Project Practitioners > 5 Steps to Cultivating an Agile Culture

5 Steps to Cultivating an Agile Culture

By Brian Irwin

We’ve all heard the maxim change is difficult.  The reasons that change is hard are far too numerous to discuss in a single blog posting.  My intent here is to specifically focus on organizational agile transformations and the difficulty of changing culture.  Additionally, I want to leave you with some hope.  While it is difficult, it is not impossible.  There are steps that you can take as an individual that can help the organization as a whole move in the right direction.  

The 2013 VersionOne State of Agile Survey indicates the top three reasons cited by practitioners for adopting agile within their organizations include accelerated time to market, the ability to more easily manage changing priorities, and to better align IT and the business, respectively.  These are desired results.  Unfortunately, viewing agile as a methodology alone will only minimally achieve these results, if at all.  The same survey cited the primary barrier to agile adoption as being the inability to change organizational culture.

Many adoptions focus primarily on providing training for individuals and teams.  Training is certainly crucial; unfortunately, many initiatives stop with training.  This is insufficient to sustain the change effort’s momentum.  It's perplexing to me that organizations expect a shift in results with training alone?  It’s unrealistic.  Even when training is provided the attendees are thrust back into an environment that does not support new experiences that validate a new way of doing things.  The pyramid in the illustration below helps to visually explain why.

Change Pyramid
First, I have to give credit for this illustration to Heather Hassebroek.  I met Heather only briefly at an agile conference, where we sat next to each other and started a discussion about why we think change is so difficult.  I think the pyramid succinctly demonstrates what’s occurring.  She jotted it down and I asked her if I could use it.  She graciously said yes.  Thank you Heather!

Our experiences lie at the base of the pyramid.  These experiences create and reinforce our beliefs and values, which drives our actions and behaviors.  The actions and behaviors produce results—both good and bad.  Therefore, one of the keys to transformation efforts is that it has to be rooted in individual experiences that breathe life into the new way of doing things. 

For example, let’s consider the agile principle that states the primary measure of progress is working software.  To realize this principle we must first provide experiences that reinforce new values.  I have worked with teams that have attended training and seem to understand the principles of The Agile Manifesto very well.  The mindset just seems to make sense to them.  Yet, when returning to the day-do-day routine of their projects they fail to have stakeholders attend sprint reviews and are required to provide weekly project status reports including percent complete and red, amber, green stoplight indicators.  The team’s collective experience is that working software isn’t really valued as much as a status report.  This repeated shared experience leads to apathy and stalled transformations.  Alas, the team and organization continues to slumber under the status quo.

Here are 5 new experiences to consider if you want to foster an agile culture.  The list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but all of these are steps to consider if you want to reinforce new values and drive behavior change leading to positive results.

  1. Expect working software to be demonstrated at the end of a sprint.  If it can’t be demonstrated, it’s not done.  
  2. If you need something from someone—call them!  Better yet, if you are co-located walk over to them and have a conversation and engage them in collaboration.
  3. If you’re a manager or executive, form stable teams.  If you do not understand the long-term competitive advantage of a high-performing stable team, you have much to learn about agile organizations.
  4. Be open about your failures at all levels (individual, departmental, managerial, etc.).  This has to start with you!  Don’t expect everyone to be open first.  You must demonstrate this behavior.  But consider this in a positive light.  Also be open about what you learned as a result of the failure.  Over time, this will help foster a learning culture.  Consider a team-level sprint or release award for the failure that led to the most learning.
  5. Experiment with pairing for 5 days.  I’m not simply referring to pair programming.  Try pairing in daily activities.  You may be surprised at the results.  If not, it’s only been for 5 days.  But give it at least that much time.  If it works you might even consider rotating pairs every week to help drive learning and building relationships.


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