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This post is from the Collabnet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated Apr 11, 2016 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

State of Agile: Culture Matters

Enterprise Agile Planning

So you want to adopt agile within your organization or perhaps your transformation is already underway. You are not alone as the number of organizations of all sizes adopting agile continues to grow. The increasing popularity of agile persists because organizations are realizing benefits including the top three cited benefits from the 10th annual State of Agile Report:

  • Ability to manage changing priorities
  • Increased team productivity
  • Improved project visibility

But there are barriers to adoption and success with agile. Be forewarned, depending on the current culture of your organization, the path to agility could be long and challenging. In the 10th annual State of Agile Report, the top barriers to agile adoption center on matters of culture including 1) the ability to change organizational culture, and 2) general organizational resistance to change. And the most often cited causes of agile project failure include 1) the company culture at odds with agile core values followed by, and 2) lack of experience. Culture can profoundly impact agile transformation and can also cause existing agile projects to struggle. Culture is defined as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in an organization. So does the culture drive the behaviors, or do behaviors drive the culture? I say yes to both in this chicken and egg debate. We own our behavior and can change as individuals. While we each have a personal value and belief system that governs our thinking and behavior, we also are driven by the need for self/preservation, a survival instinct. Placed within an organization value system, people most readily adapt their behaviors to align with the perceived organization values, expectations, and observed behaviors. To change the thinking and behavior of a group requires a recognized shift in the core values and expectations. So why is culture so challenging? First the new set of values and expectations must be clearly communicated and understood by the group. Then the group must trust that it is safe to actually shift their thinking and behavior. Without a strong foundation of trust, this may take a long time. Any inconsistent application of new values and expectations from authority figures will signal that it is not yet safe to behave differently further delaying change. Some will be confused about how to adapt or to fit into the new expectations and will need guidance. Some may not accept the new values. While others may hesitate to move outside their familiar comfort zone or fear losing position or influence. Human psychology is complex and the factors are situational making it difficult to prescribe a canned solution. But, there are some common ingredients in successful agile transformations. Start by instilling the agile valves. Communicate, explain, and model them. Leadership needs to believe in these values as others will quickly see through empty words. Learn from others. Provide coaching and mentoring, whether from internal or external sources, to help people understand their new role and how to be successful.  People fear and thus resist what they do not understand or feel they will not be good at. It is easier to just do what you already know. Too often organizations focus agile adoption efforts on instilling the mechanics of a process framework while failing to understand the underlying values and principles of agile. To successfully establish an agile culture, you must set the values, expectations, and beliefs to fundamentally change the underlying thinking and behaviors around the agile set of core values. Agile involves a different way of thinking about the work and the people. The agile core values are expressed by the Agile Manifesto. We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools Working software over comprehensive documentation Customer collaboration over contract negotiation Responding to change over following a plan That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more. Agile values are rooted deeply in a sense of mutual trust and respect for one another, a belief that people matter and that empowered teams are the keys to excellence. Effective collaboration is essential, and continuous improvement around the delivery of value is the goal. Frequent feedback loops provide opportunity to inspect and adapt and to adjust priorities. An agile culture requires a foundation of trust and transparency. It challenges the status quo, listens respectively to dissecting opinions, and views failure as an opportunity to learn. It empowers teams and promotes team performance investing in team building and growth of team members. It embraces a spirit of service and excellence. Servant leadership replaces controlling and directing. Some organizations announce “Yes, we are doing agile” now. Then they quickly become disillusioned when they are not experiencing the expected benefits cited by agile organizations. When you look a bit deeper, the reality is that they continued to think and behave as before. What they valued and believed did not change. They just adopted some new terminology and some process activity. They were going through the motions, but with no fundamental change in thinking. Sadly they failed to understand the philosophy behind agile values and principles. The culture did not change. While agile transformation may not always be easy, it does provide benefits for those willing to stay the course. Find out more by downloading the 10th annual State of Agile Report. State of Agile is a trademark of VersionOne Inc.

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