Fostering cultural change by failing to deliver

What do cultural change and improving delivery results have to do with one another? This could very well be a question posed in any business environment that is facing calls for change and embracing new ways of thinking. Often by inertia, many companies, especially if they are doing well, will be quite resistant to change because they are doing well enough.

The fundamental assumption is that cultural change is about improving performance and therefore improving delivery. In that respect cultural change means living values such as openness, commitment, respect and courage. It also means building accountability where people in the company do things not because they have to do them, but because they want to do them. In essence, it is about developing and continuously refining an environment that enables seeing everyone’s role in an organisation not as a passive component, but an active contributor.

But, how is it connected to delivery? That is both simple and very difficult. The simple part is that by living the above-mentioned values individuals at all levels of an organisation are able to play accountable, self-reflecting roles who share a common vision and goal, therefore putting their efforts towards achieving it as a collective and improving performance. The difficult part is convincing people that this is worthwhile, and facilitating a process that will help them share the same vision and the same goal.

Change – everyone’s responsibility

So, who is responsible for bringing about cultural change? The simple answer is, everyone. It is a matter of having the management level committing and living the values and then unequivocally communicate them through the organisation. The more people in the organisation become acquainted with the values, the easier it will be to create a spontaneous communication matrix where the vision and values related to it are communicated and lived by, from meetings to lunch breaks. Clearly and consistently communicating values and visions and living those values will be the best form of feedback to everyone, that this is the way to go. This is what makes a team that does work, into a team that wants to do work and enjoys being a part of what it is doing.

The challenge, however, is that change, all other things remaining constant, is usually difficult. Not only that, but the saying ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it’ goes a long way in thwarting innovation.

How to initiate change when everything seems okay

The benefits of change described above may be completely clear to the management, and the people in the company, but until they are in some kind of trouble and need to change something, will they do something about it? It is a bit like a company selling goods online. They have been doing well for years, but the introduction of new companies who are offering the same goods through a more user-friendly webpage, they are beginning to see a drop in their market share. The competitors have, on the other hand, been seeing a steady increase. Looking back, they could have changed, for example improving their 10-year-old webpage, which was clearly out of date and putting some customers off. Instead they relied on their previous performance and reputation thus ignoring the need for change even though the signs were there. Now, that the results are consistently indicating something is not right they are hearing the alarm bells ringing. And what do they do? They develop a new web page, by which time some damage has been done and their competitors have perhaps gained the upper hand. This tells us two things:

  • Firstly, companies need to think ahead and plan.
  • Secondly, that they need to change their cultures to embrace change instead of being faced by change on the back foot – in other words be able to continuously reflect.

The example above can be put into a different context and at a different level. Imagine a team inside a company working on a new software. They have a large user story that they have committed to resolving over a period of time, i.e. a several sprints. They began working on them, but soon realised that they might not be making the release date because testing software is preventing them from carrying out tests as they develop rather relying on the end test. Although they have a development plan, they are not reflecting on the risks and communicating them. In other words, they have not embraced a culture which gives them the freedom to organise their work by continuously reflecting and producing smaller functional releases. With the deadline and the all-important release looming large, what does the team do?

The art of letting them fail

If you are the Product Owner, and your goal is cultural change, which you believe will bring better performance in the future, you will not intervene. Even if that means that the team will probably fail to deliver a functional product? Yes, even if that is what it takes. Of course, you weigh out the risks and benefits, but if you are serious about investing in cultural change, and having a real team, then you may realise that it is better off letting them fail.

The logic behind this is that just like the goods provider with an outdated website, there needs to be a trigger for the team or a company to learn to change and live the agile principles. If you as the Product Owner step in the team has not learnt much. In fact, if they are new to the agile working environment intervention will only end up supporting their view that old ways are best. They will be happy to play with agile methods, but not take the associated responsibility. And as always, the product owner (or the big boss) solves it all. If, on the other hand, you let them fail you have probably done them a favour because they will be able to question what they are doing as a team and realise that the commitment and responsibility were not there from their side. In other words, you as a company will fail on delivering in the short run but will have probably succeeded in massively investing in cultural change that will yield results in the long run.

Support the learning process

This does not mean that you need to let everything burn down in an instant. Culture change is also about patience, trust, and strategic thinking. All are immensely important before embarking on letting teams experience failure in order to stimulate change culture. First of all, there needs to be consensus that cultural change is a strategy that requires commitment, even if it does not (and it probably won’t) work immediately. As a ScrumMaster and a Product Owner you need to have trust that the team will be able to reflect on the results and the reasons for the results. You also need to show patience and provide an enabling environment for the team to reflect and find a solution to the reasons for the failure. Communicating values and visions, while also living by them is crucial in this respect because it will help the team feel that they themselves have a place to reflect and therefore move forward. Ultimately, what you as both a ScrumMaster or a Product Owner want to have is a team that are change agents.

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Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic


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