How the Agile Community Can Contribute to the Betterment of the World

On April 1, 2009 Scott Ambler posted on his blog “a parody of a very serious ethical lapse within the agile community.”  It was an April Fool’s joke – a fake ad for a 2-day agile certification course called “SCUM Certified™ Agile Master, or more colloquially SCAMmer”.  The mock-ad states that

We want to be perfectly clear about this, by taking this ‘certification course’ what we’re certifying is that you attended the course.  It is your choice (nod nod, wink wink) if you wish to present yourself as a professional SCAMmer.  Yes, about 99.8% of course attendees choose to do this, why would you take the course otherwise?

This piece will not be a direct response to Ambler’s joke.  That would be…well, rather foolish.  Instead, what I intend to address here are the concerns raised by his “Parting Thoughts”, which take on a more serious tone and seem to be getting to the heart of what’s really (and understandably) bothering him.

In his “Parting Thoughts”, he states “I believe we can do much better.”  He is referring, of course, to the “ethical lapse” jokingly addressed by his mock-ad.  He goes on to say:

My hope is that this joke has made you step back and think about what’s going on around you. Being a “Certified X”, whatever X happens to be, implies that you’ve done something to earn that certification. If you’ve done very little to earn a certification then at best that’s what your certification is worth: very little.  If you’re involved in a questionable certification scheme, regardless of whatever justifications that you tell yourself you have still shamed both yourself and your so-called profession.  If you turn a blind eye to people who claim to be “certified masters” after doing almost nothing to earn that certification then you too are complicit: As Edmund Burke first said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  I invite everyone in the agile community to read Ethics for the Real World and to stand up and show some integrity.  Enough is enough.

What Ambler seems to be saying here is that for those of us in the agile community to “do much better”, what we really need is to do something about “questionable certification schemes”.  The “something” he proposes is that we should not “turn a blind eye to people who claim to be ‘certified masters’ after doing nothing to earn that certification”.  What he then prescribes to all of us in the agile community is to read a book and to “stand up and show some integrity”.

So I decided to take the challenge… sort of.  What I mean by “sort of” is that I didn’t read the whole book; rather, I followed the link to and read the first chapter entitled “Almost Ethical: Waking Up to Compromise”.  I think I got it.

So, let’s say that we can all agree that integrity is a good thing and it would be  good if everyone’s actions were always distinguished by integrity and uprightness.  At the same time, let’s assume for the sake of this blog that we can also all agree that we live in a very complex world that constantly presents us with situations that make it very difficult to live up to such a standard.  Perhaps we may also all agree that in many of these situations, we often fail to live up to the standards of integrity that we espouse and would like to see established in the world.

In Ethics, Howard and Korver identify that “Lying, a form of deception, plays a central role in ethical compromise” and that lying “appears… commonly in ethical thinking.”  They point out that “Most of us are practiced liars.”  They offer the results of one study as evidence of this:

147 college students and community members kept daily diaries of lying.  The students reported telling an average of two lies per day, the community members one.  None thought their lie telling was serious (although none of them asked the people they lied to).

They go on to make the following observations:

If we hold a video camera up to our lives, we may be astonished at the incredible sweep of lies on the landscape.  If we pan that camera to view the lives of others, we see disingenuousness everywhere.  Imagine being in the shoes of the following people, whose stories are based on real events:

  • You are a consultant, and you know your bid for phase one of a project, $300,000, will turn off your client.  You could bid $200,000, knowing your client will soon agree to the extra work and expense anyway.  You are tempted to understate the cost.
  • You are a young engineer, and you can’t get a software test to run as specified before an industry trade show.  Your manager urges you to run past tapes of the test at the show, pretending that it is a live test.  You are tempted to go along.
  • You are an entrepreneur seeking money to fund your new start-up.  You know venture capitalists chop revenue forecasts by 50 percent.  You are tempted to inflate your revenue forecast by a factor of two to compensate for the expected discount.

Whether or not you’ve ever been in these situations, you no doubt have been in similar ones.  Every time, you have probably had at least one very good reason to compromise – and at times you did.  You lied.  You may feel uneasy about it.  You may even be haunted by it.

