By Bell, Book, and Candle

First published Halloween 2016

Turnip lantern
I've always been cynical about the role of a so-called "agile evangelist". For one thing, it reinforces the impression that agile practitioners are zealots, radical ideologues who seek the conversion of the benighted heathen to their one true faith, or else the cleansing blood of martyrdom. It's the irony of this perception which I balk at, because I'm trying to coach people to deliver and look at the evidence. I want to reduce leaps-of-faith altogether.


Here's another problem I have with the term "agile evangelism"...it doesn't reflect the demand I experience on the ground. When you get down to it, nobody actually seems to want an evangelist at all, for the simple reason that they don't think the message can possibly apply to them. It's always somebody else who needs preaching to. It's always those ignorant sinners over there, whether they be in Business or in IT, who need to "become more agile". There can never be any need for the scales to fall away from their own eyes. I reckon the word "evangelism" has gained traction because it suggests that a new consecrated power can be brought to bear on this problem. It seems to promise transformation not through a combined effort against horrible odds, but through divine agency. People want change, but they rarely expect to be among those who have to change, and suffer the pain of doing so. There is little appetite for that. Change must surely be incumbent upon the third party, to those who are not of the immediate tribe, to the perfidious other. And that leads us, I think, to the role organizations genuinely want me to fulfill. Forget this business about being an agile evangelist. In truth, the role they are looking for is more of an agile exorcist.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been brought in by managers who look at me deadpan and say, more or less, "Okay then. Go right ahead. Agile us!" The clear expectation is that I possess a supernatural capacity for invoking change in their underlings, and that if I truly know my business, I will recite the appropriate incantations, or else perform the correct ritual with bell, book and candle. This is when things get awkward, because I have to explain that although I can help by providing advice, and even some experience regarding empirical transformational method, I can't actually make an organization change. Rather, people must be brought into the act of changing themselves, and because they see value in doing so. If an enterprise is hobbled with a stage-gated culture, no-one can rid its people of that "possession" against their will. "I can't force a conversion and I don't" are the words of the trained exorcist and agile coach alike.

So while I haven't actually witnessed any spinning heads, or even experienced much in the way of projectile vomiting, I am prepared to accept this role. My condition is simply that you name it correctly, and understand that the process of change is incumbent upon you. If you agree to that, then yes, I will be your organization's official "agile exorcist".

Happy Halloween.