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Is Company Culture Your Biggest Agile Transformation Challenge?

Company Culture is an Agile Transformation Challenge

Anthony Mersino

April 14, 2016

4:58 PM

I’ve been exploring what makes an Agile transformation succeed as well as some of the challenges that can get in the way. Company culture is a big agile transformation challenge that many organizations face. Learn what you can do to evolve your culture and help your agile transformation succeed.

Previously I wrote about difficulties with co-locating teams as one of several agile transformation challenges. Several people commented that they thought I missed the boat (which is likely) and that the most common reason that agile doesn’t work is that managers cannot change their command and control behaviors and create an environment where people can do their best work.  I agree. And that is why I am writing this post about company culture being an Agile Transformation challenge.

Many Leaders Don’t Understand Agile

I think there is frequently a misunderstanding about what Agile and an Agile Transformation mean to an organization. In many organizations, it seems like managers think that agile means going faster. Or they that Agile represented a way to deliver faster or eliminate paperwork or enable changing requirements on the fly. Their misunderstanding is an agile transformation challenge in itself.

agile comic

The real key to Agile is understanding the 4 Agile Values and 12 Agile Principles. They represent a mindset and way of thinking. It is that mindset that makes an organization Agile.

How Can Company Culture be an Agile Transformation Challenge?

The focus of Agile Transformation is the change in culture. Transformation goes well beyond changing the processes organizations use. While Agile adoption may mean a process change, an Agile transformation should impact the way people think and behave. See my article detailing the differences between Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation here.

The challenge is that many managers only see the process change. They don’t associate the word agile with empowerment, trust, and self-organization.  They don’t realize that for agile to succeed in their organization, they need to practice participatory decision-making, collaboration, and servant leadership.

Managers Need to Understand and Support Agile

Managers and leaders need to first understand Agile in order to be able to support it in the organization. They need to take responsibility for their own education and lead the way as I outline in this post.

Surveys of people that are using agile indicate that the main factor holding back agile adoption is company leadership. If you review the annual “State of Agile” reports from VersionOne, the causes for failed projects and the barriers to agile adoption consistently point to company culture and management support (see survey results below from the 10th Annual report or get the most recent results here).


leading causes of failed agile projects

I don’t know if you can summarize this as the leadership not wanting to give up power and control, but it certainly indicates a lack of understanding of what it means to be “agile”.

Others point more directly at power and control as the underlying problem.  Scaled Scrum expert Craig Larman has an interesting take on this in what he calls his 4 laws of organizational behavior:


1. Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

2. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

3. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, “religion”, and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.

4. Culture follows structure.

Larman commented at a recent Meetup that he didn’t think you could convince organizations to adopt agile practices;  he felt they needed an existential crisis to come to the conclusion on their own.

Did you find that agile didn’t work for your organization because of the cultural and leadership issues mentioned here?  Or do you find that your organization is trying to do both – maintain tight control of the status quo and claim to be agile at the same time?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For more information about overcoming agile Transformation challenges, visit our Agile Transformation Consulting page.

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