Agile is a Placebo and that’s Fine, Claims noted Agile Author

“Fearless Change : Patterns for Introducing New Ideas” author Linda Rising gave a talk recently where she described the placebo effect and it’s “benefits”.

For those who are unaware, it is well known that patients believe they will get better when given medical treatments, even those treatments that do nothing. Often 30% of patients will note some improvement when given placebo.

Rising then asks the question: “Is Agile just placebo, and are it’s related benefits just due to the placebo effect”? Her answer, according to the attendee report linked above: “Who Cares? As long as it works!”

Although I would agree, and have long felt, that Agile is merely placebo (at best), I disagree strongly with her “Who Cares?” answer.

For one thing, if it is merely placebo, then people should be able to pick and choose their own placebo — whether it’s rabbit feet, or anything else.

Secondly, noone should require belief in placebo as a requirement to participate in a project or the workforce, any more than requiring belief in any religion should be a requirement.

Rising seems to feel  — not only do the ends justify the means — hey any benefit is a benefit — that it is not even worth delving into whether there is any scientific evidence for Agile.

This seems an anti-intellectual approach. If modern medicine worked like this, placebos would be the only therapies on offer.

But, is Agile really placebo?

If you look at how Agile is marketed and sold, that would strongly seem to be the case.

There is no evidence of a scientific nature that Agile works, so, they amp up what they can to impart the maximum placebo effect.

You cannot show a benefit from a placebo if you don’t believe in the doctor who gave it to you.

Hence, the Agilists crown themselves with titles, “Sensei”, “Master”, “ScrumMaster”, “Agile Jedi”, etc. This is done to give the sucker reason to “believe” the treatments will work.

If you spend a lot of money on something, you’ll generally believe it works. This is known as cognitive dissonance (or at least the converse is anyway). Agilists trump this up in spades with high pricing for sugared water therapy.

You’ll most likely believe a placebo therapy works, if everyone else believe it too! So there are lots of agile conferences, blogs, and festivals where they reinforce the groupthink that the placebo is effective.

You’ll trust the doctor most if they have a credible background, so there is a great focus on being an “agile signatory”, author, etc, the more believable to prescribe said placebo.

Since placebo effect is based on Faith, so much of agile is based on believing the manfiesto, believing the Scrum Guide and the Three Ceremonies, etc.

Getting back to cognitive dissonance, people do not want to believe they’ve been misled or paid too much for something.

This means that die-hard agilists — ones who’ve invested time and money into it — are the ones who are the most resistant to the idea that it’s a placebo. They’ve drunk the kool-aid and think the kool-aid is responsible for success.

What they’ve most likely experienced is the placebo effect; I applaud Rising then for at least admitting that placebo is what is going on, even if she apparently doesn’t yet go so far as to repudiate placebo therapies entirely — which would be a logical next step.

Is Agile a Placebo and Does it Matter? What are your thoughts?


About postagilist

Architect, Manager, Developer, Musician, Post-Agile thought leader
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10 Responses to Agile is a Placebo and that’s Fine, Claims noted Agile Author

  1. I’m actually the Maharaja of Agile.

    • PostAgilist says:

      Really? How many Rolls-Royce do you own? Oh wait I thought you said Maharishi. My bad.

      Now today’s special is — Free Shaktipat for everyone!


  2. Hmm if Peter is the Maharaja then I am the Queen.

    If you want PostAgilist you can be a conquerer. As long as there are no dictators 😉

  3. Dave Gordon says:

    I’m just a working-class project manager, moving users, business processes, and data from premises-based legacy applications to shiny, new cloud-based SaaS homes. Over the years, I’ve found value in a number of Agile techniques, especially iterative prototyping and close customer engagement. If I were doing something else, like building highway interchanges, I might not. But these techniques have been proven to work reliably, at least in my domain, so I use them, and so do my peers. Not as placebos, but as part of a well-defined methodology that is continuously refined and has been rigorously applied to nearly 300 deployment projects.

    Linda Rising’s mileage may vary. And so might yours. But ours has been pretty consistent.

    • PostAgilist says:

      Hi Dave

      The practices you found useful are not “agile” practices.

      Iterative prototyping has been around for years, and is often used in waterfall projects.

      In fact, “prototyping” is seen as anti agile by many in the agile crowd.

      Those aren’t the placebo’s I’m talking about, nor are they even “agile”.

      The placebo’s are more about the agile pablum — colocated teams, short sprints, TDD, groupthink, no titles, no specialists, etc, manifestos etc. All the granola garbage.


  4. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of May 7 – 13 | The Practicing IT Project Manager

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