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In Organizational Agile Change Management , Culture Comes Last

Reading: In Organizational Agile Change Management , Culture Comes Last
Agile Change Management

courtesy @opensourceway

Here at LeadingAgile, we have a specific cycle for achieving organizational Agile change management. In short, to make real substantive organizational change, you need to attack the following dimensions

  1. Organizational Structure: 
  2. Processes, Practices, Policies
  3. Cultural Beliefs

…in exactly that order. That’s right, when you strive for organizational Agile change management, you need to do the culture part last.

“But wait, Jesse. Isn’t culture the most important ingredient of an organization? What about the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breafast’? Why not do the most important thing first?”

Agile Change Management : Culture Last

I’ve been coaching this to my clients for a while, but in the past few months it has become painfully evident to me that Rule Number Zero for “going agile” is to have stable team rosters. One of my clients has the habit of shuffling people from one project to another, with no notice. When I started talking to them about the mechanics of user stories or other such details, they simply couldn’t care less; they were overwhelmed and tired from getting yanked around. A different client actually KNEW they had to re-organize their teams to be more focused. But while senior management was busy socializing the new org chart for 4 months, the teams were thrashing, fully convinced that management didn’t have the fortitude to effectively pull off any real Agile Change Management.

Some of my colleagues think that if you go straight to modifying the cultural mindset of the leadership team, you will get the momentum you need for lasting results. But the problem is you can’t get there from here. There is a known, methodlical process for changing people’s mental models. Specifically, consider that the same process applies for people struggling with personal dysfunction. Think about it. To achieve behavior modification,

  1. First, get out of the environment that enables the dysfunction, and get into a support structure
  2. Then, leverage that support structure to work through a 12-step program
  3. ONLY THEN, can you introspect and self-actualize yourself as the new person

Granted, it is an iterative cycle:

  • Change one small environmental thing =>
  • to create the space to change one small process =>
  • which slightly shifts my confidence based on a known track record =>
  • which motivates me to make another environmental tweak…

But the point here, is that the iterative cycle of behavior modification is that you can NOT change a belief system, until you first have some positive behavioral evidence, which only happens after you create a safe and stable operational environment.

What about you? Have you seen the latest mission statement, management fad, or feel good effort yield zero results in your day to day work?


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Comments (18)

  1. Bob Williams

    Changing the organization structure does aid in helping change because it creates positional authority. People like to make their boss happy.

    Updating processes helps as well because it creates a model of like work procedures. Most people don’t want to stick out as being different or bucking a current process.

    Truer heartfelt change occurs when people see and understand the value the change will give them.

    • Jesse Fewell

      Nice way to articulate it, Bob. Your points are especially true in larger organizations where change happens more slowly. “Helping people where they are” often means operating with the a world where safety is driven by following the rules. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Troy Tuttle

    Nice post. I’ll share a similar take, but emphasis in slightly different areas. I believe most efforts to affect org change by tackling culture directly are sub-optimal because culture itself isn’t a root cause. It’s merely a manifestation of underlying causes. It can be extremely stubborn, which is why it gets so much attention.

    The steps for me are:
    Improve the Organizational Understanding of the system, which allows one to …
    Incrementally alter practices, policies, and processes, which fosters a different …
    Belief System, which in turn …
    Improves Culture.

    Bob made a great comment, that people need to observe and understand. IMHO, if organizations don’t improve their understanding first, their culture isn’t likely to change long term.

  3. Pete Johnson

    Seems to be a nice post, but again, and again, the easy way. Management seems to be not competent enough to really attack and change the culture, so…..structure comes first they reason. Pitty :-(

    • Jesse Fewell

      Pete, Thanks for joining the conversation. I completely sympathize with your frustration. I think agree that Management needs to attack the problems. The debate is whether your attack should be driven by mission statements or policy changes. For example, a great story about positive change is Vineet Nayar’s “Employees first; Customers second”. As CEO of outsourcing giant HCL, he wanted to change the culture. But he did so by making incremental changes to company policies, inspecting the results, and then allowing for adaptation of the details.

