Why I’m going to stop saying agile ceremonies

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Many people use the term “Agile ceremonies” as a collective term for activities like standups, retrospectives, reviews and planning.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the word “ceremony” in this context. It’s never sat well with me and I don’t like using it with people who are new to agile ways of working.

I’ve been thinking about why that is.

A quick look for “Ceremony” on the Oxford dictionary says

“the ritual observances and procedures required or performed at grand and formal occasions”

A google image search mirrors the sentiment here.

Ceremony sounds formal. It sounds like going through a set of steps because it’s the way it’s always been done. It evokes visions of starched formal wear, legal documents, marching and rituals. And worst still, it can make people think agile is a bit of a cult. This does not fit well with ideas of collaboration, trust, adaptability and learning. It takes away from the reasons for doing an activity and focuses on the process of doing it.

So I’m not going to use it anymore.

I’m going to use habits and patterns.

Simple definitions of these words are:

Habits: a routine behaviour repeated regularly until it happens without having to explicitly think about it.

Patterns: proven solutions to repeatable problems

Teams can use patterns when they are new to a concept, it helps them to work within some constraints and build habits. One habit could be daily communicating, using the standup pattern.

Building habits takes some mental energy. Once something is a habit it takes less mental energy and the team can build on top of it and create their own new patterns.

There is loads more out there about habits and I recommend reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this below.

32 thoughts on “Why I’m going to stop saying agile ceremonies

  1. You might enjoy chapter 3 in, The Path, by Professor Michael Piety & Christine Gross-Loh.
    It’s about customs and rituals. Just read it this morning and was thinking about agile/my team/how we work/personal growth.
    You can read my copy.

  2. Funny, I’ve always though that using “ceremonies” was pejorative, when you were talking about agility circus / shallow agile / cargo culting. I didn’t realise people used it with a straight face.

    I tend to say “dances”, but I like habits and patterns. I’m going to start playing with those.

  3. I don’t know where the word “ceremony” came from in this context. So far as I can tell, it was never in the Scrum Guide though people seem to think it comes from there. And it makes me twitch whenever I hear it used this way because the events it’s used for are not symbolic or ritualistic – they’re WORKING MEETINGS. I get why folks don’t like the word ‘meeting’ either as most of us find the idea of a ‘working meeting’ oxymoronic based on previous experience. I do like the sound of ‘habits’ and ‘patterns’ and will try those on for size.

  4. I use the term “agile practices”.

    I think “agile ceremonies” sounds pejorative, as for many people—perhaps most—a ceremony is something that you do for social or religious reasons. I often hear it used this way.

    It’s well possible that many people haven’t internalized these practices and /are/ doing them because everyone else is. Maybe they feel like they’ve joined the one true religion, but that’s not what being agile is about.

    I work using agile practices because it’s largely a combination of reasonable, time-tested, and scientific approaches to help make us/me better at building things. Like many, I think these can be divided into “developer practices”, such as XP, and “team practices”, such as Scrum.

    “Habits” and “patterns” for me are too neutral. Agile may in part be about forming /good/ habits and identifying /useful/ patterns, but I feel that for the most part, it’s just a set of *best practices*.

    That’s why I say “agile practices”.

    1. I like to use practices as a collective term – “as a team we follow agile practices”. For me habits is a really useful way to think of specific things because of the implicit / explicit memory aspect and reduced mental power needed once something becomes a habit. I did a talk on something similar a few years back (even though that slide deck says ceremonies in it!)

      1. I feel quite strongly that we should be conscious of the practices we apply, so “habit” is not what I’m looking for.

  5. Bucking the trend here, but I don’t think this is a fair case against the word ‘ceremony’. There are other definitions in the dictionary, and many more more familiar examples, like the blowing out of candles, leavers drinks, after-match handshakes. They aren’t reasonable but they are important. Same as agile ceremonies like a retrospectives are easily devalued on reasonable grounds but if you ignored them then eventually the team stops working so well. Habits can be good and bad, but we don’t give them the same value as ceremonies.

  6. We don’t use the word, but I have heard the term “scrum artifacts” used by people who’ve gone through the course. The main problem is that his term is never really explained to anyone else, or described in terms of why any particular aspect is useful, or what it aims to do.

    Personally I think anything not in plain English is doomed to be taken as something “fancy” or external. “Guidance” is one thing. “Best practice” can be ok, if you can say why. But for quick introductions to habit, etc, a simple intro of “something that we do as part of our process” is possibly more approachable when talking to people who don’t have a massive background in agile/scrum/dev processes.

    “Every day we [do something] as it helps us to [achieve something]. If we don’t, then we often find that [something happens].”

    Otherwise, for a slightly shorter, more linguistic list, just “as part of our scrum process, we employ…” followed by a list of meetings, roles, etc. But this would be more for people that would understand the basics.

    Would be interested to know why certain words are used and are useful though. Contexts differ… 🙂

  7. I’m not sure why the term “Habitual Encounters” is so prominent in my mind personally but I like to think of it exactly in the sense you described the term habit referring to “a routine behaviour repeated regularly until it happens without having to explicitly think about it.” and encounter being described as “an unexpected or casual meeting with someone or something.” clearly encounter could use some tweaks but I like it.

    “Meetings” are generally the place where we plan to share knowledge on an individual level about the day to day stuff, future ideas, plans to accomplish goals, where we might be running into some barrier and if there might be other perspectives around that could share some knowledge on how we might solve these complex or simple problems and then we go back to our regular days. not communicating this stuff until the next “meeting”

    So this is based on the idea of flattening the hierarchical systems to create communication through all individuals and really allowing collaboration to inspire innovation to challenge these complex problems we will begin to face.

    But by creating the norm and making “habit” of sharing information with everyone, taking the time when you actually encounter another employee to have a conversation and discuss issues you might be facing whether that employee be front line or c-suite level, once we realize that every individual has a unique perspective to things and that all these perspectives are neither right or wrong (with some exceptions) but rather just different takes towards the same things. That is when like you spoke of we will see a real change in culture.

    I guess that’s just my condensed version of my perspective more fueled by the idea of culture change than anything I believe. Having your own unique perspective is important but when you are open minded enough to realize that when you start to mold diverse perspectives is when you get the truly powerful outcomes.

    Fueled from this wonderful blog post, of a very intelligent and different perspective on “meetings”
    Cheers 🙂

    1. thanks James.
      Have you read anything by Alex Pentland? His book “Social Physics” talks about how organisations with more encounters are more successful. It sounds like you might enjoy it.

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