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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book: The Agile Culture - Leading through Trust and Ownership

Q&A on the Book: The Agile Culture - Leading through Trust and Ownership


Developing an agile culture is something that enterprises often do when they adopt agile.

Such a culture change involves changing the way that managers lead their people to help them to become self-organized.

The book "The Agile Culture" describes how you can develop a culture of energy and innovation, and provides tools to build trust, take ownership and deal with walls and resistance in organizations.

You can download the first chapter of The Agile Culture.

InfoQ interviewed the authors Pollyanna Pixton, Paul Gibson and Niel Nickolaisen about agile culture and leadership, dealing with failure and fear, and using metrics in agile.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write a book on agile culture?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: We have found that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the adoption of agile principles is a command and control culture. In such cultures, productivity is 50% or less of its actual potential. It is difficult for teams to feel ownership for results (as the leaders are in control and command others what to do). This makes it hard for teams to self-organize and for teams to be motivated and innovative. How motivated and innovative is anyone when they are being micro-managed.

InfoQ: The book states that not knowing how to change the culture is a barrier to agile adoption. Can you elaborate on that?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Organizations struggle with change because it is hard and uncertain. It takes time to achieve results. And many companies are doing okay and ask why should they change. The only organization that is ready is one that sees the value in change and wants to learn how to do it. And they understand the pain and difficulties but want to work together to overcome them. 

Agile is a mindset; a mindset focused on delivering quality products that customers love. Agile is focused on getting to market quickly – before the competition. In command and control cultures, things happen in a more serial fashion. There is lots of space between development and testing. The voice of the customer is silent for long portions of time – and often missing until the project ends. Business leaders think they “know” what customers want but are often mistaken. In today’s dynamic world, organizations must turn their focus on what they can do to unleash their teams and then support them with what they need. This is very different from the old view in which leaders tell teams to just follow instructions because the leaders know best.

InfoQ: What are the main ingredients of a culture that supports agile?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Trust and ownership, alignment and agreement with the goals of the customer, dealing honestly with uncertainty, connecting teams with customers, continuous learning where failure is accepted not punished, and one where innovation and ideas are encouraged.

InfoQ: Why is it so difficult for organizations to change their command and control culture into a culture that supports agile?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: This is a great question. The data shows that cultures of trust and ownership are highly productive (check out the work done by the Great Place to Work Institute). Most leaders don’t know how to create a culture of trust and ownership. All they know is command and control. It is the way we were raised and often the behavior than got us into senior positions. In some cases, it is how we were rewarded – be being the ones who knew everything and could tell everyone else exactly how to do their jobs.

We wrote this book in order to provide the tools that leaders can use to build a culture of trust and ownership. This can be a challenge and so learning the tools helps leaders overcome their fears about failure, losing control, losing their identity, losing their intellectual mastery, and how they view their role in the organization – to put everything on their backs and solve problems.

InfoQ: The book describes a trust-ownership model. Can you explain what it is and how it can help organizations to change their culture?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: We believe and have found that great things happen when there is a culture of trust and ownership. In such a culture, the organization, the leaders and the processes trust teams and individuals to deliver the expected (and sometimes unexpected) results. In order to have this trust not generate chaos, the individuals and teams also feel accountable to deliver the expected (and sometimes unexpected) results. I am sure you can remember times in your life when you felt trusted to deliver the results and were left to make that happen. We are confident that such times were motivating and innovative. All we want is for this to be the standard for all teams and their leaders.

InfoQ: What happens when a leader trusts a team which is not capable yet of taking ownership?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Managers often fear that the team is not capable of taking ownership when they are perfectly able. Our advice is to use the tools we describe to turn this situation around. Define the purpose of the work. Focus on what and why. Resist the temptation to take ownership back away from the team. Answer questions by asking questions rather than giving answers.

InfoQ: How can leaders address situations where teams might fail?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Leaders need to collaborate with the team. Describe the situation and the needs and ask the team how they want to resolve the issues. Then, let the members of the team volunteer for what they will own. Even if they ask, don’t tell them how to do their jobs. Keep the focus on their thinking (not yours). Make it safe to learn from mistakes. Size the risk of failure to the capabilities of the team. If you are recovering from a low trust culture, recognize the need to be consistent and trustworthy.

