Cultural Absolutism in Agile

For some months now, wherever I ended up getting in a deeper discussion about agile work, it always went in the direction of how important culture is in working agile and in particular being agile. And I believe that this is the case, indeed that it is a prerequisite for being agile, as I will explain below.

Although cultural dogmatism, that is to say focusing almost exclusively on culture as a means to do something better, sounds to me more like fanaticism, I’m a keen observer of how important cultural change is in creating enabling environments to perform. Indeed, I’ve often devoted significant attention to cultural change because of the belief that I want to have the people in the team that would also want to work with me in challenging times. In other words, creating an environment where people have a purpose, believe in it and want to work towards it.

How much does culture really matter?

Clearly, cultural change is not the only factor that needs to be considered when talking about making the agile transformation a success. Culture can do a lot to enable agile work, but it does not work the other way around that agile work necessarily enables culture. On the other hand, agile enables quicker delivery of products that fit or even shape user wants and needs, while culture in itself struggles to do that. So, while the core of agile is to deliver quicker and better quality, is culture key to creating the space or an environment for agile to do this?

Recently I’ve heard a critique of the statement that culture eats strategy for breakfast, pretty much outright claiming that it is false. The reasoning being that agile work is about delivery, while culture quite simply does not do delivery. While this makes sense, it does not account for the importance of the interaction of the two elements that make transforming into an agile organization a success.

It’s a bit like driving a supercar through a city. A supercar is still a car and it will get you from A to B in the city, but you can only get the best out of it in an environment that is more suited to its characteristics. Transferring this analogy to agile, the methodology itself is the supercar, while the environment is the culture.

Right at the start of any agile transformation process, it needs to be made clear that working agile and being agile are not the same thing. Full stop. There are teams that go through the motions of ‘doing’ agile, thinking (sometimes wishing) that merely following a recipe will lead them to success. Grinding through the sprints will – depending on what they do – probably improve the way they work and could make them more productive. But they will not get the best out of it because they have not fully appreciated what it is about.

Moving forward, but slowly

I’ve seen teams that have already after three sprints pretty much given up on having anyone else apart for the team at the review. They were simply content with going through the ritual or the review, saying what they have done, and that is it. The problem with that is not only that the meeting becomes a waste of time. There is no culture of ensuring that somebody, who will use or already uses what you are doing, is present to challenge you; to rethink how you see or interpret the product, even if it means challenging the assumptions the team makes to bring them to the product. In other words, the team is going through the motions, but not appreciating why they are doing it and what the value of it is.

Another example can be retrospectives. Teams go into them, go through them and there is a feeling that we have just witnessed meeting-tourism. Perhaps many issues were raised, but were they for the improvement of teams’ performance? The expectation from a retro would be that impediments are raised, discussed, prioritized and concrete steps on how to solve them are discussed. At the next retrospective, it can be inspected what worked and what did not; and adapted if there is a need.

How culture prevails

An example of the value of culture comes from the non-agile or sometimes not-knowingly-agile world of development cooperation. More specifically a country office of an international organization agency. The particular office was relatively small, but as country offices working in the field often go, it had a pretty much clear and set agenda of what the country priorities are, and what the success indicators are. In other words, there was very little ability to alter scope in what they did. The employees felt overburdened and were not really delivering to meet expectations. Coffee-talks focused on complaining about being overloaded and the bad atmosphere in the office, with the only solution apparently being to leave the place.

Sometime later a change came in the form of a new management as well as a wider, but not more flexible scope of what the office was doing. This also meant more work, which was not fully matched with hiring more staff. But what it also brought was a different working culture. All of a sudden, so it seemed, people had a tangible vision, they wanted to work towards it and were happy to put in the extra hours they did not do before. The coffee-talk changed to work-related, planning, reflecting, brainstorming. All in all, a completely different work atmosphere developed despite it effectively being the same place, with the same people, and the same kind of work. What made the difference in how people went about the work that they do was how the people did it, i.e. the organizational culture.

The question is how did the new management achieve this? It was first of all by making the boundaries in which they themselves were, as well as the employees, fully transparent. That meant that the way we organize ourselves is flexible, but what we need to do is predefined. Translating this into practice, it simply meant developing a culture of listening to people and enable creating an environment that supports productivity. If only they were aware of something like Scrum.

Adding agile into culture

To conclude, there is definitely a case when one says that working agile is not about culture, but rather about delivering products. That is true, and those who focus only on culture when looking to improve delivery are not entirely getting the point. While improving culture helps in creating an ecosystem that supports delivering, you could deliver a lot more when combining the right culture with agile work methods.

To get the best out of agile, it is necessary to create an environment for it to thrive in, and not one where it will be followed ‘by the book’ without consideration for the context or what the overall objective is. Once you start developing a culture that supports change you can add agile methodologies and expect to become agile, rather than just work agile.

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Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic


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