Galápagos Syndrome

Galápagos Syndrome

Galápagos syndrome is the phenomenon of something becoming so specifically adapted to its environment that it cannot survive anywhere else. Giant tortoises are the obvious, and name-giving example, but it also encompasses things like malaise-era American cars - vehicles hyper-specialised to an environment with straight roads, low speed limits, a desire for comfort and an attitude that status is directly proportional to size.

What I'm seeing a lot of with the various bastardisations of agile development that are in place around the industry is the same things happening to employees. People are developing skills and habits that are hyper-specialised to whatever weird notion of Enterprise Agile they've managed to concoct, and yet utterly useless away from that isolated island nation.

To give out some programming examples, I'm talking about teams who build enormous spaghetti monoliths because it takes longer and thus pleases their project managers, who get more budget to play with as a result. Programmers who bend SQL into acting as a message queue because their internal change control won't approve anything but SQL and Java. Projects that spend half of their budget reinventing wheels because cross-charging or buying software are verboten. "Welcome to our company - we do things a little differently here."

These are all useless skills. What these teams are doing is making a seven litre engine with less than 150bhp because it's easy to get a V8 approved. They're becoming so slow and ponderous that they cannot exist in an environment with predators. And at that point, something tragic happens: they become incentivised to preserve the environment they've adapted to, because they cannot function in any other. Don't adapt to the danger; bar the doors and close the ports. Nowhere else will hire me, I have to preserve this job.

The problem here is that things cannot stay the same forever. If your processes and practices are ineffective, you're vulnerable to competition. Evolution's history is full of hyper-specialised creatures being wiped out by simple, effective and adaptable organisms. Your giant land yachts suddenly have to compete with small, efficient imports that are fun to drive and get great economy. A tech startup works out how to provide the same software at a tenth the price with a great user experience. Someone takes away your business in less time than your release cycle.

The lesson here is that as an organisation, you cannot let yourself be seduced by the idea of compromised methodologies, of Enterprise Agiles, Top-Down DevOps and Lean With Governance. As soon as you start abandoning true change, start fearing that your people might not be able to cope if you introduce a process without the comfort blanket of familiarity, you set yourself on a road to having people who are utterly unable to work anywhere else. Once things slide far enough, those people do not go gentle into that good night, they rage against and block every innovation you try to make. Galápagos Syndrome means even a change toward established norms becomes a direct threat to survival.

Yes, true agile transformation is hard. You can't drop a few stand-up meetings into what you already have and call it done. It's a long journey. Not everyone will make it through. But that's evolution - and do you want your software organisation to be an adaptable entity that can survive anywhere, or a plodding tortoise that can only exist in one tiny niche?