Organization culture and Agile – how to make it work?

Organization agility is all about culture, and then making a shift requires cultural change. Organizational Culture has often been identified as one of the main challenges in the adoption of agile values and principles. Consequently, organizations may benefit from analyzing the existing organizational Culture even before they decide to start their transformation journey towards agile.

But in most cases, Culture was not considered in the creation of a roadmap or strategy for transformation. When I look back at a couple of Enterprise agile transformations, I found that we spent our time and effort in establishing team practices, frameworks thinking that it will become Enterprise agile. But we learned that Enterprise agile is not about doing the same thing, but many teams working together, applying an agile mindset in delivering their products. Practices are the vehicle towards enterprise agility, and shared understanding is more critical than standard practice.

When the transformation is initiated, they like of idea of transformation, the idea of doing agile and want to do what their peers are doing. Still, when we start making organizational changes, they do resist making changes. It is like everybody wants to be physically fit, and we take new year resolutions for fitness but do not want to give up on cheeseburger or not ready for all those disciplined exercise regimes.

One commonly occurring scenario is when we propose changing the reporting structure to a single reporting organization comprising of the operation team, QA and dev teams. They are not comfortable as it is not aligned with the current operating model structure and they could lose control of the teams. This is one of the examples of resistance that agile coaches face if culture was not understood before proposing changes.

In our new 2020 goal of transforming to Being agile, we have started with understanding the current Culture, and we aligned the approach based on that. It has been working well, and I am sharing how we started with being aware of the current Culture. I hope it helps some of you going through the Organizational journey.

Let us start with the basic definition of terminologies of Culture and what are the various cultural models defined in the industry.  These cultural models help us with the approaches and frameworks that can be used for our transformation. 

What is Culture:  Organizational Culture is “the way things are done around here” (Deal & Kennedy, 2000). Organizational Culture is defined as the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. It is how the organization thinks when we are working together in delivering products. 

Type of organization culture: Widely acknowledged, “Quinn and Cameron’s organization cultural model suggests that there are four different types of organization culture. They are

  1.  Hierarchy culture where the motto is stability and integration (Command and control)
  2.  Clan culture where the motto is “we are in this together” (Collaboration)
  3.  Adhocracy culture where the motto is innovation and Risk
  4. The market culture where the motto is the bottom line 

Defining our approach: 

Identify your organization culture: As your next step, identify your culture. One of the recommended methods is to survey to understand which category out of four types. But in most cases, you will be able to guess the Culture. Usually, it will be a mix of one or two models, with one culture being a dominant part.

       Create Strategy: Once we know the organization’s culture, we can create strategy and plans for transformation depending on the type of Culture. Each of the cultures has its benefits and potential challenges. Based on those factors and our needs, a plan can be customized.

For example, if your organization’s dominant Culture is a hierarchy, then Kotter’s approach of change management (read more at would be the right way to start, and SAFE would be the recommended methodology. Kotter’s approach talks about eight steps, with each of the stages starts as soon as an earlier stage is completed. SAFE also has defined roles and responsibilities at each layer of organization with transparent processes and ways of working at each layer.

Whereas, if your organization is of collaboration, then having a change evangelist and Community of practice would help with your transformation. I would recommend a book called “Fearless change,” which has a list of change patterns that we would see in most of the organization’s transformation change process and how to deal with it. 

 While the transformation produces tremendous results and benefits, we need to be aware of a few challenges on the way that could derail. Here are a few things that you can look out for a while on the transformation journey.

Common challenges:

  • People make Culture – But Not enough time spent on the people side of the change.
    • Most of the strategy does not consider the emotional impact of the transformation. People resist changes as they do not see what would happen to them, their job because of changes. If we ignore their fears, our transformation attempt could be futile. For example, in my recent transformation, the Scrum Master role was introduced, and as we can expect, project managers were resistant as they could not understand their new position. There was a lot of negative energy, and every meeting was chaotic. As a solution, a workgroup was created and asked them to redefine how their new role can be designed. It worked, and negative energy was converted into productive work. Another solution could be to Encourage behavior shifts not only on action.
  • Reliance on one change leader
    • We talked about having a change evangelist as one of the approaches for a collaborative organizational culture model. Change evangelist is the most crucial role in the transformation, and their enthusiasm helps us to get more engaged in the transformation. People accept change at a different rate. There will be early adopters and they raise faith and bring in the next set of adopters. Sometimes, the next level of engagement does not work and transformation becomes a personal plan creating a reliance on one person.
  • Forcing the org to change.
    •  Not enough excitement created at all levels. Teams need to feel that they are part of the transformation, and they are part of organizational success. 
  • Implementing change that loses customer focus.
    • Sometimes we are excited about the change and becoming focused on the processes or ways of working. In my recent DevOps transformation experience, the team implemented all procedures, and they were deploying every two weeks with zero defects. After three months, they realized that the customer was not happy with the product. The team lost its focus on customer needs and was excited about its internal transformation.

Conclusion: As we understand, Culture plays a major part in the transformation. It could make or break the success of the transformation. Hence spending some time understanding where do we stand, what will work will help us in achieving a successful transformation.

What do you think?

One Response

  1. A very relevant article, that tries to address some of the core barriers to adoption of Agile in an organization.
    Also, apart from the organization culture, one might need to look at the core beliefs of the individuals involved, as at the end of the day, there are many subconscious influences acting upon each of us whether we realize it or not.
    For example, are each of the individuals in the team following any mental and physical hygiene practices that makes them more flexible and adaptable to adoption of change. Similarly, in the Indian context, even if the organizational culture is collaborative or innovative we still tend to be hierarchical by virtue of our tradition, so a mixed approach may be always called for.

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