Can agile learn something from Sham 69?

Keith Richards
8 Jan 2017
Sham 69

In 2016, I had one of the greatest moments of my life.

It happened when I was standing in a field in the middle of Devon. It was raining, it was dark, it was midnight and I was at a music festival. The next band on stage were Sham 69.

Several decades earlier (four to be exact!), I had been swept away on a wave of rebellious ‘new wave’ music that was to (thankfully) transform music forever. During that era, I saw most of the well-known punk bands - but somehow, Sham 69 slipped past my radar.

Ten minutes into their set, I was being transported back to the late seventies – it was incredible, emotional, unbelievable and exhilarating. The four guys on stage were brilliant. They played with precision, passion and commitment. Whilst listening, I found myself plunged into a deep philosophical musing.

Why was this so unbelievably good, yet so unbelievably simple?

I am embarrassed to admit that, at this point, my thoughts turned to my work. Could agile learn a thing or two here? (Like I said – I am embarrassed to admit this!)

I work with many types of customer. A common piece of advice I am regularly giving, is the need to ‘keep it simple’.

I find many customers bamboozled by ‘agile things’ and most of the time I try to get them back to basics and simplify the whole thing. They need to strip back the agile hype and do what needs doing.

As an example, I have lost count of the times that story pointing has caused more pain than gain. Do we convert to hours? Can we only use the Fibonacci numbers? Is it about complexity or effort? Do I factor in risk? I often have to pull people back and say ‘look everyone, broadly speaking - do you think you can get this done or not?’.

SAFe is another example of where I have concerns for so many of our customers. Does it have a role – yes, it undoubtedly does - but when is it appropriate? There are many places I visit where I see a photocopy or two of SAFe’s ‘big picture’ lying on desks. SAFe has its place, but for many organisations it would most likely act as a wrecking ball and set agile (and probably the organisation) back years. I say this on the basis that the organisations I am referring to, are still struggling to get to ‘first base’ with Scrum! If they can't run a retrospective properly, there is no point in sticking 100 people in a room and doing PI planning!

So, this brings me back to why Sham 69 struck such a huge chord with me. What they did that night was so utterly simple and yet totally superb.

Four guys; one on vocals, two on guitar and a drummer. Rarely straying from 3 chords and rarely going over 3 minutes per song. Someone standing next to me commented, ‘if you don’t like the song they are playing, it doesn’t matter; there’s another one along in a minute!’.

It was all so simple.

It was this very simplicity that allowed punk rock to flourish and blossom in the late seventies. It was, in effect, a musical enema. In the Seventies, we had a lot of very clever music from very clever bands like Steely Dan and Supertramp. Then along came the punk era and it just blew it away. Isn’t this what agile did a decade or so ago with Scrum? Isn’t Scrum just a case of ‘say what you are going to do’, ‘do it’, ‘see what you did’?

The stunning thing about my most fantastic hour of 2016 is that it was more than the rekindling of a fond memory. I have seen many of the great punk bands in recent years such as The Stranglers and Blondie, but they never took me back in time to the very place and the that very feeling. But Sham 69 did. They recreated the past.

OK, I will be the first to admit that their lyrics do not really compete with the likes of Dylan or Cohen and their vocals aren’t up there with the likes of Carole King or Stevie Nicks. But that wasn’t what I needed at that moment - it was dark; it was wet; I was tired. My point is, that many organisations are moving to agile and they seem to be building complex orchestras, yet they can't even play 12 bar blues.

This year I have been fortunate enough to see live acts such as Coldplay and Adele, but Sham 69 in a wet field in Devon topped the whole lot.

Whenever I face a complicated situation now I just ask one simple question – how would Sham 69 go about this! Thanks guys – I can see a lot clearer now. Keep it simple. Very simple.


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