  4. Matt Anderson

    I am a big proponent of “Start with Why”. Having done a large organizational transition, we ended up following the model Jesse outlines, but in order to get it started, I had to paint the vision of future state at both the leadership and the grassroots level. Once the “Why” was clear, the momentum from both sides then cleared the way for the organizational and process changes.

    • Jesse Fewell

      Matt, good points. Even if you focus on changing structure and mechanics first, you have to make the case. This came up in a recent conversation, where an agile champion was saying “we have to change culture at the executive level before they will agree to changing the structure.” To which I had to reply, “Not really, all you have to do is make the case for an executive to create the mandate/support/space for the needed structure change, and then let the results speak for themselves”.

      Thanks for the comment.

  5. Huet Landry

    I found a great book on changing a large, entrenched organization to a more lean one in the Book “Maverick” by Ricardo Semler. He spent years beating his head against the cultural wall and finally adopted a model for change very much like the one jesse has outlined – and it worked brilliantly.

  6. Tom Churchwell

    Nice post and a subtle distinction around where to emphasize the change efforts.

    Here is what I’ve seen:

    At today’s speeds, even starting with organizational/structural change, there is the need for a tight clarify–>change–>observe–>pivot or persevere loop(s). This really does center on the teams and the “Take the Work to the Team” concept. Once teams…and `take the work to the team` mentality is established…then the `definition of done` will need to change/expand in order to address all of the concerns of the cross-functional team; stuff that may have previously been ignored or taken for granted.

    It expands to include more and more cross-functional concerns because part-time participation by those usually only peripherally involved team members becomes more critical to both speedy and effective delivery–part-time ain’t good enough. The notion of who is on the team expands to include folks who may still live in a hierarchical/ traditional reporting structure; many of whom may be non-technical. When that happens, the Organizational & Structural change needs to extend further and further into the organization cross-functionally to include team members now seen as critical to successful delivery. The initial technology team structural changes which led to successful practice changes and successful cultural changes now press many of the non-technical parts of the organization to change as well.

    Depending on the size of the organization, this structure change–>practice change–>culture change loop can go on for…ev…er. Not to imply that that is a `bad` thing…



  7. Jesse Fewell

    Tom, thanks for the comment. Most of the other change models I’ve seen are very sequential, so I really like you emphasizing the looping terminology.Once I’ve completed new experiences (completing an increment), that lead to new belief systems (I *can* build something in 2 weeks), then I’m able to take on newer, more demanding changes (e.g. expanding the DOD). Granted, the specifics of that loop will vary from one context to another, but I can see them going on and on as you say, and even overlapping with each other.

    Great point…

  8. Scott Forgey

    Perfect insight. Having been in Agile Transformations, Change Management and Culture Shifts for nearly 30 years I completely agree. Structures and practices crush any attempt to address culture or the ‘transformative” aspects of the Agile/Scrum revolution. Middle management seems the most impacted by them, thereby causing the greatest negative impact.

    We likewise suggest MVG’s (Minimum Viable Games) as a thin slice addressing structure and policy until you can get to BEING (some know as mindset, worldview, culture).

    There is one part you are missing, which everyone misses: TEAM. The major inauthenticity of the Agile movement is that it assumes TEAM as a phenomenon – yet I haven’t seen a team yet. The corporate world is enamored with “individual performers” and all structures and designed to reinforce that dark fantasy.

    Where we create TEAM strategically as an MVG, we create a unit that is impervious to Organization and Policy/Practices and results can start to emerge. Then let the fun begin.

    Agile has been reduced to cliche and jingoism – failing to produce the promised breakthrough. Time to roll up the sleeves and put away the slogans, Mission Statements, values that no one values and deal with reality on the court.

    Great article. Thanks!


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