Skip to main content

Cultural Judo – How to Change Culture Without Changing Culture

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Cultural Judo – How to Change Culture Without Changing Culture

There are a bunch of us out there that are super passionate about this notion of agile as a cultural framework… or a value system… or a mindset. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, I suspect you’ll know where I stand on this. I think that culture, values, and mindset are important… but they aren’t why we adopt agile. We adopt agile to build better software, software that our customers want to use, and to get better economic outcomes for our companies.

To the extent that culture, values, and mindset lead to those outcomes… great… but culture, values, and mindset are not why we adopt agile. They are a byproduct.

If we allow for a moment that culture, values, and mindset are a necessary precondition for adopting agile… let’s think through what that actually means. Let’s say we have a traditional organization… functionally soloed… tightly coupled legacy architecture… matrixed, project based delivery system… overlapping, intertwined value streams… power struggles between executives… compensation models that reinforce and incentivize around the existing system… and all the cultural toxicity that you might expect comes along with this… what do you do?

Do you come in and give everyone a pep talk on the value of agile? Do you invite them to participate and hope that they all agree and self-organize into a new, rational delivery model? Do you run them through ScrumMaster training and have them bring back a bunch of practices that are incongruent with their existing culture and delivery framework? How do you create safety for people to step out and try new things? What if the team level folks all see the value, but those in power with the most to loose don’t?

I’d suggest that you can’t attack culture by attacking culture. You have to meet the organization where it is today and use it’s own weight against it.

Most people in these kinds of organizations recognize that something is broken and that something needs to be fixed… they just don’t trust everyone around them to necessarily work in their best interest to fix it. Our approach is to use the organizations need for predictability and control to actually create the conditions where agile practices and culture can take hold. We know that agile creates more visibility, more insight into what’s going on, better ability to make and meet commitments than any sequential process.

We have to use agile to get the organization what it needs and to create the conditions for change. We create the conditions for agile by creating the org patterns that enable agility.

When you are promising the organization what it wants now… predictability, quality, early return on investment… and can make the case that all this agile stuff gets them there faster… you can begin the change without even mentioning culture, values, or mindset. Instead, you talk about backlogs, teams, and working tested software delivered on regular intervals. You talk about metrics and planning. You talk about the ability to realize revenue earlier, you talk about creating clean breakpoints where we can change direction, you talk about having greater ability to make and meet commitments.

None of this is incongruent with where we want to go… none of this is incongruent with evolving a healthier culture, living agile values, or adopting an agile mindset… those things just aren’t where we start. We start by adopting an agile system of delivery, a system that delivers the business results your company so desperately needs, while creating the conditions for more agile practices to take root… and a more agile culture to emerge over time. You are never going to change culture by telling everyone they are doing it wrong and need to change.

My belief is that to effectively change culture, you have to create safety… you have to create alignment… you have to create congruence between your desired outcomes and rewards. You have to have a rational system of delivery that allows people to show up for work, to be able to do what they are being asked to do, and really see and feel what it is like to be successful in that new model. In an organization with a highly toxic culture, you have to lead with a point of view and a plan and push the organization to change… I don’t believe pull will work.

I think culture, values, and mindset are important, but I tend to see them as a byproduct of a rational system of delivery… a system of delivery that creates safety for everyone involved… a system of delivery that allows those cultural norms, applied values, and mindset to emerge over time. People ask me all the time how to sell agile to your executives… the answer is to simply stop talking about what we want to accomplish with agile and start aligning agile to the business drivers that are most important to your executives.

Use the organizations weight against it. Sell the organization a way to solve it’s business problems… you’ll get the culture change for free.

Next Why LeadingAgile?

Comments (7)

  1. B. Clay Shannon

    I like the “Judo” analogy, but to be more precise, it’s really Jiu-Jitsu that allows one to advantageously use the other person’s momentum/aggressiveness. Judo is derived from J-J, but is more combative/competitive than J-J.

    • Mike Cottmeyer

      It’s been 22 years since I took any Judo instruction. I always remembered it was less about striking, strength against strength, and more about using your opponents motion to your advantage. I’m no expert… thanks for the correction ;-)

      • Mike Cottmeyer

        You guys are killing me ;-)

  2. Sean

    See the book “Switch’ by the Heath brothers.

  3. Doug Shelton

    Perfect. This is exactly Point-On.

    Do I think working Cultural and/or Organizational change to “align with the agile mindset” could make Agile frameworks “More Effective”?


    Do I think Cultural or Organizational change of any significance is even possible without C-level management having “already bought in”?

    NO – 80/20 Rule: Not to any extent that will make a significant difference – more true the bigger the company is.

    Can implementation of Agile Frameworks **without** any **significant** Cultural and/or Organizational Change bring any “benefits of agile” to an organization?

    This shouldn’t even be questioned. Absolutely YES – I’ve personally seen it over and over.

    And ultimately – as you make the case for – its all back to “Requirements”; i.e., What is the “Business need” that is driving a company to use agile. Any agile implementations should strive to address those specific needs.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *