Tobias Mayer: the pragmatic, the revolutionary, the dreamer

Tobías MayerSince the seventeen signatories of the Agile Manifesto, perhaps no thinker has influenced more the agile practitioners and the entire agile ecosystem in the last decade than Tobias Mayer. If we strip away all prejudice or preconceived notions, we can even say that his ideas have directly targeted on the traditional ways of working and the way of thinking of those of us who have been touched by the paradigmatic models he promotes in his essays and in his lectures.

In his professional profile on LinkedIn, he says about himself that he “inspires, guides and tempts individuals and organizations to the edge of their comfort zone… and beyond.” Tobias Mayer has a background in software development, publishing, theatre arts, and community service work. For the past ten years, he has worked as a change agent, educator and facilitator, providing coaching and consulting services to teams and organizations wishing to make a transition to more agile, trustful and team-centered ways of working.

Several years ago, even knowing his deep differences with the board of the Scrum Alliance, the board of directors called him to be Creative Director of the organization. Shortly after, he not only quit his role but also renounced to all the Scrum Alliance certifications he had obtained over the years. Many of his followers and experts worldwide fixed in their minds his post “The Scrum Compliance”. Among many other things, one item that captured their attention was that he referred to the Scrum Alliance as “the epitome of the dysfunctional organization that Scrum practitioners are committed to transforming”.

He currently performs as Human Systems Coach at Yahoo!, where he works in the Advertising & Data group, supporting and encouraging managers and teams to new ways of thinking and working, to increase engagement and create purpose. And between this job, his attention to multiple conferences and his chore as curator of AgileLib.Net, he shared with us their fears and passions and talked about love, the future of humanity and what we can do once we reach the goal of “being agile” and what he expects when he lands on Medellin into the #Agiles2014 Conference.


[You have been working as a change agent, trainer and facilitator, providing coaching to teams and organizations. From your vast experience, what are the biggest impediments for transitioning into Agile? Do they arise from people or from organizations?]

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Organizations are made of people, so ultimately the resistance we face is personal resistance, whether that be at the executive level or the grass roots level. I think it’s fair to say that the underlying cause of resistance—in all cases—is fear. There are essentially two emotional states we dwell in. The first is love, the second is fear. When we exist in love we open our hearts and minds to new possibilities, we seek to understand, we listen, we foster empathy, we take risks—we live our lives out loud. When we exist in fear we engage in all the opposite behaviors to these. Of course, very few people are only ever in one of these spaces; we oscillate. But what I find interesting is that there’s very little (if any) middle ground. We are in love, or we are in fear: there’s no compromise.

So the task of the coach/facilitator is to take people into love. Which brings us to another major impediment: the coach/facilitator himself. We cannot persuade, sell or otherwise coerce people to love—I’ve tried that, and failed rather too many times. It’s an easy trap to fall into when we strongly believe in something. Agile—as part of the greater paradigm shift from control to release—asks us to think and behave in new, often strange ways. Those of us a little ahead on this transformational journey may get impatient with the laggards, and impatience of course, is fear-based.

So the biggest impediments to Agile transition is people—including me, and including you. I can’t change the world (of work) but I can change myself, and do my best not to be the impediment I don’t want to see in the world.

[Your book, The People’s Scrum, is somewhat inspiring, revolutionary to some extent. What do you think or feel it is the most beautiful thing that happened to you doing what you are doing with all this Scrum and agile stuff?]

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Yesterday (literally, as I write this) I ran an exercise with a group of user researchers. The exercise, synchronistically, is called The Colombian Hypnotist. It is one of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed warm-up exercises. Hard to explain in detail in a short response, but essentially the exercise is designed (among other aims) to have us explore our bodies and our movement in ways that challenge us both physically and emotionally—and to do this in partnership with another person. It’s a curious exercise. Some find it deeply uncomfortable and fail to find value, while others find it inspiring. The connection that struck me was this—and I paraphrase:

“Computer technology is embracing the human body in ways it has never done before. Gone are the days of sitting at a desk, closed off to the world. Today’s computers embrace and support our every living, moving moment.”

It took me to a whole new place of wonder—it has me itching to take this, and other wholebody exercises to every software developer and designer I can find. Our future isn’t eyes-tothe-screen, computers serving man, it is a collaborative dance between human and machine. And we have no idea where it will take us.

Many other beautiful moments come to mind. I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people, and to engage in fascinating conversations. But this incident from yesterday is the one on my mind right now—a gem among gems.

[You are the founder/curator of AgileLib.net, a library of agile-related resources built by agile practitioners for agile practitioners. How can the Latin American Agile Community be part of this sort of initiative and receive the benefits of this project?]

I’d love to see more Spanish-language resources added to the library. It is only as good as the people who create it—this is not something I can, or would want to do alone. I hope to encourage a lot more participation with a new feature I’m building intended to engage conference goers in a collaborative effort to build a log book of their event, to share with one another and with the wider Agile community. Perhaps we can pilot this at #Agiles2014 :)

[Once we reached Agile, once we can say “We are Agile”, what next? From Agile to where?]

Agile is a very small piece of the world-wide movement towards a new way of being and interacting, which embraces chaos, self-organization, trust, collaboration—and love, and works towards the reduction of positional power and an end of coercion, threat, reward and punishment. The movement is occurring in education, in science, in technology, in our social lives and in our families. There is a wealth of knowledge available to us to explore the few ideas that found their way into Agile in much broader and deeper ways—and to discover a whole new world of inspiring ideas. There is a great danger in saying “we are Agile”, as if it is a destination. It is not. It is only ever a journey—and we have taken just the first step.

[Finally, what are your expectations in coming to South America to the #Agiles2014 Conference?]

I shall meet with friends, and I shall make more. I’ve worked in Argentina, Peru, Chile and Brazil and on each trip I found people passionate about Scrum, and about exploring new ways of working. My experience thus far tells me that South America is a particularly rich continent for this way of thinking. South Americans are known for their passion, their emotionalism, their story telling, and of course—to the rest of us—they are thought of as being the world’s great lovers! What better place to foster love than at #Agiles2014?

My hope for this trip is that I can touch a life or two, open up someone’s heart or mind in a new way. And eat a lot of good, local food. If these two things occurs, I’d consider this a good, and successful trip. Thank you so much for inviting me.


His book has the charm of controversy and certainly we dare say that it is instigating a revolution, as at the time they did with so divergent works as “The Origin of Species” by Darwin, “The 120 Days of Sodom” by the Marquis de Sade, “The Da Vinci Code” by Brown, “Lolita” by Nabokov, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by Orwell, “The Satanic Verses” by Rushdie or “The Prince” by Machiavelli.

The People’s Scrum recalls in some way to Aristotle’s Poetics, in the sense that it is a compendium of definition and characterization of working with Scrum and because it comprises a series of essays, some of which border on the achromatic or, as he says, with an idealistic message born of purely abstract thought, from the dream of returning to feel at work as we used to feel back at school days, where there was innovation and ideas can produce sudden changes or disruptions; to that in which he has “embraced true agility –elegant, curious, and lighthearted.” And where he ends by saying: “I’m done with compliance to harsh, angry hierarchies, to the worship of false idols. Instead I want to approach my work with an open heart, a beginner’s mind and an anarchist’s soul”.

He is Tobias Mayer, many of you already know him, but we all let tempted by his enthusiasm and the alienation of his ideas on Thursday 23 October, it will be the right time to cause a transformation in our lives, during the opening of the VII Latin American Conference on Agile Methodologies. Do you already signed up for the #Agiles2014 Conference?