Imitation is the real evil

We are taught to imitate at school. Even if you get the right answer, teachers will mark you down if you don’t show you’re working out. It is only later on at University that the education system starts to value original thought. It’s all too late. By then we already believe there is only one right way to do things, and everything is about finding this one right way.


The same has happened with agile. You are asked to imitate. The real goal of improving the work for everyone is glossed over with talk of velocity, story points, throughput and cycle time. Rules to have a fixed sprint period, reduce you’re work-in-progress limits, have a daily stand-up or to retrospect regularly just gives the appearance of something happening. However almost nothing is happening to move us towards knowing more about the work itself.

So it is more often than not I see the work getting worse. It seems like every new rule brought in by the latest solution to the latest problem, brings with it more expectations that never materialise, more contractions with what went before and ultimately more confusion. If you ask the experts, they tell you, you’re not doing it right. The imitation is not good enough. But don’t worry, they can spend more time with you making sure you improve the understanding and compliance with the rules.

What is worse is what this imitation is doing to the individuals. Pressure is applied to say the right thing, to use the right language, repeat the same tired sound-bites. Certification becomes a goal in itself. The problem here is that the pre-canned rules rarely have anything useful to say about the real work. So rather than look and see the work for themselves, people find themselves forced to imitate better.

It really doesn’t matter how simple, or applicable at the time your rules are, overtime the work will change, often dramatically, so even if you see early success with your latest imitation the chances of long term success are limited.

If you want to see for yourself, just read “The New New Product Development Game”, often quoted as the primary reference for scrum. Read how the authors describe how a process is born out of the interplay of the team. The rugby analogy talks of a team fluidly moving down the field throwing the ball from one to another. This screams at me that to successfully bring together teams with the speed and flexibility to respond to rapid changes in the market place then their process is created by the team, not encapsulated in a basic rule set as scrum does today.

So this is why I call imitation evil (borrowed ironically from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). We need to clear the creative blockage it causes so everyone can be motivated by the real work, by using original thought to create solutions that work for their own circumstances, and so they can stay aware when these circumstances change.


Thanks to @flowchainsensei for the reminder about “The New New Product Development Game”.

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3 Responses to Imitation is the real evil

  1. Andrea Chiou says:

    Yes, I haven’t been a coach that long, but I can see that dysfunction already pretty easily. Always makes me go back to the ‘Are Your Lights On?’ book by Jerry Weinberg. What problem exactly are you trying to solve? If you haven’t answered that, you’ll miss the mark unless you are lucky.

  2. A good thought-provoking post – got me thinking about knitting. There are a set of basic stiches that can be combined many ways to make different types of articles.

    We can see the casting on process as simple – however, the number of stiches that we need and the methods to cast on will vary greatly depending on whether we are making a skinny scarf or a large bed cover. If we just repeated the simple stitches, we might make some functional, flat items, but we would never be able to make a pair of socks, or gloves.

    The ‘practices’ of agile might be a bit like the stiches in knitting – we need to tailor them to suit what we are making – which is always different in software development – and that is where the true craft comes in.

    • gothandy says:


      I like you’re knitting as a craft analogy!

      I’d agree having a good knowledge of many processes and knowing when each works, and keep an eye on when you’re circumstances change so you can move from one to another is a good way to avoid the evil of imitation.

      I guess it would be like jazz knitting?



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