The Agile Scorpion

August 16, 2013


A frog approaches a stream and sees a scorpion by the bank.  The scorpion cannot cross the stream alone, so he asks the frog to carry him across the stream on its back.  The frog is wary of the scorpion and says “You might sting me and I will die.”  The scorpion assures the frog he wouldn’t do that because then they both would die.  The frog agrees.  Then halfway across the stream the scorpion stings the frog.  The frog begins to sink.  Before they both drown the frog asks “Why?”  The scorpion replies: “It’s my nature.”

This Aesop’s fable proclaims a warning for all of those who are on their agile journey.  Agile transformation is difficult enough.  You must also watch out for scorpions.  While change is hard for many people, the scorpions you may find, as in the story, have no intention of changing – but they won’t tell you that.  They could take the form of a team member, a manager, someone from another department that “supports” your team, an external business partner, and so forth.

It is truly unfortunate that the agile change “paralyzes” some people, but it does.  The level of change is significant.  So if you detect a scorpion among those on the agile journey with you, you can’t afford to tolerate their dangerous nature.  You will put your project and your agile transformation at significant risk.  Let them go be productive somewhere else.  You can’t afford to take the chance.

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  1. Good one ans very true… We come across many scorpions..what do we do about them?

    • No easy answers. What you can do all depends on your individual situation and organizational culture.

      But don’t rush past the first lesson of this story — the frog made a bad decision to go along with the scorpion in the first place. Avoid them at all cost. For example, she may be a great architect but if you know she’s a scorpion, get a different architect.

      But sometimes you can’t. Let’s say you have a scorpion in your team. A truly empowered team should be able to replace that person before being stung. Unfortunately, from all the teams I have coached, less than 10% of them have been empowered to that level. But with management support you may be successful.

      The real danger of the scorpion is the poison. Diluting the poison is one solution. Can you minimize that person’s breath of responsibility so that the potential damage they may do is minimized?

      Aside from avoidance, removal, dilution, you may have to get a road runner. Road runners, some lizards and insects prey on scorpions. You may need to engage a road runner to help keep scorpions in check. This may be the only solution if the scorpion is someone in a position of authority. Get someone with influence on your side that is willing to help protect your team.

      If you have another approach to handle this problem, share it with us all.

  2. There are places where there is a nest of scorpions, but a desire and commitment from on high to do something better, like agile. Without that “top cover”, we are usually wasting our time trying to make any change, far less anything as radical as Agile. We need that delegated authority, quietly tucked in our back pocket, that allows us to act.
    You can’t usually just sack all the scorpions, often because they have knowledge essential to operate the (dysfunctional) legacy.
    Removing all the scorpions and putting them together into a corner will just give them strength in numbers, to mobilise against you.
    You have to work with them, inside the tent, persuasively, divide and conquer, one battle at a time, staying true to the agile principles. Building from small unthreatening successes, demonstrating competence, doing what you say you will do; sadly, not making the mistakes that Agile says are essential to learning and progress.
    Every person, team, and organisation has its own agile journey
    Many, perhaps even most, scorpions will, in my experience, eventually embrace the journey. The challenge is sticking with them, or building support systems around them, until they themselves become committed and convinced. It’s less about software and more about psychology.

    • @Jim. You make a number of great points. The need for “top cover”-yes, so important, so valuable. Can’t sack them all – so true. Work with them – Indeed. The post was really targeted at those extreme, unmovable cases. A good point is to differentiate that not everyone who resists is a scorpion. Many people are scared by the level of change required for Agile. So don’t label everyone who pushed back as a scorpion. However, I think your best point that I want to echo is PSYCHOLOGY. Agile transformation is so heavily affected by psychology. Much more that just the adoption of agile practices. The “soft side” of agile hopefully gets more attention in the future.

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