Agile Culture and Mindset – re-visited

Ever since Agile approaches became popular about 15 to 20 years ago, Agile culture and mindset have been touted as the foundation elements around which successful organizational transformation happens. Peter Drucker’s famous quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” points to the ineffectiveness of your strategy implementation if the company culture doesn’t support it. In the early years, not many organizations understood and internalized the true Agile culture / philosophy, leading to many of them failing in their Agile journey. This was helped in no small measure by the plethora of consultants, selling Agile as a methodology over philosophy. The few successes that we had, though, led to the realization that “being agile” is substantially more important for succeeding with Agile than “doing agile”. This essentially means implementing Agile in “spirit” and, we are seeing this trend with many organizations today. The intent of this blog is to demystify a few aspects relating to Agile mindset and culture, both from a team perspective, as well as, from the perspective of leadership/management.

What is Agile culture?

Agile culture is an environment built around core values and principles with practices and behaviours aligned to those values and principles. In today’s business, this culture needs to address responsiveness to customer and market needs in an extremely complex and uncertain environment. Essentially the organization’s values and principles and the related practices / behaviours should be reflective of this business need.  For culture to be effective at the business level, it needs to permeate through various organizational layers, starting from the top.

Agile culture in teams – Values, Principles and Practices Implementing a proper Agile culture in teams requires a good understanding of Agile values and principles and an appreciation of how these are linked to practices (and to associated behaviours). While Agile values are universal, they are also often too abstract. On the other hand, practices are ways of solving common problems and dilemmas, that we encounter in software development. Given the large perceived gap between these two, we use Principles to bridge this gap and help understand practices better. Values and Principles together guide us in adaptation and improvisation of practices, as part of our efforts to improve continuously. Let me take a couple of examples to illustrate this using the Agile Manifesto, Principles, Scrum Values and XP Values and Principles:

From the above example, if you notice that the practice of team members taking turns to provide updates (rather than each one being prodded on by the SM) is an implementation of the principle of accepted responsibility (ownership). I am sure you can see a linkage of other practices to the values and principles that they align to. As mentioned before, you can improvise on practices (such as, doing fun retrospectives, for example) without compromising on values and principles.

In the above example, I have deliberately mixed values and principles from the Agile manifesto as well as specific Agile approaches such as Scrum / XP. From my own perspective, I have looked at the Agile Manifesto as more of a position statement than a set of classical “values” – which is why approaches such as Scrum and XP expounded their own set of values. Most Agile approaches use the Agile manifesto as a broad guideline for their own specific recommendations and incorporate their own values and principles to support their practice recommendations (both management as well as technical practices). In my opinion, it is sensible to take such a hybrid approach to support your organization context.

There is another factor to be considered – Agile Manifesto and values and principles from other approaches are applicable to a software development context, which functions under a broad organizational context. The organization will have its own core values and philosophy stated from a business perspective, and as a consequence, any Agile implementation has to be aligned to and support this organizational context.

Agile culture in leadership and management

In the early days of Agile implementation, it was viewed largely as a bottom-up initiative focusing on delivery teams. The pervasive nature of Agile as a culture change across all the layers of the organization was lost on senior leadership.  This introduces many internal conflicts. For example, when SMs see their manager(s) practicing a directive style with them, while expecting them to be facilitative with their own teams, they see a clear conflict of culture. In my experience as a coach, I have personally seen managers track their teams’ burn-downs – which is clearly a team’s responsibility to track for needed actions – wanting to know why they were looking bad, during a sprint execution. This clearly goes against Principle 5 of the manifesto that says “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done”. In essence, the Manager’s role is to provide facilitative support to teams after providing them the big picture / vision / direction. Teams decide on how they will execute, and will approach you as managers, only for unresolved blockers, or when they need support.

From a leadership perspective as well, leadership practices should be based on similar values and principles to what we have discussed for teams. Some of these principles may include those relating to delegation/empowerment, workforce diversity, freedom for experimentation, support for collaborative communities, emotional well-being of employees and so on. For those keen on an organizational perspective of Agile, would like to refer you to PM Power’s recently released book “The Five Tantras of Enterprise Agility”. Incidentally, the book devotes an entire section (Book 3 within the book) to Transformational Leadership needed to succeed with Agile.

What do you think?

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