Cultural Change to Facilitate Agile Adoption

“We need to change our culture”

How many times have I heard this statement when I am working with organizations trying to adopt an Agile approach? I also hear it almost every time I give one of our workshops, and it has driven me to change the way I start each workshop. These workshops are generally part of a larger Agile adoption program, so the participants all have a shared—if unspoken—understanding of the organization’s culture. Now I start each of these workshop by trying to discover the culture of the particular organization, and what that might mean to the workshop participants. In this way I am able to tailor the workshop a little to be as effective as possible for the participants and have the best effect upon their organization.

While most organizations have multiple types of culture, there tends to be one culture type— “the way things get done around here” —that influences the vast majority of people working in that organization. Understanding this culture serves as an excellent guidepost to determine if adopting Agile will be successful, marginal, or a failure. In his book “The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Culture Work”, William Schneider introduces a simple framework that plots that the four major organizational cultures along two intersecting axes. The first axis runs the spectrum from people-oriented (“People are important to achieving the company’s goals”) to company-oriented (“The company as a collective knows how to achieve its goals”). The second axis spans from oriented toward reality and the current situation (“We know what we need to have and do in order to reach our goals”) to oriented toward possibility of future situations (“We can work toward having what we need to reach our goals”). The four quadrants of the grid, therefore, are collaboration, cultivation, competence, and control. Each is briefly described below.

Organizational Model Based on Orientations


Motto: “We succeed by working together.”
More oriented toward: People and the current situation

When I work with collaborative organizations, I usually discover that they are truly Agile already, but that they do not really know it, nor do they have the framework or techniques in place to take full advantage of what they have built. Consequently, I spend my time introducing Agile techniques, and helping people to understand how best to adapt these techniques to their situations. I love these organizations!

Words typically used to describe a collaborative organization: diversity, teams and teamwork, partners, trust, interaction


Motto: “We succeed by growing people to fulfill our vision.”
More oriented toward:People and future possibilities

Note the words “to fulfill our vision” – these organizations typically are so focused on what they believe their customers want that there is little room for debate. They know the right answer, and this becomes the path they follow no matter what.

At the same time, these organizations understand that their employees are key, and can greatly contribute to the success of the company. Consequently, they allow a great deal of flexibility, creativity, and growth among their employees, so long as it is focused on the end goal.

This is an interesting type of organization to introduce Agile into. Agile techniques are often accepted very quickly, as it allows the development teams to be creative, and work with the internal business Product Owners. Where it becomes a challenge is in gathering honest feedback from customers early in the development cycle. Often this feedback is negative, perhaps because the product does not do what the customer actually wants it to do, or the UX isn’t great yet. This news is usually greeted by such statements as “They don’t really know what they want”, and “We know the market much better than them.” As a result, these organizations in my experience usually stop getting feedback from their customers and charge ahead in their traditional “we know everything” model. These organizations can be viewed as a success in adopting Agile, although they rarely to never understand what it means to deliver value on a regular, consistent basis.

Words typically used to describe a cultivative organization: purpose, faith, evolve, creativity, subjectivity, dedication


Motto:“We succeed by being the best.”
More oriented toward:The company and future possibilities

Once these organizations decide to do something, they typically do it better than anybody else. They already know they are the best, and they often believe they need no help in introducing new techniques or approaches, because they already have all the efficient processes and smart people they need.

Introducing Agile in this organization is often a failure, as there is an inherent lack of interest in a new approach, new techniques. This is very hard work.

Words typically used to describe a competence-focused organization: experts, craftsmanship, professionalism, efficiency


Motto: “We succeed by getting and keeping control.”
More oriented toward:The company and the current situation

These guys plan everything they do, and stick to the plan, no matter what. They want complete predictability over everything they do, and have the rules, processes, and hierarchical organization in place to do it.

You would think this type of organization is impossible to introduce Agile methods to, wouldn’t you? Well, while it can be difficult, I find that using a management technique that maintains this control is easily adopted. Consequently, I find Kanban techniques for managing the flow of work very effective, and increasing visibility to management. It also provides a very rich vain of data – flow of work, delay time, work-in-process, etc. – that the Project Office loves and can use to improve their standardized processes.

Words typically used to describe a controlling organization: rules, standardization, process, predictability, hierarchical, power

Which are you?

So, what kind of organization do you work in? What words would you use to describe your place of work and how you “get things done”? Based on your assumption, what likelihood of success in introducing Agile do you expect? And what are you going to do now that you have this information?