Culture Wars: The Battle for Hearts and Minds

Culture Wars: The Battle for Hearts and Minds

two professionals walking

Recently, VersionOne released their 11th annual State of Agile report detailing the current state of agile across multiple organizations spanning the globe. 

In the report, VersionOne listed the top challenges respondents reported having experienced in adopting and scaling agile. Their number one response (with 63 percent of respondents citing it as an issue) was that company philosophy or culture was at odds with core agile values.

This issue jumped out to me as getting to the heart of the problem that many who adopt agile experience: the great culture war, or the battle for the hearts and minds of your organization. When adopting agile, we must recognize that extensive knowledge of the framework is not enough and that changing the culture of a company is the more necessary and arduous task.

Why are so many seeing this as a challenge to their agile adoptions? What is it about company philosophies or cultures that conflict with core agile values? More importantly, what could we do better as an agile community to address this issue and provide solutions to this widespread concern? 

Agile values are best represented by the four main statements put forward in the Agile Manifesto. These statements are not buried deep within the training material and should be well known by any company looking to implement an agile transformation.

In fact, I would imagine that if there is one thing executives or other sponsors for an agile transformation certainly know about agile before they pull the trigger on an adoption, it is the Agile Manifesto. Why, then, do we find our companies at odds with the most fundamental concepts associated with agile?

What I have heard multiple times from various organizations is that there exists a very real disconnect within their companies between some layer of the management structure and the teams who are implementing agile.

In other words, parts of the organization are implementing agile while other parts continue to use waterfall methodologies. The team level will practice iterative, incremental development while reporting up to layers of management that still operate on what David Hawks calls “a requirements delivery model rather than a requirements discovery one.” 

What this creates is a mushy translation layer within organizations where some poor souls are asked to translate agile concepts into traditional waterfall-speak. That group is given the impossible task of translating iterations and story points into a Gantt chart with hard deadlines for delivery. They are asked to take overly complicated requirements documents and translate them into user stories. 

These are insurmountable challenges which will only produce frustration in both those trying to translate and those expecting the translation. There is no Rosetta Stone to accomplish this translation because the concepts simply don’t translate. Any translation that a company might settle on must compromise on one side or the other, and it is usually the agile side that takes the hit.

If an organization wants to change its culture and realize the full benefits of an agile transformation, a more holistic approach is needed. Both management and team layers need to understand not only the “how” but the “why” behind each change that is being made.  

Two suggestions for organizations that are seeking a more holistic approach:

  1. Consider arranging training not only for your teams but also for your directors, vice president and C-level leaders as well. Within the past few years, The Scrum Alliance has created the Certified Agile Leader (CAL) certification course that many of those in management and leadership positions would be wise to consider investing in. This course will help organizational leaders understand what to expect and learn how they can encourage and fan the flames of their organization’s agile transformation.
  2. Consider “seeding” your transformation by contracting outside coaching to help teach not just one-time concepts but overall culture on a day-to-day basis.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Of course you would say that! You’re an agile coach and consultant!” And you’d be partially correct. One of the main reasons I decided to do what I do is because I wanted to focus on an area where I felt I could make the greatest impact. However, there are many great coaches and consultants out there and most of them would tell you the same things. 

Culture isn’t something you can transfer in a one- or two-day course. Culture takes time and is learned through osmosis and by example. When a team member suggests that a sprint be extended so that the team can finish all the work, a coach is needed to explain not only that Scrum is timeboxed by rule but also that we do this to establish a definitive point that we can review the work to see what adjustments we need to make to move forward.

This leads a team to think of the steps of the process as more of what they were intended to be – a framework. When that shift occurs, a team begins absorbing the cultural concept rather than simply parroting back answers from a book. That leap, in both organizational leaders and in teams, is what will transform the culture of an organization and it is the best way to combat any disconnect between a company’s culture and core agile values. 

Hearts and minds will always be more difficult to change than procedures and processes. However, in order to change the culture of an organization, that is exactly the target we should be attempting to hit. Our job as agile leaders is to draw this clear distinction and point our teams in the right direction. Only then can we begin to address the number one issue organizations face in their path towards a successful agile transformation.

What do you think is the hardest part about transitioning to agile? Are there any culture clashes you’ve observed in your own organization? Let me know in the comments section below.



Brian Milner is the owner of Scrum 360.

Learn More
comments powered by Disqus