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No Easy Road to Agile Cultural Change

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A number of commentators have recently commented on the challenges of implementing a change to an Agile culture, with a common thread running through their musings – moving an organisation to an Agile Culture is a hard road, with many challenges.

In 2008 Ken Schwaber estimated that “75% of those organizations using Scrum will not succeed in getting the benefits that they hope for from it.”
He goes on to state that “Scrum exposes every inadequacy or dysfunction within an organization’s product and system development practices. The intention of Scrum is to make them transparent so the organization can fix them. Unfortunately, many organizations change Scrum to accommodate the inadequacies or dysfunctions instead of solving them.”
Talking about the organisational changes that are needed he said ”Several changes, or cultural shifts, are required to use Scrum. The first is to forget predictive, waterfall thinking. The second is to realize that self-management is a much better practice for productivity and creativity. The third is to understand that cross-functional teams produce more robust products. All of these changes are extremely difficult.”

At the recent Agile Roots conference Dr Israel Gat presented on “Four Cultures, One Mirror” He states that one reason for the 75% failure rate can be traced to the extent of cultural change needed when making change in organisations.

He summarises the key points as follows:
  • The Agile Manifesto principles are considered timeless.
  • Application of Agile can create cultural duality/conflict. The core culture of the organization that rolls out Agile is not necessarily aligned with the Agile culture.
  • Successful application of the Manifesto principles needs to build on the strength of the specific core culture – Control, Competence, Cultivation or Collaboration – in the organization rolling out Agile .
  • Schwaber’s 75% failure rate estimate corresponds to attempts to change the core culture of an organization as part of the Agile rollout.
  • Success does not necessarily beget success in Agile rollouts. The interplay between scale and culture poses serious challenges to scaling Agile successfully.
  • The Agile infrastructure places a practical limit on the scope of the Agile rollout. Constituencies that are not able to use a joint Agile infrastructure are not likely to collaborate.
  • The fine points of one Agile method versus another are far less important to the success of an Agile implementation than cultural subtleties of the target environment in which Agile is applied.
  • Good Agile tools are likely to induce behavioral changes without necessitating major cultural pushes

In a similar vein, David Anderson from Borland warns that  Agile Transition Initiatives can fail because prescriptive processes are pushed on an organization through a program delivered as part of some named initiative and led by a process improvement group, Agile coaching group or external consulting firm. The work force appears to acquiesce with the initiative but in fact passively resists it because they believe that their unique situation isn't a fit for a standard process and the change is being forced on them sometimes without consultation or consensus"

He provides some advice for executives rolling out Agile changes in organisations: 

“First, at the highest level, management needs to understand that Agile is not a "silver bullet." It is critical that everyone has the same understanding of, and commitment to, the desired outcome: a business that is reliable through predictable technology processes that deliver business agility. To do this, there needs to be a management commitment to develop a focused, on-going practice around the pursuit of organizational maturity. As part of this, gaps in skills and capabilities should be identified and positive action – training, coaching, process improvement and tools deployment – taken in order to close the gap. Developing capabilities and organizational maturity requires investment in appropriately tailored processes and tools that support them. Adopting Agile principles should be part of this ongoing effort to mature the development organization.
Second, the work force needs to understand the business drivers for Agility. They need to be challenged to improve their quality, improve their cycle times, to improve the frequency of releases and the value they deliver to the customer. They need to know how these things fit within the bigger picture and why improvement is their responsibility. To change a culture it's important to recognize that every knowledge worker makes decisions and takes actions that affect the performance of the business. The culture in the organization is the reflection of those decisions and actions.
Next, it's important that all the people understand and internalize the concepts and ideals behind the Agile movement. Giving them a copy of the Agile Manifesto isn't enough. It needs to be communicated as principles and translated into concepts that can be widely applied to the many day-to-day decisions each of them will make. To build an Agile culture, the entire workforce must internalize and live three principles: making progress with imperfect information; existing in a high trust, high social capital culture; and shortening cycle times. These ideas need to be infused into the workforce at every opportunity.
Infusing these principles into the culture means it should spread virally. It can start with just one manager, who educates his immediate direct reports on the concepts and then takes the time to reflect and show how each decision is aligned the principles. I have taken the step of adding "Perfect is the enemy of good enough", to my email signature and encouraging my team to ask, "Have we reached the ‘good enough' point yet? Or are we trying to be too perfect?" When the team begins to talk the language of underlying Agile principles then they begin to make decisions aligned with Agile values and the result is the viral spread of an Agile culture.”

 In an extract from her new book, Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change: Focusing on the Human Side of Change author Naomi Karten discusses the impact change leadership can have on the level and duration of turbulence associated with organisational change: 

For example, you’ll increase the duration and intensity of the turbulence if you:
• Expect or demand an instantaneous adjustment to the change.
• Unreasonably prod people to “get on with it already.”
• Withhold information about what’s happening and how it will affect people.
• Refuse to accept that adjustment to change may entail a temporary drop in productivity.
• Find fault with people when they make mistakes while adapting to the new way.
• Focus entirely on the technical aspects of the change, ignoring the human aspects.
But happily, you’ll be able to minimize the duration and intensity of the turbulence if you:
• Accept that a certain amount of pushback is inevitable, and allow for it.
• Keep people informed about what’s happening.
• Treat the old way with respect, recognizing that it was a place of relative comfort.
• Acknowledge the turbulence people are experiencing and empathize with their concerns.
• Acknowledge progress and even small successes.
• Build trust so that those affected will be open to your ideas and advice once they’re in
that turbulent state.
This is not to say you should mollycoddle people and give them all the time in the world to
adjust. After all, you still have deadlines to meet and goals to achieve. But by understanding
how people experience change, you find it much easier to manage the hurly-burly hubbub. ☺

How have Agile changes been implemented your organisations, what lessons and advice can you offer from your experiences?


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