So we want to start Transforming our organization to become Agile. But where do we start? Do we address culture first so we can “be” Agile, or do we put practices in place first so we can “do” Agile?
And so it begins…the battle between two forces—culture and practices.
If you could wave a magic wand and immediately flip culture, or install the practices you want—the only stipulation being that you’d have to guarantee results in a short period of time, what would you change first?
Start With Practices?
To get things done in organizations that are functionally siloed, like those with waterfall governance, you have to have authoritative leaders that put pressure on the organization to deliver, and project managers playing scorekeeper and doing tracking. This is ultimately a broken system. Individual teams can perform, but when they aren’t cross-functional teams they’ll be unable to eliminate all the dependencies in their way.
In the face of this kind of misalignment, power struggles are a big issue. It’s difficult to get people focused on goals, hold them accountable, and enable them to be empowered and focused. The leaders aren’t getting the results they’re pushing for, the project managers are pinched in the middle, and the teams eventually break down.
We can have all the right intentions thinking if we hire a trainer, or send people to training and teach them how to do Scrum or SAFe, those practices will lead to a culture shift. But what we end up with is people going through the motions but not really delivering the value that’s possible from Agile.
A lot depends on the complexity of the enterprise. The more complex the organization, the less likely these strategies are to be successful. Scrum and SAFe can show us our impediments, yes. But if we don’t have the structure to support removing them, we’re in trouble.
So the idea is that if we are doing all the practices the right way, but still not getting the right outcomes, it must be a cultural issue, right? We think if we just change our mindsets, then the practices will fall into place and work the way they’re supposed to.
Is it a Culture Shift We Need?
So if those mindsets we think are keeping us stuck changed overnight, what would we do next to get results? Most people can’t really answer this question. And if that’s the case, is it really a culture problem then?
We think if we can upgrade the mindset of the organization so that it thinks more adaptively, with less command and control, and get people to behave in a more Agile way, maybe they’ll be more likely to pick up practices, hopefully then be patient enough for the practices to expose our impediments, which then can maybe open a conversation about structure because of all the structural things that get in the way of effectively doing Scrum. Then over time the organization becomes high performing. But does this really happen? Maybe. Maybe not. Especially not in larger, more complex organizations.
We can be adaptive and willing to change, have a growth mindset, or be an empowering leader. But when the ecosystem and the ways we are structured get in the way of those cultural messages Agilists are trying to install in the organization, the organization is clearly misaligned.
What We Actually Need
The reality is that if the organizational structure underneath all of the culture or practices is totally incongruent, it’s highly unlikely that you are going to get the outcomes you want from Transformation.
It’s difficult to get value out of Agile if we don’t get the game board set up correctly first, don’t have all the right pieces in place, and don’t have all the right levels of support. That is not to say that culture and practices don’t matter or play a part.
A culture shift as part of Agile Transformation is necessary but insufficient—and not the place to start.
Installing new practices is essential but also insufficient—and not the place to start.
The place to start is to create an underlying ecosystem and structure to the organization that can enable the culture and practices to work, and therefore allow the organization to realize the full benefits Agile has to offer.