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Agile is not a Process – it Defines a Culture

I’ve been reading Michael Sahota’s Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide (from which the title of this post is taken) and finding myself nodding in violent agreement with much of its sentiment. The word ‘agile’ seems to be being applied all over the place in all sorts of contexts right now but I've long held that it should be considered in a context that takes it beyond a collection of working processes and sees it more as a broader opportunity to change mindsets, thinking, and approaches (I've now been writing about it this context for five years so this is something of an anniversary for me).

Michael writes eloquently about a key distinction that I think about a lot – the difference between doing agile, and being agile – in other words between adoption and transformation. Change agents, he says, talk of adopting Agile but rarely about transforming the culture of a company to support the Agile mindset. And without that, it fails.

The (nicely short) book includes an interesting model based on one lifted from William Scneider's The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work). This maps four distinct organisational culture types against a two-by-two matrix which positions people vs company oriented businesses on the horizontal axis against reality vs possibility oriented companies on the vertical.

Sahota_agile_cultureSo for example the 'cultivation culture' is about succeeding by growing people who fulfill a compelling vision, collaboration culture is about succeeding by working together, control by getting and keeping control, competence by being the best and so on. No one culture is better than another but whilst companies may have characteristics that orginate from multiple culture-types, they are likely to be routed in one. Other cultural elements may be encouraged as long as they serve the dominant culture. This also enables us to see a relationship between different culture types. Controlling organisational cultures for example, are more compatible with competence and collaboration cultures than they are with cultivation.

The model is useful in thinking about where your company culture is routed, but also in identifying potential areas of conflict. Agile culture is focused more on collaboration and cultivation, and so arguably plays less well with controlling cultures in particular. Conflict can arise when individual teams or departments may have a different sub-culture to that which is dominant in the wider organisation. 

Sahota goes on to map the original twelve principles that defined the Agile Manifesto all that time ago but more importantly goes on to talk about the confusion that often exists between adoption (following practices and prcoesses) and transformation (acting with an agile mindset).  Agile adoption, says Sahota, can trigger conflict due to cultural mismatches between groups in a company, particularly if one team within a company starts to work in agile ways. I've had experience of this myself.

One way to think about introducing a foreign culture (like agile) into an organisation is the metaphor of the human body, which releases antibodies that are designed to eliminate foreign elements. Similarly, an organisation can reject the introduction of a foreign culture system and work hard in order to maintain the status quo. So 'adapters' or 'translators' around the foreign culture might help protect it, and avoid triggering the antibodies, and the new culture might eventually be a powerful force for change. I've been doing some work recently around digital skills for marketers, and one of the interesting (and consistent) pieces of feedback I'm getting is around the heightened value of people who are adept at being interpreters and translators, able to speak the same language and effectively articulate digital technology, vision, ideas, behaviours, and approaches to non-digital specialists within organisations. This, to me, makes a whole lot of sense.

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