A Cultural Recipe for Agile Organizations

November 14, 2012

Lately I’ve been examining the subject of organizational culture through the lens of William Schneider’s four cultures that are covered in his book The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work. The four cultures are shown in a quadrant below:

Drilling a little deeper, the horizontal and vertical axes represent dividing lines:
  • What an organization pays attention to. The content. There are two content elements: Actuality and Possibility.

  • How an organization makes decisions. The process. There are two process elements: Impersonal and Personal.
According to Schneider, each culture is “a unique blend of one content element and one process element.” These are quickly summarized as follows:

Actuality Content focuses on the facts and what is tangible, relying on actual experience, what can be seen, heard, touched, weighed or measured. Reality is what is important.

Possibility Content focuses on potential, anticipating the future and relying on insights, beliefs and aspirations. What is possible is what is important.

An Impersonal Process is characterized as being detached, formal and prescriptive where policy and procedure are valued.

A Personal Process is characterized as being people-driven, relying on and valuing informal, open-ended participation.

Collaboration and Control cultures are actuality cultures.

Cultivation and Competence cultures are possibility cultures.

Collaboration and Cultivation cultures are personal cultures.

Control and Competence cultures are impersonal cultures.

As William Schneider points out in his book, one culture typically dominates, but any one dominant culture most likely contains elements of other cultures. Culturally speaking, my take is that agile organizations require the following cultural mix:
  1. The dominant Collaboration Culture.
  2. Significant elements of the Cultivation Culture.
  3. Aspects of the Competence Culture.
To manage complex work like software development, we need a participative, collaborative culture to take us from where we are today to where we want to be using small increments where frequent inspection and adaptation are available. We make use of personal processes that are grounded in the realities – the actuality content – of complex product development in small, measurable steps.

Software development is all about taking complex business requirements and translating those requirements into working software, with quality. This automatically introduces the need for a multi-disciplinary team of individuals where decisions are continuously being made throughout the product development process. Agile frameworks, practices and thinking provide ample ability to guide our efforts in dealing with complexity on a daily basis – with collaboration being a critical component.

Making agility really tick involves keeping strongly on the personal process side of the equation where people are valued more highly than process; the Collaboration Culture fits here, as do many of the elements of the Cultivation Culture.

Trust, a growth mindset coupled with a belief that managing is more about developing and guiding people versus controlling and expecting compliance to rules and procedures all stem from the Cultivation Culture. Likewise, the Cultivation Culture’s catalytic leadership style creates a sense of purpose and meaning that provide the fuel required for genuine commitment and engagement of people. Agile development is grounded in today’s realities, but an agile organization can look towards the future and engage people with what is possible.

To a smaller extent, elements of the Competence Culture should be included. In an agile setting, the pursuit of personal excellence must be balanced against organizational excellence so that personal excellence does not take precedence over that of your team or your company. And as for Control Cultures, in an agile context “control” is achieved through empirical methods that acknowledge that complex knowledge work is a guided process that values adaptability and responsiveness, not conformance to pre-defined plans and impersonal processes and policies.


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