What would a new Agile Manifesto look like?

A new version should highlight the importance of understanding and responding to different contexts.

Picture © 2009 Metropolitan Books — Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, Greg Grandin

Fordlandia is a “ghost district” embedded in the heart of the Amazon, precisely in the Midwest of Pará state in Brazil. It was created by Henry Ford in the 1920s with the mission to build a new territory in another country to nurture the American dream in people. In this case, just for the record, a dream that could benefit his business with a large amount of rubber capable of cheapening the production of his cars in Detroit — at that time threatened by British industry.

Ford prefabricated several elements of an entire city in the United States and sent them on two large ships to Brazil, together with specialized professionals from different fields— from management to production, from engineering to medicine. Its included prefabricated houses, in the North American standards; canned food, in the North American standards; predefined working processes, similar to those used in Detroit; and many other things, always following the American standards.

In the book “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City”, the project is presented as one of Henry Ford’s biggest failures. His strategy ignored the geography of that region, the abundance of natural food available, local habits, and the entire background of those people.

But why didn’t it work? Today we observe, through retrospective coherence, that the ignorance of context was such that they did not even try to learn basic things from the locals, such as the symbiotic process of rubber trees in the Amazon. Furthermore, they naively thought that those people would be delighted to live like as a typical American in an “American little town”. They ignored the cultural context, which ended up causing people to revolt in an event known as “potbreakers”, and also ignored the natural context, which caused the invasion of pests throughout the rubber plantation, culminating in early abandonment of the project.

Recently, Andy Hunt, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, shared on his social networks the perception that through a good understanding of context we could better define which methods to use in each situation, even having the ability to observe when Agile ceases to be a good option.

"As I go hoarse for saying, context matters! Maybe we should have included that in the top four principles" said Andy Hunt.

A few days later, Simon Wardley, creator of Wardley Maps, went on to say that companies that follow Agile to the fullest extent, ignoring other methods and schools of thought, will never be able to be truly agile, which echoes what I published in “All businesses need agility, but not everyone needs Agile".

In fact, I think the problem itself is not in the natural incompleteness of that Manifesto, but in our desire to make it a solution that extrapolates context.

The problem, we must admit, lies in our limitation in understanding and responding to contexts in a more rational and less dogmatic way.

But, of course, we always look at the context!

I remember that right at the beginning of the Agile movement every time we approached project managers to talk about this, the answer we always received was, "but of course, agility is important, of course we are agile!" It was difficult for them to admit a distance between what the Manifesto said and what they practiced, “how are these people saying we are not agile?”

In the same vein, nowadays every time I talk about context, the answer I get is, “But, of course, we always consider the context! How come these people are saying we don’t start from the context?”

The truth is that understanding and responding to contexts, unfortunately, is not as trivial as most people think. We are easy prey for social rumors and also for our propensities — and we often subtly manipulate decisions, inducing people to converge to our preferences.

Cynefin, created by Dave Snowden, is one of the centerpieces for much of our sense-making processes here at Emergee.

This framework is extremely powerful, but most of the times used only in its superficiality. People talk about its five domains (sometimes highlightining only four of them), but do not understand his liminal areas, constraints, dynamics and methods. This makes these people end up using it more for categorization than for context sense-making.

One of its methods, perhaps the most trivial and didactic of all, is Four-Points, which can be useful for you to take your first steps with sense-making and thereby sharpen your understanding of contexts.

You can learn more about this method by visiting its page on Cynefin Wiki.

The reality of Fordlandia’s past and present is very different from that envisioned by Henry Ford. The practice that ignored the context resulted in oppression, frustration and abandonment.

Nowadays, frameworks, methods and, believe me, even “mindsets” for agility, have been prefabricated in all corners of the world. They are not shipped on ships, but their advocates guarantee they know exactly what companies should do in order to become more agile. They define what practices you should follow; on what your business should be centered; how you should organize all the people and processes, and much more. Yes, they say all that knowing almost nothing about your context.

Cynefin, with an exempt vision for practices, proves to be an excellent alternative to help us find the most appropriate strategy for agility in each context. No bias, no propensities.

Said all that, I believe that we do not need a new manifesto; but if I had to forge a new one, I would do it with a single line: “From context to practice, not the other way around”.

I was born in Altamira(Pará/Brazil), where I lived until I was 10 years old. I have a vague recollection of the adults commenting on the history of “ America of the Amazon”, as they called Fordlandia. In a recent conversation with my dad, I learned that many people in that region lived until the end of their lives with the hope that, at some point, the Americans would return to make that beautiful image sold and idealized by Henry Ford come true — which never happened.

Founder at Emergee; Certified Scrum Trainer at Scrum Alliance; Author of "Learning 3.0 — How Creative Workers Learn" and "Tire seu projeto do papel com Scrum"