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Achieving a Learning Culture that Supports Scaling Agile

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When you want to scale agile you have to view it as “a way of doing things, a mindset and a culture for the whole company” says Christoph Mathis. To scale agile you need to change the culture to achieve a learning organization.

At the Scaling Agile for the Enterprise 2015 congress Christoph Mathis talked about lean and agile transformations and developing a learning culture. The congress consists of presentations about agile frameworks and experiences from deploying them.

InfoQ did an interview with Christoph about hurdles that organizations can experience when agile scaling and how you can address them, how to develop a learning culture that support scaling agile and advice for doing culture change.

InfoQ: What do you consider to be the biggest hurdles for organizations that want to scale agile?

Christoph: In a way, using agile practices with a single team or a few teams is simple. They mind their own business and can even fly under the radar in many organizations and even gain some limited productivity gains from it.

This does not necessarily mean no one outside the team is aware what they are doing. But the full potential is often not visible. For the management Agile is "something IT people do". In many cases they are not even aware how they limit the positive impact of agile and which advantages they are missing.

When you try to scale, this "advantage" goes away and you have to do it properly: you need to understand that agile is a way of doing things, a mindset and a culture for the whole company.

I think the huge number of half baked agile implementations is due to this lack of understanding of the necessary cultural shift.

InfoQ: How can they address these hurdles to effectively scale agile?

Christoph: First, you have to ask why you want to scale. A good way to find out more about it is to avoid it by simplifying your product, avoid handovers, clean up your code base. You might find a lot of accidental complexity and remove it. Sometimes this is enough. In other cases, it reveals the essential complexity, but you have normally much less reasons to scale – and a cleaner business, technical basis and organization.

Next, you need to lay a solid basis of good agile practices, which allow you to benefit from a larger development.

Scaling has multiple dimensions: it is about a deeper understanding of principles, a more complete coverage of the full value stream and delivering more complex products. The resulting need to organize more persons to cooperate is only the result of these factors, the tip of the iceberg.

In short, I would say: Understand the need for a cultural shift, look at the whole company and clean up your mess before scaling.

InfoQ: You mentioned that “scaling agile implies changing the culture to achieve a learning organization”. In your view what is a “learning culture”?

Christoph: If you look at typical western (Detroit style) industrial environments, you will typically see a dominant process and a resource management to support and sustain this process. Resources are exchangeable and this includes the view of the people who work in this process. This view comes more and more to a limit and is completely dysfunctional for knowledge work – continuous improvement and learning become crucial for the overall success.

If you continue people as resource, they do not have opportunity nor incentive to contribute to this organizational learning, a lot of experience to support this experience has been accumulated in the lean and agile community.

A learning culture is an environment where people can develop trust and respect to each other, have a degree of autonomy and cooperate constructively. If you look up models and theories for this, you find Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline” and Takeuchi and Nonaka’s “Ba”/SECI learning model, both claim that learning is tightly connected to team work and this matches pretty much the ideas of an agile team.

InfoQ: How can a learning culture support scaling agile?

Christoph: In a sense, I use agile, learning organization and effective knowledge work almost synonymously.

When you scale Agile from agile teams – where this can work pretty well - to larger numbers of people, you must make sure that you have a solid basis here and that you keep these achievements.

As I said, mediocre agile implementations do not exploit the potential (and cause damage, in many cases), but you will achieve nothing at all if you try to scale it.

InfoQ: Do you have examples of organizations that established a learning culture? How did they do it?

Christoph: We have amazing examples among our customers. Apart all differences, they have a management which trusts the people and delegates many decisions to them.

InfoQ: Changing the culture can be hard. Can you give some advice for organization that want to change it to become a learning organization?

Christoph: If you are leader, include yourself: question your behavior and attitude.

When you want to

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