Hanna Thomas says Agile is feminist, but is the essay critical enough?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Everyone understands that the West saw a sweeping cultural revolution in the mid to late 20th Century, and that many of the new practices were incorporated into the customs of business. Women entered the workforce, sought higher education, postponed marriage and children. Dress became casual. Modes of address became casual, with even nations such as Germany beginning to allow address by one’s first name. In terms of business, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management by Art Kleiner, is worth reading.

Hanna Thomas now argues that Agile practices are feminist. She quotes several antecedents that are similar to the Agile Manifesto. While there is no question that the rhetoric of the 1960s has been imitated by the business world, is that imitation sincere? For a long time, Nike shoes has been advocating that people start a revolution, and during most of this time Nike was having its shoes produced in brutal sweatshops in Indonesia, with some of the workers being very young. Can we all agree there is often a gap between the rhetoric and the reality?

Hanna Thomas attempts to confront the issue directly, in her first paragraph:

When Lean-Agile methodologies are brought up in progressive spaces, they’re often met with a suspicious side-eye. After all, as Audre Lorde said, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. Why on earth would we choose a methodology so beloved by big business, and how would we use it to deconstruct the harmful systems they impose on us?

She offers this as the heart of her argument:

The thing I notice from both the manifesto, the accompanying principles, and the fact that these 17 men call themselves ‘organizational anarchists’ is that what they came up with is inherently subversive, anti-authoritarian, and feminist. There is an emphasis on self-organising, collaboration, experimentation, welcoming change, and building high-trust and supportive relationships.

All of this sounds good, though I’ll point out the military’s elite units also emphasize self-organising, collaboration, welcoming change, and building high-trust and supportive relationships, because this has proven an effective way to fight, so you could say “Agile is militaristic” just as easily as you can say “Agile is feminist”. Would it be correct to then conclude that feminism is militaristic?

I’ll also point out that the era when Agile rhetoric swept through the tech industry is the era when women were pushed out of jobs as software developers. According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, in 1990 women constituted 35% of all software developers, whereas in 2015 that number had fallen to 26%.

None of this is criticism of Hanna Thomas, since she is not necessarily commenting on the reality of what has occurred over the last 30 years. No one doubts that there is overlap between feminist rhetoric and other forms of subversive rhetoric that’s been adopted by business. But it is worth thinking about the gap between rhetoric and reality. Family income in the USA peaked in 2000, so the reality has been grim for USA workers, even as the rhetoric has been inspiring.

Since “self-organising, collaboration, welcoming change, and building high-trust and supportive relationships” are all attributes of agile military teams, it might be worth looking at what these teams are used for. In both software and warfare, well run teams demonstrate “self-organising, collaboration, welcoming change, and building high-trust and supportive relationships”. But should the word feminist be applied to any goal that’s assigned to these teams? When the military was deployed to block immigrants from arriving in the USA, was that feminist? If an Agile software team at WalMart optimizes logistics in a way that allows WalMart to fire 2% of its workers, because their job has been automated, is the mass firing really feminist? If so, how?

Also, consider this:

Jennifer Armbrust’s principles of a feminine economy lay it out even more clearly. Collaboration, ease, asking questions, cyclical growth, empathy, and interdependence are all such important cornerstones of a successful product development cycle.

If the point is simply that the rhetoric of the two movements is very similar, then I think Hanna Thomas’s argument is well proven. Indeed, only an idiot would deny the similarities in the rhetoric. But I wonder if this an important insight? It might be more interesting to focus on why our reality is so far from the rhetoric.

Back in 2016 I wrote about the many failure modes of Agile, which I had seen with my own eyes. It is worth noting that the military seems to be the one organization that is really successful at creating teams that demonstrate “self-organising, collaboration, welcoming change, and building high-trust and supportive relationships”. Why is this? I think it is because in the private sector managers are often allowed to indulge their egos, putting their personal whims before the needs of the organization. Think Leonardo Dicaprio in Wolf Of Wall Street. This happens in the military, but less, as ego gratification is not openly celebrated in the military. Is it reasonable to say that the USA military is the most successful feminist organization in the world? I have female friends serving in the military, and they are very, very impressive individuals, entrusted with real power. So one can certainly make the argument that the military is feminist, in some ways. Is that the argument that Hanna Thomas was making? Because it is the only sense in which her essay is correct.

Ask yourself this, when was the last time you read an essay that argued hierarchy is good? Personally, I can not remember the last time I saw such an essay, except when I’m reading history books. In recent decades, no one has defended hierarchy. But then why do our businesses remain extremely hierarchical? Why is there such a gaping chasm between the rhetoric of business and the reality of business? Is it possible that hierarchy has some real benefits? If yes, why are essays detailing those benefits so rare?

About this:

I use these examples to serve the idea that what we now call Lean-Agile principles are principles that are already taken for granted within progressive social movements, and which are deeply necessary to succeed.

Can we perhaps read these words as reasonable criticism of the way progressive social movements have conceived of themselves since the 1960s? We have suffered through a 50 year conservative backlash, during which progressive movements seemed uniquely incapable of impacting the real world, and the lack of progressive effectiveness is especially noteworthy when you compare it to the tremendous progress made during the era from 1900 to 1970. Back in 2010 I wrote “Politics leaves me lonely” in which I said:

I am surprised by what I’ve been thinking this last year or two. For the sake of seeing some consistent movement in progressive politics, I’ve come round to the opinion that militancy on the Left is perhaps a useful thing. Not a good thing, but at least useful. These thoughts seem almost old fashioned. Militancy and discipline on the Left are concepts from the 1930s, they seem out of place in 2010. And yet, I can imagine them allowing for more progress than what has been normal for the last 50 years. I’ve recently become a believer that a trained and militant cadre would do a lot to help advance progressive causes in the USA. All the flaws and failures of this approach are well known to me – the in-fighting, the obscene factionalism, the constant lying and back-stabbing. I’ve seen a little of that with my own eyes, and I’ve read a lot about that stuff in history books. All the same, what are the alternatives? I’ve seen progressive movements try to take a relaxed and casual approach to politics all my life, and those movements have not been enough to defeat the overall conservatism of the era.

During the best years of progressive social change in the USA, the main progressive organizations, both the labor unions and the civil rights organizations, where extremely hierarchical. After 50 years of relentless failure, perhaps it is time for progressive movements to once again consider if there are some benefits to be drawn from some of the older ideas about organizing. Even if those ideas now seem stupid, obsolete and boring, they were highly effective. Perhaps they are worth another look?

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