Going Agile: Not with “Ceremonies” and “Rituals”

Imagine you’ve been asked to join another Agile team. The person in charge meets you and during the introductory conversation, says “Mondays, we have the planning ceremony at 10. The other main ceremonies are on Friday afternoons…”

Rewind to where the person said “ceremony.” Did you feel excited? curious? nervous? unenthusiastic?

What if they’d called the exact same events “team sessions” or “meetings”?

When adopting/using Agile, the words we use can mean the difference between an effective implementation and a mediocre one.

Last year, I wrote about the unhelpful negative connotations of “sprint,” “velocity,” and “resources.” The word we’re going to unpack today is “ceremonies” (or “rituals”).

I hear this word at almost every company I visit and meetup I attend. Searching online for “Agile ceremonies” yields 400,000 hits. What people refer to are the Scrum meetings: the daily standup and the sprint planning, review, and retrospective. Interestingly, the Scrum Guide has never used this word at all. It uses “events” and “meetings.”

I don’t know how “ceremonies” and “rituals” have become so rooted in common parlance. I’ve been deeply involved in all things Agile for 17 years, and I don’t recall encountering them so frequently for the first 10 of those. I do notice, though, that their rise in popularity correlates with another phenomenon I call Checklist Agile.

Most of the people I meet have certain expectations about Agile implementations. Their mental lists vary slightly but they include many common elements. Small cross-functional teams have a product owner and work in two-week sprints. They write user stories in a given template, estimate them with story points or shirt sizes, keep them in a backlog, and choose from them at the beginning of each sprint. Every day at the same time, they stand up and talk about impediments; they conduct a demo/review at the end of every sprint; and they follow that up with a retrospective.

Some of these ideas are from Scrum, some are not. None of them is universally good or bad. They work better when combined, rather than when adopted buffet-style. The issue is the widespread assumption that they are necessary and sufficient for a useful Agile implementation. You want Agile? Work down the checklist. Management wants to know that you’ve transformed your group to Agile? Show them the evidence by checking off the list’s items.

In effect, Agile got standardized, in direct violation of the first of its four values: people (individuals and their interactions) matter more than process. There’s a hidden assumption that the process can be effective regardless of context. Another assumption is that the process must be followed as prescribed. One way to ensure that everyone participates in the team interaction events is to elevate their stature to “ceremonies”, or more extremely, to “rituals.” But is that a good idea?

Some people prefer these words to plain old “meetings” because they convey regularity, a set agenda, a strict time-box, and clear outcomes. I think they convey a few more subtle messages.

If you invite me to a ceremony, my mind will make the following assumptions. Which of these thoughts also go through your mind, or your colleagues’?

  • I have to attend — no choice in the matter
  • Some authority figure established it long ago, and we’ve been doing it since
  • There will be a heavily scripted process
  • I’m expected to participate in a specific way
  • It will be the same process every time
  • It’s not something to challenge
  • It will be formal and I won’t feel at ease
  • It will be important, but probably boring

The word “ceremony” reinforces the standardization of Agile and the notion that process matters more than people. But it’s people who use the process! They are bound to feel less motivated to go through motions, and less likely to apply themselves fully. I have not encountered a team that refers to its team interactions as ceremonies and sees deep engagement and great outcomes from them.

Of course, team events need clear outcomes, effective agendas, and good facilitation. Refer to them with words that carry neutral or positive connotations in your environment — meeting, session, workshop, gathering, etc. — and the experience will be quite different:

  • Sprint planning will be a collaborative determination of the work that matters the most
  • The daily standup will be a lively conversation about the best use of the team’s next 24 hours
  • The review will be an interesting exchange of ideas and feedback

And who knows, you might iterate away from some of these meetings to more useful and efficient ways of accomplishing the same goals.

Related article: Agile Just Makes Sense… Why Don’t They Get It?!

Related presentation: Practice Does not Make Perfect: Why Agile Transformations Fail

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