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Enterprise Agility Through Culture


Culture plays an important role in organizational change. Successful agile adoption tends to depend on the ability to change the culture. Making the culture explicit and becoming more conscious of the existing culture is important in agile transformations according to Olaf Lewitz and Michael Sahota. Giving attention to culture can increase the agility of an organization.

InfoQ did an interview with Lewitz and Sahota about what makes culture important for organizational change, giving attention to and creating awareness for culture, techniques and tools to work with the culture and culture skills for change agents.

InfoQ: How would you define culture?

Lewitz: Culture is the wall we’re running into when our change initiatives begin to fail. Culture is “what we do around here to succeed”. Beliefs hidden beneath the surface (or behind the walls) and determining what’s possible in a group of human beings, like an organisation. As we are tribal beings, culture is our collective identity. It’s the stories we believe to be true about us, in our world. Any kind of meaningful change needs to take culture into account.

We focus in our work on making it explicit, allowing more of it to become conscious, so that we talk about and change it.

Sahota: Culture is the core of every organization. See Diagram below. Leadership, behaviours, org structure, process, policies, they all are linked. Often, when we want to make changes to our organization to improve how it functions, we take a look at just one aspect: like process, or leadership. Deep and lasting success requires that we take a holistic view. Olaf and I see culture as a useful lens for examining organizations in this way.

InfoQ: What about mindset, how does that relate to culture?

Lewitz: Mindset is a set of attitudes, a set of assumptions… It’s closely related to culture, maybe culture and mindset are just two perspectives on the very same thing. When we talk about organisations, a good complement to culture is to talk about an organizational model: how do we think the organisation works? Is it like a machine, like a family, like an organism? Does it work because of structures and rules, is it well engineered? Or does it work because it is a fertile ground where lots of good things may grow? Organizational model and culture are not the same thing, yet they are dependent.

Sahota: I agree with Olaf … not much difference between the terms. Although culture feels broader than mindset since it may include things such as norms of behaviour.

InfoQ: What makes culture so important in organizational change?

Lewitz: Culture is messy, and complex. Deliberate change needs to be coherent with its nature. The results of our actions will depend on intent, situation, and context. Stories are perfect to make sense of culture, as they can be messy and complex and still be easily understood.

Culture is created and transmitted through stories. Therefore, storytelling formats are important culture building tools. One such format which Michael and I experienced together in 2011 at the Agile Coach Camp in Columbus, is called Temenos. Temenos was developed by Siraj Sirajuddin. It is an experiential team and personal development lab which we’ve run in different sizes for more than 50 times since. In addition, we have since then used and developed more methods and tools to understand and improve culture.

Michael: A recent Deloitte study reports that 87 percent of organizations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges. Yes, it’s important for organization, but it is essential for organization survival - which one hopes is a much more essential concern.

I like to think of culture as “The way we do things around here to succeed.” It is at the heart of how we do things. It’s at the core of how we relate, communicate, and collaborate. It informs how we structure work and create the processes that govern our effectiveness. What else could be more important?

Lewitz: Reinventing Organizations is a new book by Frederic Laloux. He explains three breakthroughs of a new generation of organizations: self-management, wholeness and emergent purpose. Organisations without bosses, where nobody is supposed to tell anyone else what to do. New kinds of decision making, people who are treated as adults. This leads to an uncommon and sometimes inconvenient kind of culture. In such an organisation, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves for our fate. We need to take responsibility for our actions.

InfoQ: The State of Agile 2015 survey has again mentioned the ability to change the culture as the biggest barrier for agile adoption. Do you recognize this?

Lewitz: Yes, and no. It is true, as people believe it to be true. It is a compelling story. And it is a label for a deeper truth: most organizations do not really want to become agile, because their fundamental value and belief system is not compatible with agile values. Most organisations believe that we lose money if we don’t keep everyone busy. Unless we replace that belief, teams will never flourish in such a culture.

Sahota: Agile represents a shift in culture. What I see is organizational conflict between people who want the Agile mindset/culture and people who want the status quo.

Actually, culture presents NO BARRIER to AGILE ADOPTION. i.e. Adoption of Agile practices. Moving to Agile in most organizations requires TRANSFORMATION. This is where culture plays a huge role.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of what can happen when you give insufficient attention to the organizational culture during change?

