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Changing the Culture for Agile

by Ben Linders on Dec 20, 2012 |

When organizations are implementing agile, the need can arise for a culture change. Different approaches are being used to change the culture, depending on the existing culture and context, and the beliefs of people involved in the agile implementation.

Culture change programs can cost huge amounts of time and money, while not delivering the desired results for the organization, as Robert H. Schaffer describes in an Harvard Business Review article on to change the culture, stop trying to change the culture:

(…) An army of consultants has obliged by creating processes for help. Most of these experts recommend beginning with a diagnosis of the present culture. After the diagnosis you need to get clear about where you want to head. (…) Then you have to plan how you are going to get there. Finally, when you are ready to get moving, the consultants are happy to jump aboard to help implement a multitude of programs — training, re-organization, systems redesign, and communications campaigns.

Some of these interventions may prove useful at an individual level, but sweeping, large-scale culture change efforts rarely cure those aspects of culture that were so frustrating in the first place.

Robert states that there is another way to change the culture, by starting with small changes and doing incremental improvements that empower people:

We've found that managers get better results when they start with a few smaller successes, which then provide a basis for expanding. Start with one problem — or a few. Get some people to plan a couple of modest experiments to make progress on that issue, with guidance on the kinds of innovation you'd like to see. Build in some learning on the cultural issues that need to change. Try it out. Pay careful attention to what works and how. Incorporate the successful ideas into subsequent steps.

(…) Major culture change happened in the course of the incremental pursuit of better operations — with no proclamations, mission statements, or debates about "what we mean by culture change." Senior management does have to provide some overall guidance in order to knit together the individual strands of progress, but the energy, the momentum, and the experimental ingenuity occur in the individual thrusts.

Esther Derby describes in observations on corporate culture and agile methods adoption / adaption on PM Hut how many organizations have difficulties when implementing agile:

All too often, a top managers direct the organization to implement Scrum or another Agile method. (…) This sort of top down implementation often ignores one of the core factors involved in implementing Agile methods: Culture.

Depending on the existing culture, attention to cultural aspect may help to increase the chance of introducing agile successfully: 

It’s an uphill battle to introduce Agile methods in a Power or Bureaucratic culture because the values and principles behind Agile methods are at odds with the values of the dominant culture. (…) That doesn’t say you can’t use Agile methods in those cultures; Agile may thrive in pockets within a larger Power or Bureaucratic organization. But widespread adoption/adaptation of Agile methods will work better with attention to shaping the culture to support Agile principles and values around self-organization, collaboration, and adaptation.

In the Boston Globe article how to change a culture, Leon Neyfakh describes how to change a culture, by using the power of conformance:

(…) Researchers say there’s a workaround that produces lasting change, but doesn’t call for somehow reprogramming people’s inner values. What it does seem to require is changing their perception of what everyone else thinks.

Starting a culture change by influencing perception way can be difficult however:

There’s something a bit circular about the idea that we change people’s behavior by tweaking their perceptions about the behavior of others. (…) The most challenging part is kicking off the cycle, by convincing enough people that deviating from existing norms will not leave them shunned by the rest of society.

Using ideas from Malcoms Gladwell´s book `The Tipping Point`, Nirav Assar suggest in the Techwell article the agile tipping point that we need connectors to spread the agile message:

The connector is the individual who is friends with various members of the team and interacts with them in the workplace and in social settings. The connector is the person who has true respect and rapport with team members, the business, management, and the testers. The Connector will disseminate the Agile message on your behalf and the message will catch fire. It will become part of the everyday lingo. Find the Connector and the Agile mindset will seep into the organization.

According to Nirav, we also need mavens and salesmen to create a culture for agile adoption and make the change happen:

Agile concepts will excite the Maven who will relentlessly learn about the topic. At the same time the Maven will be motivated to pass that knowledge onto other team members. They are the first ones to investigate the newly introduced Agile trends and report their findings to teammates. The maven could be a manager, a senior developer, or a business analyst. Get the Maven on your team on board and success will be more likely.

For an idea to spread on a software team, enlist the Salesman to help you out. This person doesn't have to be an expert at Agile. They just have to be excited about it. Their personality and positivity for the idea will be caught be others. In fact, you may have to play the role of Salesman!

InfoQ regularly publishes news, articles and presentations on Culture Change. The article the culture game - a book by Dan Mezick discusses ways to encourage and lead cultural transformation in organizations. The presentation the power of storytelling shows how sharing stories can help to change the team culture.

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