Feminism can explain why your agile transformation is failing

In this post I want to talk about feminism: why I have personally embraced it, why I encourage you to, and — since you may be reading this because you’re somehow involved in the agile software development scene — how it can explain why your “agile transformation” is probably going to fail.

Last summer, I had a few days to myself, doing a road trip through the beautiful Columbia Basin, camping, hiking and mountain biking. Just me and the dog.

With a few hours to spend behind the wheel, I picked an audiobook from my wish-list, almost at random. A few days later, I was so rapt, I was sitting by the campfire in the evening with my headphones on so that I could finish it before the end of my trip.

I started to glimpse an insight about agile that had been nagging and frustrating me for years.

What was the book? The Gender Knot by Allan G. Johnson.

I recommend this book to anyone, but especially to men.

I thought I knew about feminism, and understood about the patriarchy, but this book brought me to a whole new level of comprehension.

I realized that patriarchy is the root cause of so much of what scares and saddens me about the world: fascism, colonialism, slavery, war, industrial capitalism, environmental destruction, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, men’s violence against women, men’s violence towards each other.

Johnson characterizes our relationship with patriarchy like a fish’s relationship to water: So ubiquitous as to be almost impossible to perceive.

Patriarchy is everywhere, and yet we almost never talk about it.

So what is patriarchy?

The patriarchy is not some big conspiracy. It’s a kind of “stable state” that our complex social system has settled into, and it’s very good at reinforcing itself. It can be found everywhere people interact, from social norms, our language, to our literature, TV and movies.

Johnson says that patriarchy's defining elements are its male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered nature. Let’s break that down:

And because patriarchy puts men at the top of its power dynamic, without us nothing can really change.

Yet despite the very real privileges it gives us, men suffer from the patriarchal system too. Patriarchy’s idea of masculinity leaves no room for fallibility, vulnerability, or intimacy.

As bell hooks said, Feminism Is for Everybody.

OK, but what does this have to do with agile software development?

Lightbulbs were going off for me all over the place as I read this book, but the insight that’s relevant to agile software development centres around this:

Patriarchy is a social system of dominance, control and fear.

Patriarchy reinforces its grip on our social systems by encouraging those at the top to maintain their dominance through control and fear.

Does this sound familiar?

When I read this, my mind kept returning to the way we talk about “command-and-control cultures” — the miserable way so many people are treated, and treat each other, at work.

It strikes me that what I would regard as the true essence of agile software development — the self-organizing, transparent team that works in a trusting, collaborative relationship with its stakeholders — is an example of feminist principles in action.

It turns out I’m not the only person who thinks this.

Why your agile transformation will eventually fail

Over and over again, I have experienced the same frustrating problem at different companies all around the world:

Eventually, at some point, any movement towards agility within an organization seems to come up against an invisible barrier. A force that, without careful, deliberate and ongoing attention to protect and nurture that movement, will undermine and ultimately destroy it.

What is that force? What makes it so powerful? Why do I keep coming up against it again and again in different organizations all over the world?

If we accept the premise that our entire society operates on this undercurrent of dominance, control and fear then it stands to reason that our workplaces will have same background hum. The invisible force.

It’s no wonder that agile transformations so often fail: they’re coming up against the patriarchy.