be much easier. And this again is applicable to me as well and this is very generic statement (before someone starts reacting sharply again :))


Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Vinay Aggarwal

I agree 100%.

"especially in those cultures where people display very high standards of responsibilities"

I myself have not experienced this culture either.

I being author would like to clarify - this is a generic statement put in a nice and politically correct manner ONLY to link it with high self-organizing standards of Agile. There is no other intention.

Re: Er... wait... pot, kettle? by Clint Farleigh

Thank you for the article.

Evolving .. may be not, but perhaps "mature" ? by Rukshan Jayaratna

I would relate to the original article, if I understood the 'Evolve' issue in the following way.

Countries on this side of the world*, that are fairly "new", has more younger generation who are in parrelels with "older"** world. I would compare, where a Team Lead from this part could be as 5-10 years younger!

Hence, evolved - is more of a maturity of Age. Obviously a professional with 5 years of whatever experience, does have some level of maturity.

Then it makes sense, little bit more "management" is needed to facilitate the self evolving team. For example, in Agile we speak, team members pick from the Backlog, well, over here, young teams actually want the Tech Lead to hand them over the most suited issue.

*Sri Lanka (where I'm from)
**Sweden (most of our clients from)

Note: I did see the racial remarks. It was nothing to do with the content, imho.

Is Agile itself racist? by D Bridges

I found this article because I realised that an unmanaged agile process can be very culturally insensitive to the point of being racist and I went searching for acknowledgement of the problem. Instead I found a solution... Project Managers.

"especially in those cultures where people display very high standards of responsibilities"

I have not experienced this culture either.

As many have said they have not experienced this as a cultural trait and neither have I.

Low personal standards and poor work ethics are specifically attributable to individuals. The problem arises in my real life situation where the low personal standards of an individual are overlayed with evolving cultural sensitivities.

Agile expects openness in communication and when problems occur that communication can be quite negative.

Some cultures and individuals can't handle criticism well when it comes from a person they perceive to be lower down the caste system (the developer).

The person raising the issue can be labelled racist or culturally insensitive by the individual and superiors for simply following the Agile process and openly providing negative feedback.

We all need to consider that we're developers who deal with logical and rational systems and not psychology professors with theses in cultural sensitivity and the as yet unnamed socially rampant phobia for "fear of being racist"

The presence of project managers to oversee the individuals and ensure that everyone is doing there job and to provide the muck rakers at the bottom with someone to have a quiet word to is a necessity for mixed culture Agile teams. Particularly in the early days of Agile implementation.

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