The symbols of agile are nice, but they won’t make you agile or change your culture.

How do you recognise an agile enterprise — one that’s gone through a true digital transformation? Some would point to post-it notes, others would highlight the dedicated team spaces decorated in their team symbols. Others would point to the posters around the office, heralding innovation. Unfortunately, these won’t make you agile.

What is culture?

“How we do stuff around here” is often the throw away line when people try to define culture. They’re wrong. Culture is a complex beast that is part combination of the national culture and the one that’s evolved to serve both the company’s needs as well as individuals in positions of power.

Hofstede and National Culture

While Hofstede’s work has its critics, his work spanning four decades is the most widely recognised as defining national culture – the values, beliefs, and actions of whole countries.

Each culture can be described on these 6 dimensions. The USA, for example, is very high on Individualism, but low on Power Distance, reflecting a preference in the country’s culture for individual freedom and low hierarchy.

Waisfisz and Corporate Culture

Waisfisz takes Hofstede’s work one step further by looking at national culture and its influence on organisational culture. Importantly, national culture sits at the heart of the organisation and influences its people, process and tools.

To Waisfisz, an organisation’s culture is defined by how its parts relate to each other. Moreover, it refutes the “the way we do things here” model by reinforcing that your internal culture is defined by its differences from other organisations. This model lends from group dynamics (Taijfel, 1970, and others) where groups are not only defined by their internal identity but also by their differences to other groups.

How do you change a culture?

In 2020, the State of Agile Survey highlighted familiar themes — resistance to culture change still remains a significant risk to organisations that seek to become agile. This is further exacerbated when leaders — C-level right through to middle managers — don’t participate in the change and delegate it down the organisational hierarchy.

To change a culture is like changing the organisation’s personality. For Waisfisz, this means changing every level of culture. Change in this instance is not your typical change management practice. It goes beyond communicating the need for change, and the rationale, but changing every level of practice of the organisation, and this requires an even more differentiated picture of culture.

Lift and shift doesn’t work

Many change models for agile leave people in their existing roles and change processes around them. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) does this. Its process of change involves:

  • Training leadership to lead the change using a “burning platform”.
  • Training executives and managers about what SAFe® is.
  • Training everyone else on what SAFe® looks like.
  • Designing an Agile Release Train with existing roles from an organisation’s existing way of working, including architects and others who do “up front” design.
  • Launching the Release Train.

Why leave people in their existing roles? As Dean Leffingwell, the founder of SAFe® has said on many occasions, “they have to go somewhere”. The result is that people don’t change their behaviour. The symbols might have changed, there might be a few new roles and a 3-monthly program cadence, and at the team level process might seem agile by using an adapted form of Scrum, but without a change to attitudes, rituals and the beliefs of its leadership, no cultural change will take place. What results is what many including Steve Denning now refer to as “Fake Agile”.

Symbols are easy to change. Beliefs are harder.

The veneer of agile is often where agile change ends. SAFe® and every other agile framework is silent on how to make this happen. Many consultancies roll out PowerPoint decks on more widespread changes borrowed from a picture of what Spotify did over a decade ago, with new names for teams and roles – squads, tribes, and guilds. These give the look of agile with none of the real change. These are the easy things to change.

All the symbols, posters, post-it notes, funky names for teams, the claim of an “agile mindset” and the positivity to go with it, won’t matter if you aren’t willing to jettison the baggage of old, outdated processes that weights the organisation down and limits its ability to pivot fast in the face of disruptive change. Attitudes, rituals and beliefs only change when behaviours start to change.

“It turns out that if we engage in a behavior, and particularly one that we had not expected that we would have, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change. This might not seem intuitive, but it represents another example of how the principles of social psychology—in this case, the principle of attitude consistency—lead us to make predictions that wouldn’t otherwise be that obvious.”

What’s needed to change beliefs? Behavioural change and time.

Real, long-lasting change takes time. Cultural change that supports enterprise agility can take 3-5 years for it just to achieve any real sense of momentum.

A burning platform can shake people out of complacency, but it can reduce to motivating people by fear. Deep commitment to change happens when excitement about the future outweighs the fear felt today. So when faced with the organisational change needed at all levels to be agile, executive and senior leadership must spend time:

  • Addressing and minimising the fear and anxiety related to change. This includes continuously assessing fear and anxiety and initiating actions to actively reduce it.
  • Openly communicating the opportunities presented by agile, and shifting to communicating wins as they occur.
  • Continuously modelling the behaviour they want in others by changing from working in functional silos to doing agile themselves using practices like the Executive Action Team (E.A.T.) from Scrum @ Scale.
  • Not “hiring” agile, but seeking help from experienced industry recognised agile practitioners to develop, nurture and grow agile rituals at every level – executives to teams. Some people call themselves an “agile coach” after doing a 3-day course. True agile practitioners can spend up to 10 years developing to a point of international recognition by industry bodies. It will take the same amount of time to develop internal agile coaches who are capable of coaching others in a consistent way. Establishing an internal Agile Academy is a step you should definitely take.
  • Understanding the level of agile capability maturity. Using a tool like Agile IQ® – one that measures actions, behaviours, agile mindset and agile culture, is one great way to do this.
  • Deploying impact and outcome metrics (e.g. from Evidence Based Management) to demonstrate openly the advantages agile brings to reducing time to market and ability to pivot.
  • Focusing on managing the change needed in the whole system of work.

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