But you shouldn’t feel alone.  Using compromise as a helping hand in life has a storied, if seamy, tradition.  Even revered leaders lie routinely…

No doubt, subsequent chapters of this book offer helpful advice about how to overcome the temptations to lie that so many of us so often find ourselves feeling.  What I would like to point out, though, is Howard’s and Krover’s insight that lying “has a storied, if seamy, tradition.”  In other words, lying has become an ingrained, normal and expected habit of our culture.  Temptation is one thing, but breaking out of a culture of lying requires a sea change in human morals, standards and codes of conduct.

Now that the immensity of what we’re actually dealing with when we start talking about “integrity” has become more clear – i.e. integrity is a really hard thing to figure out in a complex world that is really messed up – what can we actually do about it?  In other words, is it futile to try to be a person of integrity in a corrupt world?  The short answer to this question is, unfortunately, “No”.  Just like you cannot be a just person in an unjust world.  A brief example will illustrate this fact:  It is almost impossible for any one person living in North America to be able to guarantee that not one article of clothing that they own was manufactured in a sweat shop or by child laborers.  Indeed, most of us can agree that sweat shops and child labor are examples of flagrant injustice.  By participating in an economy that feeds off of their existence, i.e. paying for goods manufactured under such conditions, we are investing in the system that perpetuates the oppression and exploitation of the people whose survival depends on that system.

Being a person of integrity is equally elusive to being a person of justice.  In order to survive in the jungle, you have to obey the laws of the jungle.  So what is the solution?  What can we actually do?  Is it a hopeless situation, this reality of ours?

Indeed, it is not enough for people to just “be good”.  We must also all strive to transform the social environment, structures and institutions that we are a part of in our daily lives.  In other words, it is not enough to be a “good” person who attacks everything that one perceives as being “bad”.  You can’t just decide that you are going to be civilized in the jungle and complain about all the things that are going to eat you and hope to survive.  You also have to contribute to building the civilization that will replace it, contribute to cultivating a new garden.  You will need to find like-minded individuals and work shoulder to shoulder with them and learn to overlook all of their many shortcomings as they learn to overlook yours.

There is another good book that I’ve been reading:  Beyond the Culture of Contest by Michael Karlberg, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Western Washington University, whose research and writing focus on the relationship between communication, culture and conflict.  Here is how Karlberg opens his book:

We live in a culture of contest. In western-liberal societies our economic, political and legal systems, as well as many of our other social institutions and practices, are competitive and conflictual.  Surrounding this culture is a culture of protest.  In response to the social and ecological problems engendered by our culture of contest, we engage in protests, demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, partisan organizing, litigation, strikes and other oppositional strategies of social advocacy and change.

These competitive and conflictual norms have become so ubiquitous that they appear natural and inevitable to many people.  Indeed, conventional wisdom suggests that these social norms are an inevitable expression of an essentially selfish and aggressive human nature.  The prevailing social order, according to this logic, is an inevitable reflection of human nature.  But is a culture of contest and protest really an inevitable reflection of human nature?  Or is it possible that human beings have the developmental potential for either adversarial or mutualistic behaviour? Is it possible that human culture, rather than human nature, determines which of these potentials is more fully expressed?  Is it possible that the prevailing culture of contest and protest cultivates the former rather than the latter?  And if so, what are the implications?

It seems that by taking Ambler up on his challenge, that is, in trying to figure out how to “stand up and show some integrity”, some initial conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Lying is a big, complex problem – a central part of our culture.
  2. You can’t stop the problem of lying by pointing fingers.
  3. Lying is a social problem engendered by a culture of contest – a social norm that is so ubuiquitous that it appears natural and inevitable to many people.  Many would even believe that it is an inevitable expression of an essentially selfish and aggressive human nature.
  4. Overcoming such a powerful cultural norm is not as easy as getting everyone to just read a book or attend a course.

I hope that everyone who reads this finds it to be an attractive invitation to participate in a mutualistic discourse on how we in the agile community can find ways we can work together to contribute to building a better world – a world characterized by integrity, uprightness, justice, truthfulness, prosperity and joy.

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2 thoughts on “How the Agile Community Can Contribute to the Betterment of the World”

  1. Good point, well made.

    One small pedantic observation… Where you say:
    “is it futile to try to be a person of integrity in a corrupt world? The short answer to this question is, unfortunately, “No”. ”

    I think you meant to say here that the short answer is, unfortunately, “Yes”.

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