What Do The Walking Dead and Agile Have In Common?

I was recently called an Agile Whisperer by a client. He was referring to my soft-sell pull approach for introducing agility elements into his organization rather than the alternative hard-sell push approach.

I was pondering that label of Agile Whisperer as I sat down to watch an episode of The Walking Dead on Netflix.

And then, I started to see a connection between the two.

Scene from The Walking Dead S10E3:

The Alpha Whisperer sends wave after wave of zombie walkers towards the post-apocalyptic village of Alexandria and its survivors. The village survivors, armed with knives, swords, spears and cross-bows, form a line around the village walls to defend against the incessant swarming hordes of undead. The survivors tirelessly take down each zombie, one by one. As soon as one is dealt with, another rises to take its place. It’s a relentless nightmare of zombie wack-a-mole!

Sometimes, my experience as an agile coach feels like that of an Alexandria survivor. Riding and responding to a relentless series of Zombie Agile waves. Wave after wave of misguided, misinterpreted or fake Agile. The appearance of Agile on the outside hiding a mangled soulless mess of angst and bloody confusion on the inside. Each wave generated from an organization’s existing culture responding to and resisting change.

Here are some common Zombie Agile waves I’ve had to contend with.

Wave 1: A wave of unengaged, apathetic leaders

What little engagement exists amongst management was forced out of them from their leaders. They’ve been trained on the Agile mindset and agile ways. However, with no desire to model or even apply what they’ve learned, they drag their feet as their Agile mindset atrophies and disappears leaving a blank, disinterested gaze on their faces. A subset of this wave is especially toxic. Chameleon leaders who are able to adapt what they say and how they behave to match their audience. They talk the agile talk especially in front of their leaders but walk the same old, familiar worn path of command and control with others. There’s little authenticity here. It feels more like an act with their eyes following the teleprompter saying all the right things but believing none of it. If you listen closely, here’s what you would hear from this approaching horde.

“Mmmm, that business agility training was really insightful. Thank you. Now, I gotta get back to work”

I’d like to see more action and less theory

I’m done with Mural boards folks!

What interests my boss, fascinates me

I’d like a regular report of what the team has learned

Wave 2: A wave of discombobulated project managers

This is a wave where I repeatedly find myself in large successful enterprises having to explain how Agile works to traditional Project Managers. They are most interested in allocation of cross functional team members, roles, responsibilities, milestones and of course when will all the work be delivered. This horde is especially confused and agitated about what their own role is on a Scrum team when I tell them “There is no project manager role in Scrum”. Here’s what you’ll hear when you start to encounter this horde.

Providing dedicated Agile team members is going to be a issue with our Resource Pool Managers

What do Business Analysts and Designers do on an Agile team?”

So does that mean we would have a sprint for requirements followed by a sprint for architecture & design followed by a sprint to develop code followed by a sprint to test the code…?

I’m sorry, what do you mean there’s no PM role in Scrum?!

Wave 3: A wave of Cerebral Agile

Like most things in life, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Armchair critics comment on the performance of others based on what they’ve read or theorized rather than on first hand experience. Worst yet are those who claim to have experience based on doing something once or twice. Cerebral agilists are armchair critics. They can pontificate eloquently about Agile ways. Agile ways may start intellectually with the mind but it doesn’t stop there. It would be like trying to pass a driving test by just reading the driver’s handbook. Experiencing agile ways for oneself by doing it, enhances and personalizes one’s understanding of it. Be wary of those that say the following.

Seen it, done it, let’s move on

I’ve heard Agile means faster delivery so will this project get done sooner?

We’re agile enough

Wave 4: A wave of Convenient Agile

This horde is made up of those who use Agile ways when it’s convenient or advantageous to do so. It also includes those who feel Agile is something to be done by others, never themselves. It thrives on believing Agile is an IT thing and not a business thing. It demands additional reporting beyond what the Agile teams feel is sufficient to assess their progress. This horde prefers others to accommodate their rightful needs rather than taking time to accommodate others. It sprinkles the word “Agile” liberally and widely. As if saying it more often will make it so. And my favourite quote from this horde is,

You need to change, and I’ll support you.

Really? How convenient for you to support change in others but not have to change yourself.

Wave 5: A wave of regression to the old status quo.

One of the more heart wrenching hordes are those that experience the joy and benefits of Agile ways for only a brief moment before returning to the old ways. It can happen when the momentum for change isn’t enough to overcome the resistance against change.

This horde resembles Sisyphus rolling his proverbial boulder up the organizational hill only to have it roll back down so he can do it again and again. Telltale signs for this horde include,

What will we do when the Agile coach leaves?

I’m going keep my head down and wait for this thing to blow over

The new leader just got rid of our Agile funding model!”

And even when Agile ways sustain itself within one part of an organization, it may be doomed to Hybrid Hell as it contends with the rest of the organization who are stuck in the past with the old ways. Agile works best when linked and experienced end to end throughout the enterprise. Anything else will expose customers to our weakest link.

Like an Alexandria survivor, it feels like a never-ending sh*t-storm battling the onslaught of zombie hordes. I often console myself by asking: “This above all: Am I happy and having fun?

On the other hand, thank goodness for zombie waves. Otherwise, it would mean an end to The Walking Dead series and an end to the demand for Agile Coaching.

On second thought, that may be a good thing. I’d get to surf on to another great TV series and I’d get to discover another way to fulfill my life purpose.

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