Hollow Practices and Evolution

A map with a more authentic expression of the practice, leaving out social acceptance but focusing on the integration of in-context use in stage 2 and the knowable factors in stage 4.

Rahul Baji writes:

Do you think that when practices are commoditized, they lose the essence of the practice?

I see it in Agile practices where in certifying bodies like Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org have made Scrum popular to the extent of calling it commoditized. There are certified Scrum masters by the hordes who have learnt the 3 roles, 5 events and 3 artifacts but forget the 4 values in the agile manifesto. The practice becomes a pale shadow of what it originally was.

Is this evolution? Stage1 to Stage4 …the practice is more in use, but losing its essence.

This is such a good question, and I think it points at something important about mapping in general. Let’s say this is our basic map:

A simple map with humans at the top and "the practice"

The map states that humans need “the practice,” be it Scrum, Wardley Mapping, or whatever you like. We assert that the practice is in stage 4 of evolution — “Best Practice.” This map is wonderful in its simplicity, but terrible in how much of the system it hides from our view. Let’s try “zooming in” and increase its granularity, for the practice is not just a single component, but many components that all come together to produce benefits for humans.

A more complicated map. Humans need meaning and social acceptance (or adoption as fashion), both of which need the practice itself. The practice relies on two branches... 1 which is based on "known" things like artifacts and jargon, and another which is based on more ambiguous things like in-context use.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Humans either get some (as-of-yet undefined) meaning from the practice, or at the very least social acceptance that comes along with adoption (“Oh you’re doing agile? So are we!”). People like to be liked, and while our need for acceptance is valid and universal, perhaps it isn’t always the best way to make decisions about how to invest our human effort in terms of practices.

The same map, with annotations to emphasize an inauthentic expression of the practice — social acceptance is the need, and we ignore the stage 2 items like in-context use.

My guess is that the scenario Rahul describes is not a failure of the practice itself, but a partial adoption for reasons other than the meaning that’s possible when we confront the ambiguity of in-context use and the experiences that come along with it. It’s all too easy to adopt the easy bits and assume that’s all there is, especially when there are plenty of others who are doing it. (Nobody got fired for buying IBM, nobody gets fired for adopting agile, etc.)

And if you’re new to the practice, how would you even tell the difference between an authentic and inauthentic expression of the practice?

Jargon is accessible. Certifiable knowledge can be studied. Artifacts and ceremonies can be performed. But experiences in-context cannot happen as readily. It’s all too easy to stay in the land of the theoretical and knowable, and until you have the actual experience it’s impossible to know what you’re missing.

There is an alternative possibility, I think. Our practices can center themselves on the value of those real experiences, of using the the practice in-context. I think we can even imagine ways to limit adoption-as-fashion, but that may need to be the subject of another post. An alternative emphasis might look like the following.

A map with a more authentic expression of the practice, leaving out social acceptance but focusing on the integration of in-context use and the knowable factors in stage 4.

The artifacts, the jargon, and certifiable knowledge are all still valuable. But it’s their combination with actual use that unlocks the meaning the practice seeks to create.

Even I have to re-learn this lesson time and time again. I find myself staying comfortable in the land of the known. I neglect opportunities to have new experiences, so I stop learning, and I stop finding the meaning the practice helps create.

From a process philosophy standpoint, I think we’re probably always either moving towards overemphasis of the knowable (in stage 4 above) or overappreciation of the ambiguous (stage 2 above). But both are necessary in their own ways.

Perhaps ponder these questions as you consider the practices in play in your context:

  • What are the signs we are overvaluing the knowable stage 4 activities?
  • What are the signs we are overvaluing the more ambiguous stage 2 activities?

Let me know what you find.

Thanks to Rahul Baji for suggesting we explore this path!


  1. Moreover, it looks like the ones who won the war (like great consulting firms proposing all-in-one Safe frameworks, training companies proposing certifications) are again (mostly) not the ones who promoted the essence of Agility when it was custom (like me ;)).
    It could also mean that innovations could spawn from “commoditized artifacts, certifiable knowledge and jargon” (without forgetting “social acceptance”). If anyone has an idea 😉 ?

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