A Culture of Heroism

Posted by Doc
Feb 11 2010

A while back, I wrote about A Culture of Blame. As I’ve traveled around the US and to other countries, I’ve seen more and more evidence of this, which keeps me thinking. I’m always looking for patterns of behavior, and simple ways to describe them.

When talking about Agile teams as compared to Waterfall teams, one of the things that has become apparent is that Waterfall is also a Culture of Heroism. In fact, in many ways, much of Western culture is about heroism. We laud the star athlete, the exceptional business person, the standout author, and so on. In many cases, it seems to be recognition and acclaim for the individual over the group, or at least the individual separate from the group.

Agile teams foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation. That’s not to say that there’s not room for individual excellence, effort, and achievement. I would say that high performant teams tend to focus on the success of the team over the individual. Is Agile more socialist, while Waterfall is more capitalist? I’m not sure, but it seems that way.

Regardless, there are a number of side effects of a Culture of Heroism:

  • Ego-driven achievement
  • Unhealthy competition (although sometimes it’s quite healthy)
  • Rewards that – in recognizing the individual – discourage the others on the team
  • A focus on the individual rather than the group goals

This is an interesting thing for me, because I’m highly competitive, and am happy to have individual recognition. On the other hand, I believe strongly in subordinating my ego to the purposes and goals of the team, and that the success of the team is what’s important*. Since my ego still wins out at times, I recognize that this is not just a struggle for me, but for others as well.

We’re raised in a culture of individualism and heroism, then we are invited into the Agile fold, and asked to shift our focus and our energy from ourselves to our teams.

I’ll continue to explore this as I get the opportunity to work with more teams. I will say that I’ve seen the culture of heroism everywhere I’ve gone, in one form or another, and believe firmly that the change to a culture of collaboration must come from the leadership as well as the team.

3 Responses

  1. Kevin Baribeau says:

    I heard once that “value teamwork over heroics” would fit well with the rest of the agile manifesto.

    Makes sense to me.

  2. Twitter Comment


    RT @athought: Blogged: A Culture of Heroism [link to post]

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  3. Tim Berglund did a talk and video on this that dovetails perfectly. “The Berserker Always Dies”: http://www.augusttechgroup.com/tim/blog/2010/10/08/the-berserker-always-dies/

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