Lewitz: There is a big chance that a change initiatives fails. The corporate antibodies will identify and expel the source of tension. A very common complaint in Scrum adoptions is that daily standups are a waste of time. A common reason for that is that nobody dares to ask for help - so no one gets helped and the meeting is futile. Culture is a set of values and beliefs: Scrum values courage and openness, based on the belief that asking for help leads to effective collaboration. Many corporations do not value courage, based on the belief that you’ll get hurt if you show vulnerability. Asking for help is a sign of weakness in such a culture.

Sahota: It depends what you are doing. If you are adopting practices, there is no problem.

If you are transforming to Agile, then you will fail without sufficient attention to culture. What usually happens is there is a lot of energy and push. But it’s not sustainable. After a few months or in large enterprises a couple of years, it all falls apart. The people who don’t like Agile - the “Resistors” - undermine the effort. The people who “get Agile” see the writing on the wall and stop pushing and/or leave the organization.

That’s the best case. It is not uncommon to see “Cargo Cult Agile” with people performing the practices because they are mandated. It’s really sad.

InfoQ: Are there ways to make organizational culture visible, so that people can recognize it and discuss it? Can we somehow help organizations to become more conscious about its current culture?

Sahota: We have developed KrisMap as a simple persona exercise to do just that. We visualise the current or aspirational organisation as a person: what is she like? Helping, curious, deliberate, passionate, successful? The attributes emerging from the group show the behavior we want to see. We also use the Edgar Schein culture model to help people identify how parts of their current belief and value system influence the actions that are possible and likely in the organisation. More recently I have switched to the Laloux Culture Model to help people see. We can uncover what’s below the waterline of the iceberg. Once it’s visible we can change it.

Lewitz: In many change initiatives, we work on the organisation we pretend to see instead of attempting to change what we really see. Seeing what is really there requires vulnerability, and courage. Think of it like the Matrix: no matter how much effort we take to change the Matrix, we will not change the reality behind it.

Sahota:The truth of what is happening in our organizations is often very scary. I hear managers say things like “we can’t do x” and shut down conversation. It’s not intentional - it’s just that this behaviour is woven into how we operate. This is organizational culture at work - that we chose not to talk about difficult truths. I invite people to consider the consequences - what does it mean for our organization when we behave like this? What are the implications? What other alternatives are there? Who gets to decide how our organization will function? I share my perspective on these questions as well to create space for new awareness and choices.

I guess the critical success factor is providing emotional support for the people facing these difficult challenges and giving them total freedom to choose what they want to believe or what they want to do. I am very clear on what I believe and work hard to share loving perspectives from a place of concern, not judgement.

InfoQ: I sometimes hear people say that they want an agile culture. They view culture like a kind of silver bullet, if the culture is right then agile will be successful. If it only was that easy …

Sahota: Culture is hard work. It is never easy. One manager I know who is leading a transformation says that it is really hard to break habits and behaviours. The challenge is that every single interaction shapes culture.

Lewitz: Agile is a journey, not a destination. The agile manifesto does not say “Agile is X” or “You deserve to call your organisation agile if …” —it says “we value people over process”. Rephrased: our system is built by human beings in order to support humans working together. In an organisation moving along this path, making conscious choices of people over process, collaboration over contracts, agile methods will flourish.

InfoQ: So giving attention to culture can increase the agility of an organization?

Lewitz: Yes. The opposite is even more true: If your culture already nurtures growth, believes that people can be trusted, then maybe agile is not even what you need. If your culture is based on beliefs that are incoherent with agile values, your agile initiative will surely fail if you ignore that. Focusing the experiments you make on creating the experiences where people can question their beliefs and discover new ones, has some likelihood of success.

Sahota: Yes. Actually that is all that matters. Agile is fantastic for team agility. Enterprise agility comes via culture. We have lot’s of evidence that Agile helps best when the culture is already in place.

InfoQ: What your view on “changing the culture”? Can it be done?

Lewitz: We can change consciousness and awareness. Consciousness of what’s going on in their own work environments, knowing a little more about the things beneath the surface, and knowing how to ask for more. Knowing how to raise awareness.

