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Corporate Culture Drives Agile Transformation

Culture Drives Agile

What does it take for an organization to become “fully agile?”

The short answer is desire: The desire to…

  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Engage employees more fully
  • Produce greater value for the organization at a significantly lower price point
  • …essentially, to do better.

The longer answer is more complex. At the core of a company’s successful agile transformation is a culture that supports change, especially change that is associated with the principles behind the agile manifesto.

In this article I’ll introduce culture as an enabler for change and follow up with a comparison of enabling cultural behaviors versus inhibiting cultural behaviors.

Culture Predicts Agile Adoption or Agile Abandonment

Becoming a successful agile organization – particularly for companies that have already achieved great success using more traditional project methods (see my earlier article on agile basics) – requires a fundamental shift in the organization’s culture. Successful agile adoption demands that specific groups of individuals learn new skills and, more importantly, it demands that the culture within the adopting organization is favorable to supporting agile at all levels.

Requirements for Positive Change

In his book Culture Trumps Everything: The Unexpected Truth About The Ways Environment Changes Biology, Psychology, And Behavior, author Gustavo Grodnitzky explains that…

“Positive change comes about when four critical components are achieved:

  1. Connectedness
  2. Trust
  3. Language
  4. Time perspective

[end of quote]”

For now, we’ll focus on the first three components in his list.


Recall the first and third value statements from the agile manifesto:
“[…we value]

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

[end of quote]”

In other words, connectedness is a critical component for change as well as an integral part of agile values.


Recall the first of the three pillars of Scrum – also known as the three pillars of empiricism, nicely described by Hiren Doshi in

  1. Transparency: This means presenting the facts as is. All people involved—the customer, the CEO, individual contributors—are transparent in their day-to-day dealings with others. They all trust each other, and they have the courage to keep each other abreast of good news as well as bad news. Everyone strives and collectively collaborates for the common organizational objective, and no one has any hidden agenda.

…together with three of the five Scrum values, each of which requires trust in order to be successful:

  1. Openness
  2. Respect
  3. Courage

In other words, trust is a necessary component for change as well as the currency we use to negotiate our work in a functioning agile environment.


The third critical component in Gustavo’s list is “language.” If anyone in an organization’s value stream is unable to speak the language of agile, then full and successful agile transformation will be much more difficult, and expensive, to achieve.

Putting It All Together

According to Grodnitzky,

“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, given the same circumstance.”

He refers to this statement as The Law of Predictive Behavior.

What does this mean for us? It means that if we “Change the circumstance – the corporate culture in which agile is to be adopted – then we can change the ‘future;’ the full and permanent adoption of agile,” which leads to the ever improving, higher performing behaviors of those who belong to the software production value stream and, therefore, of the organization itself.

Here are two lists of traits and behaviors: One that serves to effectively prevent agile adoption and one that serves to foster agile adoption.

A Culture That Inhibits Agile Adoption

Note that any one of the following traits or behaviors can lend an air of toxicity to the workplace. Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive.

  • The leadership does not live the values espoused by the company. They are somehow exempt. Dictators also prefer this type of dichotomy.
  • Bullying is tolerated.
  • Lack of clarity: The vision and/or mission statements are, perhaps, beautifully written. But no one in the organization can adequately explain why the company does (sells, produces, etc) what it does.
  • “Working longer” appears to be an appropriate substitute for “working smarter.”
  • Much more emphasis is placed on individual performance rather than on becoming the best-performing cross-functional teams possible.
  • Cynicism is the feedback mechanism and sarcasm an acceptable mode of communication.
  • Secretive… anything: Goals, traditions, methods for getting things done, political alliances, ad nauseam. This behavior is 100% caustic.
  • Micromanagement: In any shape or form.
  • “Kill the messenger:” If it’s bad news, let’s blame the poor idiot who brings this news to light.
  • Tolerance for the absurd. This can mean many things but one common example is when an organization tolerates a toxic individual – regardless of the individual’s knowledge or talents – when a more obvious solution would be to “coach the individual up or out” of the organization.

A Culture That Enables Agile Adoption

Consider the benefits of becoming an organization that espouses these traits and behaviors:

  • Declare your reason for existence: Every individual in the organization should be able to answer the question “Why do we do the things we do?” This is even more important than vision and mission statements.
  • Become multilingual: If you speak “MBA,” learn to speak “agile;” if you speak “PMO,” also learn “AO (agile office, as it were);” if you speak PHP and DevOps, also learn the languages that enable you to speak and understand the value chain in which you perform.
  • Encourage failure at all levels: If we’re too afraid to fail at anything, we simply cannot and will not innovate at any appreciable rate.
  • Encourage continuous learning: This behavior speaks to empowerment and personal ownership. I’ve worked for many clients that expect “new things,” like technological advances, to be carried in and explained by outside consultants. In many cases this is a disservice to the smart and committed employees who already serve your cause.
  • Encourage feedback: This is another two-way street: Be open to hear feedback AND teach one another how to provide beneficial feedback.
  • Create and support shared values that speak to the “why” of your company and are humanistic.
  • Encourage trust: Trust is a two-way street. Be trustworthy and learn to trust others. Trust and courage require vulnerability. Create a culture that rewards vulnerability for the sake of furthering connectedness.
  • Become the person who lives these organizational traits and behaviors, regardless of your level or position in the organization. Your integrity will model good behavior for all others.

For a slightly different way of looking at inhibitive versus supportive behaviors, see Table 1 in the article A Typology of Organisational Cultures by Ron Westrum, Professor of Sociology at Eastern Michigan University; published in the NIH National Library of Medicine in 2004.

Westrum’s three types of organizations:

  • Pathological or Power oriented
  • Bureaucratic or Rule oriented
  • Generative or Performance oriented

As you might guess, only the last of these organizational types provides a culture that is supportive of real, positive change.

About Jeff Hayes

Jeff is an agile consultant, coach and trainer with a career spanning 30 years. He specializes in co-creating learning environments to help humans learn how to learn, become more curious and productive, and to build resilience.

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