Introducing Roleism

At XP Day a few weeks ago I gave a lightening talk introducing “Roleism” and I wrote this up after being prompted by a couple of people present.

“Meet the Parents” is a funny film with one underlying “ism”. Its a film about “Roleism”, a prejudice that one person is better than another because of the role they do. In the film Greg Focker is considered inferior because he is a nurse rather than a doctor. Furthermore, it is assumed he is a nurse because he could not get the grades to be a doctor. The underlying message is “Why would someone choose to take a lower status role in society just to help others?”

As a Business Analyst and Project Manager I have often experienced roleism in the Agile Community. Friends will introduce me “He a business analyst, but unlike all the rest, he’s a good one”. What happens if we replace the term “Business Analyst” with “Indian”, “Woman” or “Gay”. How does that make you feel? The assumption is that all Business Analysts are useless but I’m alright. Once you get away from the bright lights of the Agile Conferences you discover that many Agile Teams work with business analysts or architects or some other “untouchable”. The reality is that prejudice on the basis of role is no way near as serious as the other forms of prejudice and I do not mean to imply it is in any way. Then again, when we look at the correlation of roles with gender and ethnicity, we might start to feel less comfortable about “Roleism”. “Roleism” might sound like a joke, however it is the basis of the caste system in India which is perpetuated by poverty and access to education.

I’ve experienced “Roleism” in the Agile Movement for many years. I’ve seen a video of an Agile Thought Leader describing business analysis practices as evil. The implication being that anyone using those tools is also evil. The thing that caused me the most concern about that incident was that no one challenged them. No one said “we should not demonise or de-humanise sub-groups within the community”. It was tolerated.

I’ve worked in a company where “Roleism” is institutionalised with leaders saying testers are not as good as developers. Perhaps if the testers had had he same educational advantages as developers….. but that starts to make us feel uncomfortable.

Why is “Roleism” important now?

Many Agile practices came from studying the best developers in the community. XP was based on the practices of Kent Beck, Ward Cunningham, Martin Fowler, Ron Jeffries, Chet Hendrickson et al. These were built upon by Tim Mackinnon, Steve Freeman, Nat Pryce, Janet Gregory, Lisa Crispin, Lisa Hendrickson, Liz Keogh and many others. Practitioners, not theorist.

There is a huge demand for scaling Agile to the Enterprise. This means that some of the roles we do not need at the team level start to come back into the picture when we are working across teams at the organisational level. All of a sudden we need Business Analysts and Architects and Project (Risk) Managers and and and…. The problem we have is that “Roleism” means the good ones stay away from the Agile community. We do not have the Kents and Wards and Rons whose practices we can model. And into that vacuum steps the trainers and the theorists. In absense of practices developed by the best practitioners, the theorists and the trainers make them up. Their clients expect them, so as experts they are expected to provide them. And we know what happens when the theorists start calling the shots. In a few years we will find ourselves being controlled by people who do not know what they are doing because they have been “helped” by people who do not know what they are doing.

Imagine a movie called “Meet the Project”. It stars a veteran project manager who does not trust a business analyst. The business analyst claims they could have been a developer but really wanted to help projects instead. The business analyst is the butt of the jokes, an outsider, until they are eventually cast out of the project. Only then does the project manager discover that the business analyst once contributed to open source. Who is the butt of the joke now?

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

3 responses to “Introducing Roleism

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