To make our understanding of awareness clear lets use an analogy: when an infants learns how to crawl, and pushes herself backwards underneath some furniture she won't be able to get out by herself. She'll try everything she knows, harder, and will be certain that the situation can't be her own fault: she did what she could. Culture is like that: the stories we believe to be true about ourselves and our context limit our possibility to see what we can do.

Sahota: Yes. Absolutely. People - leaders and workers may change their culture under the right conditions. My role is to create those conditions. Olaf has the best description of this: “Inviting people to change.” That is a lot of what I do. I invite change. As a Catalyst, that is my job. I have gotten really good at weaving this into other work so it happens a lot around me

InfoQ: Does the direction in which consciousness and awareness changes matter. Top down, bottom up, or …?

Sahota: Bottom-up change is a myth.

Top-down is where it’s at. In every single client I have worked with, the bottleneck is with the leader. The limit to culture is always the most senior manager involved in the change initiative. The leader’s level of consciousness is the limit to how much culture can shift. That’s why I spend so much time with leadership teams. Their growth is the limit to the growth of the organization. At the outset, I find out how the leaders see’s his or her role in what is happening in the organization. This will define the limit of any change initiative.

For real change, leaders must lead. It starts with their behaviour. This creates an upper bound on what is possible. Within that space, then we can talk about how change propagates. What I see is that it goes in all directions with each communication and decision. It’s an organic process.

Lewitz: People can and do help each other raise awareness and they will share their new consciousness. Helping them do that in a way that others can listen and accept it is key. Helping your colleagues see reality in a different way. This is where change artists can lead by example.

If your organization is structured as a hierarchy of authority, like most current organizations are, chances are high that people listen more intensely to what comes from the top. So awareness and consciousness change more easily and quickly when we start at the top.

Laloux has researched many companies for his Reinventing Organizations book, most of which have been founded based on very uncommon principles. One company that was transformed from a classical hierarchy into a self-managed team organisation is a French brass foundry producing forks for automotive gear boxes called Favi. A new CEO – with a fundamentally different level of awareness and consciousness – took over in 1983 and totally reshaped the company within two years.

InfoQ: Are there specific techniques or tools that can help to work with culture in an organization?

Lewitz: Our practical methods and tools work like new eyes: Temenos builds trust, for instance, helping you leverage the diversity of your team. Allows you to learn new things about yourself: reducing your blind spot. That way you may overcome past difficulties and move forward together.

We do not believe that culture is a shadow of your system and as such can not be changed directly. Culture is stories. You change the story, you change your reality.

Sahota: LOL. There are lots. But that’s not the important part. The important part is how we show up. Our own level of consciousness.

I guess you are looking for the top techniques for culture change. So here goes:

  1. Awareness: Culture model to create a language for talking about culture and to create an awareness of where we are now.
  2. Desire: Case studies to help people understand what is possible so they dream of a better future culture.
  3. Ability: Techniques such as reverse-seniority reporting, leading through context, delegation poker, etc., etc.

These steps go in order. One problem I see is that people start talking about techniques without the right context.

InfoQ: Which skills do change agents need to be able to give the right attention to culture?

Sahota: If you accept Frederic Laloux’s model that we are talking about shifting to a higher level of consciousness, then that is the single most important thing. It’s not a skill per-se. With consciousness will come: listening with compassion. Speaking difficult truths in loving ways. Seeing people as valuable human beings. Speaking the voice of the system.

Lewitz: Compassion and respect. Listening.

About the Interviewees

Olaf Lewitz is an agile native. He has been a consultant and agile coach for many years. As the trust artist Olaf helped individuals and organizations grow trust and confidence, leading to more conscious choices.Olaf believes we deserve to love what we do. More about him here.


Michael Sahota helps forward-thinking organizations to create a holistic work culture that gives them the Agile results they need: productivity, innovation and customer delight. Michael has 20 years’ IT & management experience, 13 years’ working with Agile, a deep understanding of organizational models and frameworks--plus a unique process that values people--to get practical and long-lasting results. By connecting Agile methods to an organizational and human context, he helps people develop trust, safety, authentic connection and vulnerability, which creates a healthy, productive workplace. His motto: Bring the whole person to the workplace; unleash astonishing results. His website.

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