Agile Adoption and Culture Change

Agile adoptions are hard, in large part because they involve changes to the corporate culture, a task requiring huge effort and significant time. At the Agile Roots conference, I met Israel Gat and he shared a different approach: work with the existing culture; don’t try to change it.

There is no shortage of evidence that agile adoption usually involves culture change, and that this change is challenging. In the article Challenges of migrating to agile methodologies, published in Communications of the ACM, “Organizational Culture” tops the list of “Key issues in migrating to agile.” The article goes on to say:

Culture exerts considerable influence on decision-making processes, problem-solving strategies, innovative practices, information filtering, social negotiations, relationships, and planning and control mechanisms. Neither culture nor mind-sets of people can be easily changed, which makes the move to agile methodologies all the more formidable for many organizations.

Wille Fale states it more plainly, expecting that some blood will be involved:

I would dare to say that for Agile adoption to work, corporate culture and people have to change their values, and that is certainly not an easy thing unless there is an infusion of new blood and in some cases even some “blood letting” of people who remain obstacles and stuck in their old ways.

Israel Gat knows a thing or two about this topic. He led an agile transformation at BMC Software, in which a 1000 people adopted Scrum over the course of 4 years. In a keynote talk given at the recent Agile Roots conference, he outlined his approach to agile transformation. He recommends embracing and leveraging the existing culture, instead of trying to change it. In support of this approach, Israel cited Peter Drucker, who said: “… culture is singularly persistent…changing [organizational] behavior works only if it can be based on the existing culture.” For those who persist in trying to change their company’s culture, Israel pointed to work by Denison suggesting that such a change can take a decade or more to realize in a large organization.

Israel presented a taxonomy that identified 4 types of cultures: Collaboration, Control, Cultivation, and Competence. A Collaboration culture, such as a family or athletic team, places a high value on affiliation. A control culture, such as the military, values power and control. A cultivation culture, such as a religious institution, values self-actualization. A competence culture, such as a university, values achievement.

Israel suggested that a company considering an agile adoption should identify what type of culture exists, and what the strengths of that culture are. A key part of this examination is to determine the data that the culture pays attention to, and the processes by which decisions are made. Once the culture, and it’s strengths are identified, they can be put to work to help the organization adopt agile practices.

What are your experiences with behavioral and cultural change as part of an agile adoption? Leave a comment and share.

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1 thought on “Agile Adoption and Culture Change

  1. Ryan Martens

    Nice coverage on this critical topic. I think Israel’s work around a social contract should be your next topic. ( I believe that is skipped by too many organizations trying to scale agile.
    It is akin to leaving release planning or iteration planning without a team commitment to the goal. In both cases without commitment, you get sloppy and it make “doing” the plan hard.
    By aligning with the culture and making a social contract with the organization, you are well on your way to an easy process to successfully scale agile.
    I hope that make sense?


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