How Agile Team Culture Mimics the Historical Patterns of the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

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Tom "Mad Dog" Friend

When the lessons of the past are forgotten, history tends to repeat itself, with predictable results. As an officer in the military, the understanding of history was foundational for becoming a well-rounded leader. In observing teams and organizations I have worked with in my personal history, I have seen common themes. A culture of apathy, which poses a threat to our civilization as a whole, is a prominent, reoccurring theme I have observed not only in my past positions but also in the positions I have held on Scrum Teams.

History shows if a society does not possess a strong “culture” of its own, based on shared beliefs, ethics, and goals, then it is ripe for conquest by societies that have this “culture”. The same holds true in both the world of business and of Agile. If a company or team does not have a strong culture, then it will fall to a competitor who has a system of shared beliefs, ethics, and goals. This is but one example of how the business world mirrors the pattern of foundation and collapse, and administration and competition, which is exhibited by civilizations on a much greater scale.

Societal collapse is the fall of a human society, civilization, and/or nation-state from a previous position of economic, political, or military prominence. This term encompasses a spectrum of societal failures, including the abrupt fall of the Mayan Civilization, as well as the gradual declines of the Western Roman Empire. These societal collapses occur for numerous reasons, but one historical theme that is seen is that one success is reached, whether financial, political, or relational, relaxation and apathy become acceptable. This, in turn, leads to a subsiding system of beliefs and ethics, and the loss of a shared culture.

These same consequences play out on teams as apathy and entitlement exhibit themselves. Success is not a gift, but rather a shared achievement, and a fragile achievement at that. Whether it is a society or a company experiencing success, constant attention must be given to ensure continued success, and to keep entitlement, apathy, and an eventual collapse at bay. An individual’s belief in their contribution to the team is inherent in the success of an agile team. Without a shared culture, which sets a standard for individuals on a team, work ethic, time, and profit can be lost. The perceived value of an individual’s work will decrease. In addition, the level of accountability for team members drops as apathy sets in. When a team becomes a group of people with separate beliefs, ethics, and goals, the team is headed for a collapse.

It just happens that more elaborate the society, organization, or company, the more vulnerable it is to apathy and ultimate collapse. Without the recognition of the threats facing a successful group, and action taken towards mitigating present and future dangers, a society, company, or team can be lost. History teaches us that any civilization can fall, even at the peak of their success. The same is true for any Agile organization or Scrum Team. Those agile teams which are based on a strong, shared culture will be able to effectively combat apathy, and take advantage of the opportunities and circumstances presented to them.

Successful Teams and Cultures Embrace Agility

In a world where self-organized teams regularly evaluate and adapt to reach success, the underlying culture of the team is often forgotten. This culture, a system of shared beliefs, a code of ethics, and a set of short and long-term goals, is a critical piece for an agile team to develop. As you observe the culture in your workplace, what already exists? Has apathy already set in? What will you do to change the culture in your workplace and foster growth, cooperation, and purpose to build a successful team?