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Agile Transformation Isn’t About Culture Change

Mike Cottmeyer Chief Executive Officer
Reading: Agile Transformation Isn’t About Culture Change

If you were king for a day, and you could change the hearts and minds of the people inside your organization over night; what would you do next? And would you be able to guarantee those actions would lead to greater Business Agility?

A lot of people believe that Agile Transformation starts with culture because it feels like a culture problem. It feels like there’s resistance to change, and that command-and-control leaders won’t let the teams be Agile. More often than not though, it’s not that people don’t want to change. It’s not that leaders are anti-Agile. It’s that the system you’re trying to build that culture within isn’t designed to foster it.

Video Transcript

If you could do anything in the organization that you want to do, you could change anything overnight that you wanted to change. You could snap your fingers and all of the cultural impediments would be overcome in an instant. What would you do differently the next day?

Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. We are doing a series right now around common misconceptions around Agile Transformation. If you’re not familiar with LeadingAgile and what we do, we are a boutique consultancy based in Atlanta, Georgia, that focuses exclusively on helping companies effectively adopt Agile, Agile practices, specifically in larger, more complex organizations, where there’s a lot of, you know, just challenges organizationally with doing this and doing this well.

So, what we’re talking about specifically is common misconceptions around Agile Transformation. And one of the one of the misconceptions that we see quite a bit is the idea that the difficulty adopting Agile is largely a culture problem. So, I’m fairly well documented in saying that Agile is not a culture problem. Agile is a systems problem. It comes down to how we form teams, how we build backlogs, how we produce working tested software.

A fast follow behind that is what are the practices that we use to enable that Agile System of Delivery. So, in the presence of really well-formed teams, we might want to do Scrum and XP on top of that. In the presence of well-encapsulated products or value streams, maybe we want to do something like SAFe or Large-Scale Scrum.

And so, what tends to happen is that when people go down this path of doing an Agile Transformation, it almost always starts from a practices perspective or from a culture perspective. So, if I think about a practices first perspective, I’m basically going under the assumption that if I teach you how to do Scrum, Scrum will show you your impediments. And then those impediments will get removed over time.

A culture-first Transformation basically says if we can just get hearts and minds changed, if we can just get the behavior of the organization to change, if we can just get the people in the organization open to doing Agile and being able to think differently about how we do software, then everything else will flow.

One of my favorite thought exercises to do, if I get out and speak at a conference or a user group, is…I kind of call it a “king for a day discussion” and basically say, if you could do anything in the organization that you want to do, you could change anything overnight that you wanted to change, you could snap your fingers and all of the cultural impediments would be overcome in an instant. What would you go do different early the next day?

Understanding that we need to have incremental and iterative development. We need to do team-based delivery with stable velocity. We want we want flow of value. We want early release, we want high quality, we want efficient delivery. We want to be able to respond to change, right? All the different things that we promise with Agile.

If you took the culture aspect of that out of it, what would you go do the next day? What would you ask of the organization? What changes would you make? And if you were able to make those changes, would you be able to guarantee success installing an Agile ecosystem as designed?

And so, what my belief is, is that most of that resistance organizationally, the thing that we see as an unwillingness to change or a mindset or a behavior of command and control, largely comes from having an unreliable System of Delivery, something that that is really difficult to trust.

And so, we have leaders that are behaving in a way that’s anti-Agile, but they have a long history of working with product development organizations and IT organizations that haven’t largely been trustworthy. So, my belief is we want if we want a cultural attribute like trust, we have to build a system that is trustworthy. If we want a and a culture that is responsive to change, we have to have a System of Delivery that is able to accommodate change in a reliable and predictable way.

So, the idea that the impediment to Transformation is culture, I think is a bit of a misconception. What we want is we want a reliable, Agile System of Delivery, one that’s formed around teams. Backlogs are clear, able to produce a working tested increment. Stabilized velocity the team level. A team-based organizational structure—enterprise-wide. A lightweight, Agile governance model that ties up to the portfolio management/investment tier strategy.

We want metrics and controls that actually enable the kinds of things that we’re looking for. We enable that system with really solid, Agile practices. And what we find is that when that system becomes trustworthy, you start to see those attitudes and beliefs and behavior from leadership and your team members start to change. So how you get there is a bit of a process, right?

There’s a there’s a way to design an Agile operating model. There’s a way to incrementally and iteratively deliver that operating model in a way that’s safe, plan-driven, that can actually be, you know, intentionally designed and deployed that will actually work to achieve the goals of Agile. And then within the context of that, we can ask the organization to change.

So, it feels like a culture problem because there’s so much resistance. But that resistance comes from the cognitive dissonance of not seeing how it’s going to work. So, if you can create a compelling case for how this Agile System of Delivery is going to work, and how your leaders are going to get more of what they want out of the system, then over time, then you can start changing hearts and minds.

So, it’s not changing hearts and minds and behavior first. It’s about putting in a reliable System of Delivery that can be trusted and then inviting participation into that system. Once the organization learns how to get what it needs out of that system.

So, thank you for joining us. Appreciate you being part of this conversation with us. And we look forward to our next session together. Have a great day, sir.

Next Unleashing Agile: Empowering Agile Teams for Managers

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