Agile sometimes receives criticism that sounds like this: 

“We use Agile ceremonies and ways of working, but we just don’t see the benefits. Performance hasn’t improved, the team is still stressed, and work is not predictable ”. 

Do you recognize your own organization in this? I hear it all the time from teams at the beginning of my “Dark Agile” training course. 

There can be multiple explanations for these problems. One that is often overlooked, but can play a huge part is:

Lazy thinking! 

I will now tell you what it is and how to overcome it. It may just be the missing piece that prevents you from seeing the vast benefits of Agile that you are looking for. Ready?

To develop a product or service, you need two kinds of thinking. Let’s call them “normal, semi-automatic, work thinking” and “Agile ceremonies thinking”.

Normal, semi-automatic, work thinking — the easy way of thinking

If you are, for example, an engineer, your work is to create solutions to the problems in the backlog items. You have done this for years, and you enjoy this type of problem solving. 

Your thinking is based on routines — it feels familiar to you. Even though the problems vary, the way of thinking becomes ever easier and requires less and less energy.  

In Scrum, the most popular Agile method, your time is divided into normal work and team events, called ceremonies. These ceremonies (such as sprint planning, daily, sprint review, and backlog refinement) are regular, and they follow the same format every time. That’s where the second type of thinking comes into play.

Agile ceremonies thinking — the difficult way of thinking

If you are in a backlog refinement session, you and your team consider things like “what is the value of this story?” or “what is the reason for doing that?”.  Ideally, the Product Owner has a clear view on these questions, but in a well-functioning team, you challenge the Product Owner’s opinion. 

If you are a developer, you should also consider acceptance criteria, the size estimate of the story, and how to split the work up if it is too large. You keep in mind not to create a too-nice solution, but rather keep it “just nice enough”. And don’t forget to consider the testability of the story. 

For many engineers, this second kind of thinking is unfamiliar and difficult. It does not come naturally. 

If you are a developer, your knee-jerk reaction in the meeting is to revert back to “implementation-oriented” thinking. Even if you are in a refinement session, you want to jump directly into thinking about how to implement the story you are discussing. 

This is dangerous, as the whole team should consider the why, the value, the description, and the acceptance criteria first. The time to think about implementation comes later, in sprint planning or even later.

It is the same as shopping in an unfamiliar supermarket

Imagine your local supermarket where you buy (often the same) groceries several times per week. You know exactly where everything is in the store. especially your familiar brands and products.

Each shopping trip requires minimal thinking energy, as the process is almost automatic. This is the first kind of thinking, the equivalent of “normal work thinking” above. 

Now imagine that your local shop is closed and you need to go to a different store. It is not the same chain, and it is larger. The layout is not familiar. The brands are different. There may be a wider selection to choose from. Some products are not available at all so you may consider replacements. 

Can you feel the frustration? How tired you would feel after the shopping trip? This is the second kind of thinking above – which you do during Agile ceremonies. You can’t rely on your automatic thinking anymore.

Different thinking requires more energy

So during Agile ceremonies your team needs the second kind of thinking. Not with their automatic, creation-style thinking processes, but with the critical brain. 

Ask questions, challenge, define what is needed, and ask why. This is hard, so it is crucial that the team understands the value of this hard thinking, to keep them engaged. It is far too easy to become lazy, not spend enough team effort on acceptance criteria or the difficult “why” questions. Lazy thinking in Agile ceremonies increases the risks of “Dark Agile” (Dark Agile = when you are Agile in appearance only, not living its values or getting its value) symptoms.

Things that require more energy do not come automatically. Somebody (ideally the Product Owner and Scrum Master) needs to wake the team up at the beginning of the Agile ceremony. This is the time to think differently. 

How to get the team to think differently: Action points

  • Simply stating “for the next hour, lets focus on these topics - leave the currently ongoing tasks behind, and focus here” can be enough 

  • Encourage them to leave any distractions, such as mobile devices, behind 

  • Encourage them to listen actively 

  • Activate those participants who are silent by using direct questions

  • Make it clear that there are no stupid questions

  • Thank people who ask challenging and “why” questions - make it clear that this is valued behavior

  • Be a good example or role model

Lazy thinking is one factor that leads to poor performance and Dark Agile. Getting people’s attention and energetic thinking is important. 

Published: Oct 24, 2022

AgileProduct management