Which Agile Fits Your Culture?

Posted by on Feb 1, 2012 in Agile with a Purpose | 12 Comments

In recent months, we see frequent discussions about different organisational cultures, if and how “Agile” fits these cultures, and, very prominently, which flavour of Agile (Scrum, XP, Kanban) might fit which culture… Yet is it really culture that’s influencing this choice?

Witch

Which Is The Right Kind Of Magic?

Get A Grip

Guys, the question in the title is the wrong question. I see how we got there: we learned to develop software using a three-step-approach:

  • Analyse the Problem
  • Model the Solution
  • Built (and occasionally test) the Solution

Most of us have stopped developing software this way (now rather using some feedback-driven approach like BDD and TDD) yet we didn’t stop thinking this way. Give us a problem, and we will analyse it and be happy with a model that comes up.

Fitting Agile into an organisation’s culture is no more likely to succeed than fitting TDD into waterfall. Or, to take another metaphor: no matter which flavour of coffee I take, if it does not wake me up, it doesn’t fit my definition of coffee.

Good Coffee

Good Coffee

Wake Them Up

In my opinion, Agile is meant to challenge the status quo. At least, my way of being Agile always ends up challenging the status quo… Organisational culture is part of the status quo and will be affected when you challenge it. So should you let the prominent culture influence your decision on which flavour of Agile to start with? No matter what you do, Kanban, Scrum, XP, your own combination of practices that work for you: you’re not agile if you do not continuously improve. Unless you challenge the status quo, the organisation will stay in the analytic (or even ad-hoc) mindset no matter how many post-its you put on the walls.

Challenge Mindset, Not Culture

You do not want to directly challenge the Culture anyway. Culture defines where people belong in an organisation. Challenge that and they are likely going to hit you. Challenge their mindset, their beliefs about how the world of work should actually work, their ability to adapt, their eagerness to learn, their grasp on the latent sharedpurpose of their organisation… Improve how the organisation respects people. Explain how complex adaptive systems work and why evolutionary leaps are driven by exaptation, not only adaptation.

Influence how people think, let them change how they work, and the culture will follow. Agile is a framework for change, and change never fits in. Let’s roll up our sleeves!

A big thank you to Bob Marshall for inspirations that went into this post and perfecting it with feedback!.

12 Comments

  1. Michael Sahota
    February 1, 2012

    Hi Olaf,

    I am confused by these two statements since they seem to be pointing opposite directions: 1) “Organisational culture is part of the status quo and needs to be challenged with it” and 2) “You do not want to challenge the Culture anyway.”

    Reading through the balance of the text, it would seem to indicate that your assertion is that culture change is required and can be achieved by shifting to an Agile mindset.

    There is a famous article on from Lean on NUMMI plant (http://www.lean.org/shook/displayobject.cfm?o=1166 ) which makes a similar arguement: change the daily work and you will get a change the mindset/culture. You need to read the fine print: All the workers were kept, but all the managers were replaced with those of the right mindset. This implies that a container around the system needs to be in place to create the right attractors and repulsors create space for a shift in daily work to result in a change in mindset/culture.

    I have yet to see anyone provide any evidence of Agile changing the culture of an organization. IMHO, Agile alone is not sufficient for this. More is needed.

    Let’s talk sometime…

    – Michael

    Reply
    • Olaf
      February 1, 2012

      Hi Michael, thanks for your comment!
      You are right, these statements were contradictory. Changed them to make my point more clear (which you understood correctly anyway).
      I do think that mindset can be challenged, and I have seen many people changing their mindset—especially managers, who feel that their way to command and control doesn’t work anymore. (Simplified:) Once they understand that predictability and feedback is much more valuable for them than control, their mindset starts to change. Change in the way of work is subsequent, aligned with a change in how people are respected and emancipated, which then results in a change in culture.
      Maybe we have a different understanding of “agile alone”. I do not see the need for anything “more”, yet maybe I have a quite generic definition of “agile”. It’s definitely much more than a few new roles, ceremonies and artifacts.
      Thanks for the improvement!
      – Olaf

      Reply
  2. Dan Creswell
    February 1, 2012

    “and, very prominently, which flavour of Agile (Scrum, XP, Kanban) might fit which culture…”

    I think it’s interesting that for these folks, Agile comes in flavours at all. It seems to me the value is in a mindset of continuously improving which means the what of your doing is not nearly as important as the why.

