Red Pill, Blue Pill & Ugly Transition Realities

A critical predictor of success I have seen in Agile transitions is how people define reality.

Let’s face it, if you are running Scrum well, then there will be all sorts of ugly problems that pop out of the woodwork: decaying technical infrastructure, technical debt, people struggling with new roles, people no longer able to hide behind the fog of waterfall, and conflicts between groups.

Scrum is designed to make impediments visible. Management’s role is to act on these and remove them to support the team. Usually, these problems have been around for a while.

Consider the Matrix

What does the film The Matrix have to tell us about this situation?

Neo is Seeking

Neo is not satisfied with the status quo. He knows that something is wrong but is not sure what it is.

Morpheus is the Guide

Morpheus acts as a guide. He tells Neo that everything is not as it seems. Neo must decide if how badly he wants to know the truth.

Neo must choose

Morpheus gives Neo a choice:

  • Red Pill: Learn the truth about and discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.
  • Blue Pill: Remain in his current reality and wake up the next morning believing whatever he wishes.

What does have to do with Agile?

  • The Matrix = Organizational Reality
  • Neo = Transition Sponsor
  • Morpheus = Agile Coach

When a client swallows the red pill, they choose to confront the red flags and problems. Just like the recommendation from one of my favourite management books - Good to Great. In this situation, it is possible to do what Michael Spayd call Strategic Agile. This is represents the fundamental shift in behaviours and values called for by Agile. It leads to a learning organization that is on the road to joy in work and high performance.

When a client swallows the blue pill, the we are in a Tactical Agile situation. In this case, it might be possible to find some local wins with morale, teamwork and productivity. It might also lead to organizational backlash that reverts Agile. Sadly, what frequently happens is that  the Agile champions and advocates who want to create a better company leave to find a place with a future.

My Stories

In every transition, I have seen red pill, blue pill situations. Some of them are minor decisions. Some are major like investment in repaying technical debt and investing in improving productivity.

At one company, the top 10 contributing staff built a value stream showing that a “5 day project” actually took 9 months to complete and the $5k revenue was offset by $25k of costs. More than half of the executives (CEO, CTO, VP Sales, VP Engineering, CFO) discounted the data. It was a blue pill moment.

At another company, we talked about the science of motivation, and they took the red pill. The yearly bonus went bye-bye. On the other hand they later took the blue pill on technical debt. Can’t win ‘em all.

One of the biggest problems I have seen is that the sponsor of the Agile transition is often the author of the problems. For example, the VP Engineering who was on watch when technical debt was piling up – it’s hard for him to get excited about sharing this problem with superiors and asking for patience while he fixes it.

If you are a coach, it’s your job to know where the boundaries are and help clients cross them when they are willing.

Your turn!

Next time you are working with someone, think about their reality and how they see the situation. Then find ways to share yours. At the end of the day, it is their choice.

The Video

Take a few minutes to watch this video clip from the movie. It’s fun and will help your brain remember this post.

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5 Comments »

  • Jason Little Said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    I love this post! Overall I think the Agile community paints a great picture of the rainbows and unicorns that come with Agile adoption. Reality says otherwise. I love the Matrix metaphor, I too have experienced that phenomena.

    It’s great to hear those terms: Strategic vs Tactical Agile. That seems to help my own thoughts converge. I sometimes get obsessed with ‘perfect state’ and lose sight of organizational reality which can do more harm to clients than good. I’ve learned over the last few weeks to just let some things go even if I feel a train-wreck is coming, love your description and metaphor in this post, helps me quite a bit more!

  • Sustaining Agility Game Said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    [...] investment in sustainable development practices. The game is intended to help them get through a Red Pill, Blue Pill [...]

  • Chris Matts Said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:51 am

    “If you are a coach, it’s your job to know where the boundaries are and help clients cross them when they are willing.”

    Probably the wisest comment I’ve heard out of Agile recently.

    Unfortunately too many people see Agile as the goal so that they can blog about it or tell everyone at conferences. The Matrix metaphor is perfect. This forced agile is like Morpheus trying to force the red pill down Neo’s throat.

    Nice post

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 6:21 am

    Thanks for you nice comments. I love your image of Morpheous trying to to force the red pill down Neo’s throat.

  • Evolving Technology. Adapting Design. | Erick Miller Dot Com Said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 3:42 am

    [...] whole thing at this stage is about interpretation, and this link is probably my favorite so far, equating taking the Red or Blue pill to rolling out Agile Software [...]

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