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Observations on Corporate Culture and Agile Methods Adoption/Adaptation
By Esther Derby

I see (and hear about) more and more companies that are jumping on the Agile bandwagon.

All too often, a top managers direct the organization to implement Scrum or another Agile method.

Sometimes implementing Agile top down succeeds in establishing the a few engineering practices or the workflow changes – they create a requirements backlog, and start having release and iteration planning meetings, and maybe something that looks like a stand up meeting (sort of). But the organization struggles, and pretty soon bits and piece of the Agile method fall away because “they don’t work here.” (Which is different from deciding which practices to adopt to solve the most pressing problems.)

This sort of top down implementation often ignores one of the core factors involved in implementing Agile methods: Culture. (Structure and systems are an issue, too, but that’s for another time.)

Culture has to do with how people use power, how people treat each other, beliefs and practices about motivation, and values.

Here’s one lens to look at types of culture:

Power cultures rely on control over the currencies of power – money, privileges, promotions, assignments, working conditions. Motivation is via rewards and punishments. Leadership resides in the person – and his/her ability to control access to resources and mete out punishments and rewards.

When it works well, the upside of Power cultures is responsible, benevolent (and often paternalistic) leadership. The downside is abuse of power, political infighting, and rule by fear, where people spend their time and energy keeping their heads down.

Bureaucratic cultures use procedures and structures to organize and control people and performance. Roles and duties are clearly defined and bounded, as are rewards. Each level and part of the organization has a defined set of responsibilities and authorities.

The upside of Bureaucratic cultures is stability and efficiency – as long as the external environment is also stable. When circumstances and influences aren’t stable, Bureaucratic cultures have a hard time keeping up with rapid change. (Every so often, I hear someone complain, “We can’t move the boxes on the org chart fast enough to keep up.” This is the sound of a Bureaucratic culture falling behind in a high change environment.)

Both Power and Bureaucratic cultures assume that people can’t really be trusted and therefore, attempt to control them so they don’t do something stupid, and manipulate them so they don’t slack off.

Achievement cultures hold a belief that people like their work and want to contribute – rewards are intrinsic to the work. The organization has a clear purpose, and people willing sign on to achieve that goal. People make decision in reference to the overall mission/purpose rather than in reference to a person who has power.

When the work, Achievement cultures are high-energy and exciting. People seek out what needs doing and do it.

The downside can be under-organization (which people compensate for with “can do” attitude) and burnout.

Relationship cultures value the humans who work there: people aren’t just cogs in a production machine. People come to work because they care about the people they work with, and feel cared for by their co-workers. People communicate openly, cooperate, and help each other out.

Relationship cultures can feel wonderful… and they need a dose of Achievement culture to stay results oriented. On the downside, Relationship cultures can be so conflict averse that people sweep serious problems under the rug.

Most companies have a mix of these cultural characteristics, or have pockets of different culture with in the dominant culture.

In my experience, a mix of Achievement and Relationship cultures is more conducive to Agile methods—it’s a natural fit. OTOH, it’s an uphill battle to introduce Agile methods in a Power or Bureaucratic culture because the values and principles behind Agile methods are at odds with the values of the dominant culture.

That doesn’t say you can’t use Agile methods in those cultures; Agile may thrive in pockets within a larger Power or Bureaucratic organization. But widespread adoption/adaptation of Agile methods will work better with attention to shaping the culture to support Agile principles and values around self-organization, collaboration, and adaptation.

Esther Derby works with companies who want to do better at delivering valuable software to their customers. She works with small niche firms, mid-size companies and Fortune 500 companies. She has worked in financial services, insurance, health care and manufacturing, as well as in product and software-as-a-service companies. You can read more from Esther on her blog. Check the AYE Conference.

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