Agile Careers


Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the recently released Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist. 

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I'd like to share some thoughts about paradigms of workplace engagement based on our relationship to risk. These four paradigms of engagement are: conservatism, courage, trust, and existensialism.

A conservative avoids risk by avoiding conflict or even transparency. A colleague of mine used to avoid saying “the team failed the Scrum Sprint” to distance himself from any implied negativism. He revived his use of the word only after discovering that his boss had been using it while encouraging employees to take more risks.

In the courage paradigm, one strives for some greater good while acknowledging possible negative personal consequences. Courage is personal: consequences for colleagues or for the enterprise are a separate issue. While courage is often cited as an agile value it smacks of a hero culture and of short-term solutions in a climate of fear. That’s not sustainable. Courage may open the door to change, but great agile organizations take the extra steps to engage the culture instead of  just assaulting it.

The third is trust: to rely on expected standards of behavior. Svendsen delineates three kinds of trust in Tillid: Tænkepauser 4 (http://www.tæ Individual trust draws on past experience between individuals. Individual trust alone may not serve the greater good (even criminal gang members trust each other), so we must add the dimension of community. We exhibit social trust towards strangers with whom we may share common culture and its implied moral framework. For example, between Danes, one’s word is one’s word. Last is trust for institutions. Low corruption leads to trust in the government, which is a boon for business. Smart Trust by Covey (Simon & Schuster, 2012) relates a direct correlation between per capita GDP and trust at a national level (p. 15).  

The last paradigm, existentialism, is about responsible action without regard to any pre-formulated consequences.  Existensialistic efforts revolve around individual initiative or small, closed systems; agile approaches embrace open systems.

The same colleague who dodged the word “fail” once asked me to enter into a responsibility contract with him whereby we would encode all commitments in writing and never expose any missed commitments. Human behavior is so broad, varied, and dynamic as to defy any attempt at comprehensive codification in writing: “Agile covenants” and “agile team charters” are oxymorons. They represent closed systems. Maybe we could express the right level of human empathy in the language of music or poetry, but certainly not that of a team charter or other contract.  Svendson relates: “Social trust is thus the ability to work in groups on common goals. As the American political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel Prize in 2009, writes, voluntary cooperation builds on self-policing, thereby establishing an informal institution without written rules. This stands in opposition to forced cooperation enforced by an authority in accordance with formal written rules.” Forced. Enforced. Authority. Formal. Read: Not agile.

Agile is about responsible action beyond the individual towards customers and colleagues. This means going beyond conservatism, personal courage, and individual trust to the contextualized dialog of social trust. A static written covenant soon fades out of date while “living documents” come to be viewed as instruments of fashion.

Great trust unfolds at the level of enterprise and culture, and great change agents link individual influence to change at that scope. Untrusting societies waste resources on burglar alarms, lawyers, contracts, and security. Those, like social contracts, are forms of control. Svendsen adds, “If confidence in the community disappears, things become less flexible and more cumbersome.” Reach beyond individual trust and social trust to create open communities of trust in your institutions.

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