Parlour Tricks

Parlour Tricks

A “parlour trick” is another name for a simple magic trick, something folks used to entertain their family and friends on those long winter evenings back in the day.

“Because a parlour trick is simple and easy to learn, a parlour trick often spreads quickly through a community, with people picking it up at gatherings and introducing it to new groups.”

Oooh, Shiny!

Here’s some parlour tricks that have been doing the rounds over the past few years:

  • Agile
  • Scrum / Scrumban / Etc.
  • Cynefin
  • Options – real or otherwise
  • Management 3.0
  • Rightshifting & the Marshall Model
  • TDD
  • BDD
  • Retrospectives
  • Brainstorming
  • Standups
  • Kanban & the Kanban Method
  • Scaled Agile (SAFe, LeSS, EssUP, SEMAT, etc.)
  • Organisational Psychotherapy
  • Person Kanban
  • XP and the 12 practices
  • Argyris (Action Science etc.)
  • Clean Language
  • Solutions Focus

Note: I provide this list by way of illustration, rather than as an exhaustive catalog.

Passing Off

What’s wrong with entertainment? Not a thing. Excepting when it’s passed off as something else. When the gullible don’t realise it’s a cheap trick and believe it e.g. reveals some essential truth about the nature of reality. Or get gulled into believing it could be of practical use to them. A bit like the difference between a Clown Car and a real car.

– Bob

Further Reading

Why Do People Conform To The Herd? ~ Adi Gaskell

    • Ah, yes. Fads. The same general concept, seen from the other end of the telescope.

      Thanks for the useful link.

      – Bob

  1. Paul Beckford said:

    Table 4 -The Eight Common Properties of Administrative Fads (page), succinctly list the properties you should look for when assessing whether something is a Fad (for those who don’t want to read the whole paper).

    The interesting thing to note, is whether something becomes a passing fad as little to do with the material itself, and more to do with how the idea is sold (claims of universality, false promises of results, etc) and why buyers choose to buy (simple, straightforward, step down capability, etc).

    So any idea can be turned into a parlour trick, irrespective of its objective merits. It is up to the buyer to separate the “stuff” from the ‘fluff’, seeing past claims of universality and false promises, to discern what will work for them in their context.

    So in a sense your list is a little unfair 🙂


    • Yes. Means of selling, and posture of buyers, both. Caveat venditor and caveat emptor, indeed.

      – Bob

  2. davecla said:

    Bob. I love your posts and thinking. This is the first one I’ve read that I don’t agree with. Which probably means I don’t really understand your underlying message. I think u r now part of the Hivemind network in which case I may use some of my knowledge units to speak to you in more detail about this post as it is intriguing me!

    • Hi Dave,

      Would you be willing to consider the definition of a Fad (aka Parlour Trick) as laid out in the article linked-to by Paul, in his comment above? That might help explain where I’m coming from.

      – Bob

    • Paul Beckford said:

      Hi Dave,

      Just tying the research with my own experience. Lets take Scrum as an example. Go through the eight properties (page 5 in the paper) and Scrum gets a tick for almost all of then, explaining it’s massive popularity and Fad status :). Now how many proponents as part of their initial pitch make the point that the Scrum rituals alone stand a hell chance of working? Pete Breen, co-author of the first book on Scrum begged Ken Schwaber to include technical practices in their book; practices that he felt were critical to success. They even had a public spat about it years later…

      Also the idea that Scrum Masters by themselves can wave a magic wand and remove organisational “impediments” with Senior Management eager to “inspect and adapt”, responding to their every wish:) When was that proven to be a universal truth? It certainly doesn’t appear as an established proven practice in the research paper that Scrum is based on (The New New Product Development Game by Nonaka and Takeuchi). Was this just wishful thinking on the behalf of Schwaber and Sutherland? Or a means of skirting around what they knew would be a fundamental impediment to Scrum adoption, namely the prevailing Management Culture and its’ resistance to change?

      Not wanting to pick on Scrum, but the list goes on… The paper talks about paradox… The more attractive an idea is made, the more likely that organisations will adopt on mass, but also the more likely that adoptions will fail. So “well intentioned” attempts to make an idea sellable (omitting technical practices, omitting the difficult organisational changes needed as a prerequisite, certification, etc), in the end tend to backfire.

      In contrast for example, The XP crowd did a terrible job at selling their big idea, despite all their efforts 🙂 Pitching them at developers the lowest of the low in Organisations, was a huge mistake to begin with 🙂 Calling it Extreme, another marketing mistake 🙂 Kent Beck even went as far as to speculate over the the contexts and environments where XP would not work, hedging his bets over whether it was universally applicable, ditching the number one Fad ingredient :). As a consequence, very few organisations adopted XP, yet despite this, XP practices still endure and many are considered to be classics.

      Now, Pete Breen would recognise XP, and Scrum as he practiced it in the early 90’s, to be almost identical 🙂 Even though XP came along several years later, very little in XP is truly novel. The main difference for him would be the packaging. Parlour tricks 🙂


  3. What about these three? 🙂
    the anti-matter principle
    the Marshall model

  4. Tobias said:

    Made me smile at first, but actually I think it’s a cheap shot. All the ideas in your list (and they are just ideas) can be sold as Fads—and often are—or can be socialized as ways of thinking/acting to help an organization on its journey. In the Fads article that Paul linked to, Theory X/Y is listed as a Fad. This is nonsense. Theory X/Y is little more than an observation of what is. The fact that less is written about it now than it was when the theory was first illuminated is simply because more people are aware of it, and share it as part of a bigger picture of change/improvement. The same can be said of some practices in your list, e.g. TDD, which is now widely recognized as a useful concept for developers to learn and understand, and very often actually practice. So I guess I’m not sure what your point is here. You seem to be more disturbed by the Fad/Parlour Trick approach, than by any of the actual ideas themselves—in in that way I’m aligned with you. I balk at any quick fix, one-size-fits-all solution, but embrace many of the concepts/ideas in your list.

    Last point—question really— how does NVC get left off this list? Isn’t that also sold (big time) as a Fad?

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