The Good Place: Dysfunction in the Agile Organization

By Amanda Babb, principal of Process Delivery

It’s been a great first week of the fall season of television. Some of my favorites have been rebooted, my alma mater was featured on a t-shirt, and one that I’m obsessed with has sparked a bunch of corollaries with what we do at Praecipio Consulting.

If you’ve seen a show called The Good Place, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a Sartre-esque comedy where Hell is other people. But there’s an architect. The Architect is responsible for developing the most diabolical experience (torture) for the four anti-heroes to make them question why they’re doing what they’re doing and why they’re doing it with the people they’re doing it with.

Cue the Agile Dysfunction discussion.

There is one key distinction between The Good Place and the real world, however, and it's the capacity people have for learning. If given the opportunity, the Team and The Architect can learn and, more importantly, learn from one another. In The Good Place, a Team is not allowed to self-organize, nor are they afforded the time to perform retrospectives. The Architect doesn’t know why the plan isn't working and hits the reset button. The Architect, while gathering data on every failure, does not take the time to perform a retrospective with the rest of the organization and ends up with a mutiny. We at Praecipio Consulting too often see dysfunction in organizations as a result of lack of learning. A mistake or failure is subject to the reset button, not discussed, analyzed, and ultimately acted upon to create a better way to work. 

The Architect gets frustrated and continues to reboot the four members of the team for multiple iterations. In the hundreds. The Architect dictates the constraints. The Architect dictates the other people involved. The Architect dictates roles. The Architect records results. The Architect resets the scenario every time something goes wrong much to the dismay of his own cast of players. 

Teams self-organize and question the mission. Teams figure out the solution. They work together to understand their situation while choosing to do what’s right regardless of direction. Sometimes with disastrous results: flying shrimp, mutant giraffes, a clam chowder fountain. All of these combine in a chaotic sequence forcing one of the main characters to finally stand up and admit being wrong. The team is not the villain. The team is simply questioning the nature of their reality and determining whether or not they can push the boundaries. 

I’m not saying there’s a villain or a hero in this narrative: the Team is not smarter than The Architect. They both have strengths in the scenario. The Architect’s frustration is our own everyday frustration: why won’t the Team just do what they’re supposed to? And the Team frustration is our everyday frustration: why does The Architect think we can’t understand what’s actually happening?

This is not to say The Architect is the villain either. There is a plan. This plan has been presented, approved, and is being executed. Small changes are presented each time the reset button is hit: let's try it again, but this time, add a member to the team. Let's try it again, but this time the main character is "The Best Person." Let's try it again, but without introducing any of the team members to one another in the beginning. And again. And again. And again. Because The Architect is a strong leader, the rest of the cast and crew continue to follow the direction of the plan, but without input for the next iteration. 

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." - Unknown

This is the number one dysfunction of agile organizations: the lack of a retrospective at any level. This is the first agile ritual that disappears at the Team, Program, or Portfolio level. How can the organization learn and grow without a moment to reflect on what it learned? By removing learning from the organization, you have removed trust, innovation, and efficiency. 

If you think you're in The Good Place, take a moment an perform a retrospective. You may actually be in The Bad Place.