Assess Your Current Organizational Culture to Gauge Your Agile Adoption Effort

October 24, 2012

According to the most recent State of Agile Development Survey by VersionOne, the largest barrier to further agile adoption is the ability to change organizational culture. I believe the real question of the day centers on adoption versus transformation and how transformation can be a large cultural shift.

Mike Cottmeyer explored the issue of adoption versus transformation in a 2011 post, Untangling Adoption and Transformation. Mike’s epiphany was that adoption is focused on doing agile, concentrating on the practices that we put in place, whereas transforming is about being agile, which is all about leadership, understanding yourself and undergoing a personal transformation as a “precursor to agile software development.”

I agree with Mike, there is definitely a difference between adopting agile and being agile. That’s not to say that you won’t improve your current situation by adopting agile practices. Pair programming and Test-Driven Development are examples of technical practices that you can benefit from. Adopting Scrum as a product development framework gives control of the workday back to the employees, which should improve morale as a result.

However, Scrum and technical practices support agility, but they don’t make you agile. Practices get you started, but they only scratch the surface. Being agile is about going deeper, about viewing and approaching work that is a transformation change at a personal and organizational level.

And herein is the challenge: An agile transformation is a bigger leap for some than it is for others. Just how big that leap is depends upon where you are starting from. Interestingly enough, personal character and organizational culture closely correspond to one another (as William Schneider relates in his book The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work ). As Schneider puts it, individual character is “the way I do things in order to succeed” while organizational culture is “the way we do things in order to succeed.”

Schneider found that there are four core cultures, and while organizations most likely will include some characteristics of the other cultures, there is usually a dominant culture. These are plotted in quadrants in the following diagram with a one-line description of what success means to each culture in green text just below each culture type along with a couple of quick notes about the typical leadership style associated with each in blue text above.

As you can see, some organizations (and people) are more predisposed to agile than others. That’s why I stated that a transformation can be a large cultural shift in my opening paragraph. Agile cultures are oriented towards collaboration and cultivation cultures, so agile is less of a shock to the organizational system to those cultures than it is in a control-oriented culture, for example.

Understanding organizational cultures and Schneider’s observation that, “The control culture has been overused as a paradigm for building and running an organization” explains why agile is a culture clash for many organizations. And since many organizations are hoping for transformational results with adopting agile, it only makes sense that the organization should be transformed in order to accomplish this goal. (The book also contains a Core Culture Questionnaire to help you determine the core culture of your organization.)

Of course, cultural change is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort over a period of time. Understanding what culture you are starting with will help you to understand the effort required to implement the transformation change of being agile. For control or competence cultures, expect a much larger transformation effort because being agile is a very different mindset from the way that these cultures view “the way we do things in order to succeed.”

I’ll cover more thoughts on the subject of organizational culture and agile in future posts.