Agile Anthropology

I have always wondered if Agile is considered a better way of working, what is it relying on being within us to make it so?

“Every technological system functions within a social system and is therefore conditioned by it.”~ Leslie A. White

Many new to Agile tend to gravitate towards the reference implementations such as Scrum and associated prescribed rituals to get started. Some stories of Agile adoption tell of organizational transformations involving structured change and more elaborate rituals. Strict adherence to these these approaches alone would seem to stifle progression to towards a deeper sense of community and sustainable collaboration.

“A ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects…designed to influence forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests”  ~ Victor Turner

What then drives groups find to active collaboration as a natural state of being? Once formed, what elements are involved in keeping the group evolving in a purposefully aligned manner? Where is the social science that may give a more holistic picture while groups move through the practical experience of Agility. How are their individual needs being met while collaborating towards some greater good?

In my stumbling around various ideas in this space, there seems to be a group of thinkers that keep bubbling to the top. Their common theme is anthropology. No matter how dated or distant they are from modern software development, there are some ideas that suggest Agile and anthropology have a lot to share when it comes to understanding team dynamics.

So far I have found two areas with particularly interesting works that I will continue to grind through. In the area of teams and their progression towards a state of deep alignment, the studies of Victor and Edith Turner cover ritual and its progression to communitas:

“In concrete circumstances, communitas may be found when people engage in a task with full attention – often a matter of ordinary work. They may find themselves ‘in flow’.” ~ E. Turner

There is a lot of similarity in how E. Turner describes communitas and how Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi (pronunciation with a smile) describes the individual state of flow that occurs with optimal experience.

“There are circumstances surrounding communitas that suggest it does indeed have something to do with people finding themselves in a state of alignment” ~ E. Turner.

The second area involves the impact of play on culture. Agile describes itself as a mindset despite many wanting to tie it down as a methodology with prescribed practices. In the works on play I have read to date there are parallels with the interchange between play and culture. J Huizinga’s definition of play echoes that of James P. Carse’s finite games. Play is voluntary, executed with limits of time and location, and has agreed upon rules. Each definition has more but Agile, as I have seen it implemented seems to me to fit within the sphere of play.

The notion of “Play” encompasses all forms from childlike to the competitive or agon. I see play re-entering the workplace in simple forms like gamification that seem to lack both a transformative nature and long term appeal. There are badges and medals to be had by all. It seems to result in a sense of individual entitlement and unable to nurture a sense of community nor give an evolutionary path through shared rituals, spurring the formation of a common cultural identity.

I’m going to prod away at these ideas of play and communitas in subsequent blogs. I’ll do so in the context of my experiments to build some form of game within the context of a large two hundred person development project run over two years. I’ll start with a consideration of how development is looked upon within the play-sphere and how that in and of itself causes a problem in making it more playful.


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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