Building an agile culture
You’ve probably seen all sorts of things about the benefits of building an agile culture – but wanting one and building one are two very different things.
An organisation with an agile culture would be a place where:
- Individuals and interactions are valued over processes
- A functional, positive working culture is more important than documentation
- Activity is centred on customer outcomes
- Change is welcomed
If culture is ‘the way we do things around here’ then changing what we do – becoming more agile – will usually mean changing the culture.
Whether that happens by accident or design is up to leadership.
Culture is the key to success in becoming agile
Whenever there’s a mismatch between new initiatives and the existing culture, the culture usually wins.
What needs to change will depend on both your organisation’s interpretations of agile and on your existing culture.
The more clarity you have on these concepts, the better chance you have of succeeding.
It’s about clearly articulating what agile is and how it will benefit the organisation.
To ignore this communication will create friction and misunderstanding that takes the focus off the customer outcomes you hoped to achieve through introducing agile.
Just undertaking ‘agile’ activities such as stand-up meetings, sprints and retrospectives won’t magically turn your culture into an agile one.
Those are simply tools which are symptoms of an agile culture rather than the cause of an agile culture.
As such, there’s no set roadmap to agile culture. It’s about building a culture and a mindset which results in behaviours — the tools and processes will follow.
To start your organisation’s agile journey, ask the following questions:
- Is our main focus on values that serve our customers, or shareholder value?
- Do we operate from a fixed mindset or growth mindset?
- Are we more ready to allocate blame when things go wrong or to learn without blaming?
- Do we value both speed and stability equally or are we stuck because we value one over the other?
- How can we communicate the reasons for the change?
3 steps to building an agile culture
While agile works within looser structures, there should still be structure in the way you approach culture implementation.
1. Start with the end in mind
The perfectly agile culture – like perfection – probably doesn’t exist.
Instead, aim for a culture where the right thing happens most of the time and for the right reasons.
Be prepared to experiment.
If something you try doesn’t work, admit it and move on.
It’s up to leadership to set the tone and direction. In doing so, be careful with the language you use. Your goal is to create a shared understanding, not to confuse.
2. Design your desired culture
When we work with clients to define and design culture, we use the culture map process.
This tool helps organisations identify the behaviours and levers (enablers and blockers) that influence the outcomes they get.
To design your new agile culture, look first at the outcomes you want, then the behaviours that will support them.
Once this context is defined, the challenge is to acknowledge and deal with the blockers that currently exist, be they values, attitudes or processes.
3. Apply agile principles to culture change
If you were to use the 12 agile principles as the basis for building an agile culture, you would
- Focus on customer requirements
- Welcome changes to requirements
- Adjust quickly to change
- Value collaboration between business units
- Support and trust employees to do their job
- Facilitate effective communication
- Promote sustainability of projects
- Focus on excellence
- Keep it simple
- Establish self-organising teams
- Reflect on successes and failures and fine-tune behaviours
Applying the agile principles to culture change results in an iterative process of continuous improvement and learning.
This approach requires transparency and accountability. It also relies on a willingness to admit when something isn’t working and move on.
Culture is a mysterious and constantly evolving creature.
You can analyse, poke and prod it but ultimately – as with everything else in business and life – your success comes down to the people involved.
Culture change is not easy.
If being more agile is your aim, then as a leader it’s up to you to make choices about what needs to be done, then to clearly communicate why.