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Anarchy & Agile

A few years ago, I found the “About the Manifesto” page while visiting agilemanifesto.org. I find this particular web page interesting, inspiring, and even humorous in places. One of the things that stuck out was identifying the attendees being “organization anarchists“.

I didn’t think any more about it until I was exposed to Tobias Mayer’s book “The People’s Scrum1 years later. The idea of anarchy and how it relates to Agile has been bouncing around in my head for some time now.

In June, we did lightning talks at Agile Augusta and I choose to share my thoughts and observations about anarchy2. My thinking was there was minimal risk due to the fact that the spot was only five to seven minutes. The lightning talk was well received and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Before I was exposed to Agile, I didn’t give anarchy a great deal of thought. I thought anarchists were malcontents, troublemakers, and for some odd reason people who started fires3. I was still years away from understanding self-organizing teams, quick feedback loops, and embracing change.

One of my favorite definitions of anarchy comes from L. Susan Brown who is a self-proclaimed anarchist.4

Anarchists oppose the idea that power and domination are necessary for society, and instead advocate more co-operative, anti hierarchical forms of social, political and economic organization.

After looking at Susan’s definition, it doesn’t take long to see the organization anarchists’ point of view and how the Manifesto came about. How much bureaucracy, pointless documentation, and process for the sake of process is one person expected to endure?

Traditional management as we know it, really started around 1911, when Frederick W. Taylor published “Principles of Scientific Management”.  Taylorism5, along with a few corrections along the way is alive today. However, the average worker and work they were being asked to perform in the early 20th century is radically different from the knowledge workers in the early 21st century. In 2001, when the Agile Manifesto was signed, Taylorism was celebrating its 90th birthday, and only 10 years away from being a century old.

Is is really surprising that decades of conventional wisdom that told us to build software the same way we would build a skyscraper or bridge would be viewed as inefficient and incite a form of software revolution?

Today, I understand, appreciate, and embrace anarchy. I’m glad that 17 ” lightweight”  process advocates came along and gave me the courage to question the value of our current procedures and philosophies.


1 I will do a book review on “The People’s Scrum” someday but it’s easily one of the top 10 Agile books that I have ever read. Well worth your time in my opinion.

2 A copy of my presentation is available on the downloads page, if you are interested.

3 No I am not confusing an arsonist with an anarchist. I was really thinking about people starting a riot and setting things on fire, like Woodstock ’99. Whose idea was it to give candles to really angry group of people?

4 According to Wikipedia, Susan Brown was a Canadian anarchist-communist writer and theoretician. I am not a huge fan or advocate of communism personally, but do see how the two could intersect. All of that aside, I like the quote.

5 One of Taylor’s disciples was Henry L. Gantt, the inventor of the infamous Gantt chart, which has zero usefulness in Agile in my experience.

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