    Agile is not an unthinking process…

    Reply
    • Olaf
      February 1, 2012

      Dan, I fully agree! Whom do you mean by “these folks”?
      I was referring to discussions within the agile/lean community. Our clients do not often ask this question… Yet we always start with a question: Why do you want to be Agile? And unless we know their purpose, we can’t start working with them.
      Thank you for your comment!
      – Olaf

      Reply
  3. Jason Little
    February 1, 2012

    I agree challenging culture is not something you want to do. Understanding culture is important when considering what approach to take with Agile adoption.

    IMO challenging a mindset is one in the same and isn’t likely to work. In a control culture, challenging someones mindset is less likely to be effective than challenging the mindset of people in a cultivation culture. The latter will have open minds, the former will want metrics and process and the likelyhood they’ll change their mindset is slim.

    Reply
    • Olaf
      February 1, 2012

      Jason, as I have already explained in my reply to Michael’s comment, I have seen managers in a control structure change their mindset. How else should we inspire them to improve?
      Surely change is easier when people are open minded. So many things in life could be easier, yet that would make them much less interesting, don’t you think?
      Thank you for your comment!
      – Olaf

      Reply
  4. Michael Sahota
    February 1, 2012

    Olaf,

    I have experienced the same thing you have – people who get Agile. In the short run there is success.

    What happens in the long run? My experience has been that these people usually get dragged down by the hostile organizational culture and eventually leave the company. I see help people with Agile under these circumstances as a violation of the “do no harm” principle.

    I would love to hear how your story of mindset shift in individuals has played out for your clients.

    – Michael

    Reply
  5. Jason Little
    February 1, 2012

    Hi Olaf, I agree it’s worthwhile to try and help these people change their mindset. I’ve worked in companies where I’ve done just that. The challenge comes from when that person ends up being the scapegoat because they understand the need for change however the people above don’t.

    I’m all for helping with positive change, culture really matters here. You put somebody into a situation by helping their mindset evolve into a mindset that’s couter to the organizations culture and you can be in for a whole heap of problems.

    Reply
  6. Andrea Provaglio
    February 2, 2012

    Hello Olaf, here’s my two cents about the “Challenge Mindset, Not Culture” bit.

    I’d be careful with challenging people beliefs, since those are quite frequently connected with the sense of identity and therefore with the culture, which you wisely suggest not to challenge.

    Rather than challenging beliefs you might respectfully (and the respect is fundamental) suggest additional ones.

    In other words, enriching the belief set might be more effective than challenging it.

    Reply
  7. Dan Creswell
    February 2, 2012

    Olaf said: ” Whom do you mean by “these folks”? I was referring to discussions within the agile/lean community. Our clients do not often ask this question… Yet we always start with a question: Why do you want to be Agile? And unless we know their purpose, we can’t start working with them.”

    I wonder if your clients are self-selecting? That is, they want to be better and are putting it in your hands to guide them on ways to do that? They’re looking for something more than a flavour or a process or they’re at least prepared to say “we don’t know what we need”.

    Such a dialogue would be in contrast to the more general discussion I see in respect of “doing agile” which often-times is more about the process and which practices matter (e.g. you’re not agile unless you pair-program). I’m not sure who would fall into the “agile/lean community” hence my use of the term “these folks”, which given my experience, include coaches, managers, developers, testers and operational staff.

    Perhaps it is necessary to have the flavour discussion before realising that it’s the wrong discussion. That, for me, would be quite a commentary on the state of things!

    Reply
  8. Helge Nowak
    February 2, 2012

    Challenging the mindset, or the culture, is one way to create change. Yet it is a way with not as much chances to be successful as we might want to believe. Challenging appeals to the rational part of our minds. Yet the bigger resistance to change is rooted in the non-rational, sub-conscious parts. More promising approaches are evolutionary: small steps and instant feedback. It takes time yet is sustainable.

    Reply
    • Olaf
      February 2, 2012

      Helge,
      Thanks for your comment. Totally agree on the concept of small steps, feedback-driven change… This is the only way it works, and my point is, that we need to challenge the mindset as well, step by step. Creating value incrementally in ways that people didn’t believe would “work here” is in fact the most effective way to challenge a mindset and inspire sustainable change…
      – Olaf

      Reply

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