InfoQ: Can you name some of the things that you can do to build trust in teams?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Start by trusting first rather than requiring that people earn your trust. Remove as much fear as you can. Use metrics that measure processes not people and then have the teams measure themselves (without requiring them to share the results). Don’t connect performance reviews with pay adjustments. Expect success, accept mistakes. Take the fun out of being dysfunctional.

InfoQ: One of the key principles in Total Quality Management by Edward Deming is to drive out fear. Your book talks about removing debilitating fear. Is this somehow related to each other?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: You bet. Debilitating fear is fear that stops progress. If you are afraid of making a mistake, how much progress do you make? If you are in fear of your job, how much progress do you make? If you are afraid of taking a chance, how many chances will you take? So, yes, we completely agree with Mr. Deming that we must create cultures of trust with a high tolerance for risk.

InfoQ: A suggestion to create ownership in your book is to ask questions instead of giving answers. Can you give some examples of how leaders can do this?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Some of the questions we use are:

How would you like to solve or approach that? Will you explain to me the approach you have taken? Who can you work with to come up with some ideas? What are some of the options you have and have already tried? Which of the options might work? Why might they work? What are some things you need me to do?

InfoQ: In the book you describe several tools that can help to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Can you give an example of such a tool?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Chapter 7 focuses on dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. In that chapter, we describe a tool we call proactive risk management. Using this tool, we define the potential risks, how we can mitigate those risks and then how we can track our risk mitigation as we iterate towards making solid commitments. A key part of this approach is to make the risks and our progress visible. Another tool is any of the iterative methods.

InfoQ: Collaboration is important to make agile work. What can you do to enable and stimulate collaboration?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: As leaders, recognize that one of our most important roles is to lead collaboration. This means using a collaboration process. In one process, identify the decision to be made or a question to be answered. Then, have everyone, in silence, write one answer on one sticky note, as many answers as they can - - each on its own sticky note. Put them on a wall while reading the ideas. Then group in silence and vote on which categories are the most important to the team. Using this approach minimizes the influence of the leader and trusts the team to know what needs to be done.

InfoQ: There's a chapter about metrics in your book. I consider metrics to be important also in agile, but I've seen situation where they did more harm then good. Can you give use any advice on using metrics in agile?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: As you might expect, we have some very strong feelings about metrics. The right metrics contribute to progress and results. The wrong metrics lead to gaming and discouragement. We have some general guidelines for metrics. For example, measure processes not people; use a small number of metrics; align with desired results; and show trends. There are far more examples of bad metrics than there are examples of good metrics as, too often, organizations use metrics to punish or find fault. In building a culture of trust and ownership, we should ask if our metrics build trust and ownership. If they do, keep them. If they don’t, get rid of them.

InfoQ: If managers are looking for ways to change their culture to become more agile, from your experience what could be a first step that they can take?

Pollyana, Paul & Niel: Filter everything they do by asking, “Will this increase trust? Will this increase ownership?”

"This interview is based on the book, 'The Agile Culture: Leading through Trust and Ownership", authored by Pollyanna Pixton, Paul Gibson and Niel Nickolaisen, published by Pearson/Addison-Wesley Professional, Feb 2014, ISBN 0-321-94014-8; For more info, please visit the publisher site.

About the Book Authors

Pollyanna Pixton: an internationally recognized expert on collaborative leadership is president of Accelinnova, a firm providing proven tools for leading transformations. Pollyanna led the development of the Swiss electronic Stock Exchange. 


Paul Gibson spent more than thirty years developing products for IBM. For four years he helped lead, guide, train, and transform IBM software teams worldwide in collaborative, agile, and lean approaches. He is a lifetime British Computer Society Fellow. 


Niel Nickolaisen is the chief technology officer at O.C. Tanner. Niel has spent his career finding rapid, pragmatic ways to improve processes, teams, and results. He is passionate about transforming IT and leadership, and speaks about, writes about, and trains others how to do this.

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