Survival Rules and the Lamp Lighter


By understanding the context in which their existing practices were meant to work, teams new to agile can more easily decide which of those practices still make sense and which are simply security blankets.

One of the great things about being a parent is that you have an excuse to re-read some classic books. My five-year-old and I recently read The Little Prince. In one part of the book, the little prince talks about various characters he meets on his journey from his planet to Earth. The story of one of these characters, the lamp lighter, reminds me of the organizational inertia some teams encounter when trying to transition to agile software development.

The Story of the Lamp Lighter
On one planet, the little prince encounters a lamp lighter who lights a lamp at dusk and extinguishes it at sunrise. But, at the time of the little prince’s visit, the rotation speed of the planet has increased such that the length of a day has shortened from many hours to about a minute. The lamp lighter’s formerly low-stress task has become quite stressful.

When the little prince asks how this absurd situation came to be, the lamp lighter explains, “Orders are orders … It’s a terrible job I have. It used to be reasonable enough. I put the lamp out mornings, and lit it after dark. I had the rest of the day for my own affairs and the rest of the night for sleeping.” [1]

At this explanation, the little prince asks, “And since then orders have changed?”

The Lamplighter replies, “Orders haven’t changed. That’s just the trouble! Year by year the planet is turning faster and faster, and the orders haven’t changed!”

This fanciful story has many similarities to situations that teams encounter when they try to adopt agile practices to fit in with existing ways of working without understanding the context for each practice.


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