What is culture? And do we start to change it?

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Some of us in the Agile community think:  an organization’s culture needs to change before agile can be fully adopted.

This certainly seems to be true.

Let’s define this more precisely.  The idea is this:

Before a company can realize the full and extreme benefits of lean-agile-scrum, it must change its corporate culture to be consistent with lean-agile-scrum values and principles.

This can seem a daunting task.

But, first, what is culture?

To me, it is that air in which we live and breathe and have our being.  Well, not exactly that.  It is the culture of the main group or groups within which we live.  It is what is in our heads, as a group. It is values and norms and common behaviors.

So, it includes the idea that we are not individuals (so much), but rather we are more ‘groups’, and that the key ideas or values or principles or norms of the group ‘control’ to a large extent, our behavior.  Without our even thinking about it.

Now, from our point of view in terms of the change, in many ways, the new behavior is more important than new thoughts (or subconscious thoughts or feelings).  But we want the people to be autonomous, and ‘do it on their own’, so we want the thoughts or feelings to be there, so they naturally do it, naturally act agile, on their own.

Moreover, we want the broader culture to be consistent with agile.  With lean-agile-scrum.  People typically find, if they do things consistent with the culture, they seem relatively easy. And, if you do things counter to the culture, it usually is hard or harder.  So, having an agile culture should mean that agile will be more successful. Other things being equal.

Ways of changing

Asking people to change their culture is difficult.

Well, clearly to ask itself is not difficult. But to ask, and then expect results, and then to know if results actually occurred…that is difficult.

Let’s consider 3 days to make cultural change happen:

1. Talk to them.

Depending on your point of view, this is either remarkably successful or remarkably unsuccessful.

I mean this: My expectation is that normally this should have almost no impact.  And yet, for a few people, it can have an impact.  Sometimes.  For a period of time. So, compared to my expectations, this can be remarkably successful, sometimes.

There are many ways to talk to them, or with them. Many different contexts, different people who can do it, frequency, etc, etc. A lot more to discuss than we will discuss here today.

From another point of view, many people expect this approach to be very successful. And it is remarkably unsuccessful.

2. Get them to act and ‘reward’ their good behavior.

Pretty close to classic behaviorist theory.  Maybe it works. It is not tried often.  And, it seems, it must be tried a lot to have it start to replace the old culture with the new culture.

Actions come in many shapes and sizes, including speaking original words.  And rewards come in many types.  Rewards must be close in time to the action.

Frankly, this is treating people like monkeys. I don’t want to believe in this theory. But it is there.

3. Have them experience something

What you want to do is get them to help you create the new culture.  You teach them a bit, and then they become self-acting.  By teaching themselves things, by building the culture themselves.

And it turns out that if you are clever, you can start to build this self-reinforcing system.

But, according to Kotter, it starts with a gut experience. An experience that is fairly profound. And that gets them to commit to changing themselves. Kotter calls it ‘a sense of urgency.’

Let me say again.  Changing the culture is the work of many months (or more) for a group of people, and then the new culture will start to replace the old culture (or, ultimately, be overwhelmed by the old culture). So, it takes many months and many people before it starts to be self-sustaining.

So, given the likely counter-action by the original culture, what you need is not one experience per person, but multiple experiences.  Over several months (or longer).

Then, once the new culture is established, it must be sustained.

If it is a culture of mediocrity, then sustaining it is less of a problem. But if it is a culture of high achievement and difficult tasks, it can take extra energy to maintain it at a high level.  (I think this is the case for lean-agile-scrum.  It has many pleasures, but it is demanding in terms of energy commitment and overcoming of obstacles.)  Now, a focus on the successes and pleasures can clearly be part of sustaining the new culture.

Let me make clearer what we are doing with this last method.  We are not just asking them to change. We are asking them to join us in changing the culture. Maybe quickly, maybe little-by-little.  But we are asking them to participate in ‘making it happen’.  Over time.

Here is where we start to bring in the word ritual.


So far I have over-simplified. To explain some key basics.  Much that I dd not say, but a start in setting out a basic framework.

One tip bears repeating: It is easy to start out to ‘change the culture’ and end up accomplishing nothing.  Be careful.  Pick your battles.  Prioritize. Get small wins.  Build on progress.

It is, in many ways, a battle in the air over ideas. But make it concrete and tangible too. Show the new culture in actions.  Then others can help you.

Lastly, let people tell you the truth.  As one example: If they can’t explain well why we do a specific thing in Scrum, do not punish them for being human. And give them some support.  Maybe a local person in their location to support the change.  Changing the culture is not easy.


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