Why Agile depends on a strategic culture to thrive

By Sarah Kim
June 7, 2020

The Agile methodology is a highly adaptive form of managing projects that is especially useful when there are high degrees of changes to stakeholder expectations. While many organizations strive to be agile, it is not easy to fully achieve an agile transformation. Over focus on instilling Agile systems and processes without understanding culture dependencies negatively influences adoption success.

Based on the 14th Annual State of Agile Report, we can see that the top 4 challenges experienced by organizations trying to implement Agile are culture related: 1) general organization resistance to change, 2) not enough leadership participation, 3) inconsistent processes and practices across teams and 4) organizational culture at odds with agile values.

14th Annual State of Agile Report: Challenges Experienced In Agile Adoption

To draw out potential value from Agile transformations, we would need to consider collaboration, trust, empowerment, ownership from the team and organization level, which are factors present in healthy cultures.

To illustrate this point, let us imagine that a traditional (hierarchical) organization is trying to adopt agile. Software teams report up a chain of managers and follow senior management’s direction on timelines and resources, with little interaction with other areas of the business. More so than the systems and process component of the Agile methodology, there are greater leadership, collaboration, and organizational culture obstacles that need to be overcome. In fact, without support from the teams, management, and executives across the organization to embrace new ways of collaboration and doing work, it will be difficult for the software teams to be successful.

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

– Agile principle #5: The Agile Manifesto

To be successful in this scenario, a cultural transition organization-wide needs to happen—the paradigm shift from ‘what do you want me to do?’ to ‘this is the hypothesis we want to test’. This culture cannot be built overnight. It takes an accumulation of interactions and experiences over time that will contribute to a shared belief of work behaviors and how decisions are made. As culture considerations are multi-faceted (business, technology, leadership), achieving culture change means critically analyzing what works and what doesn’t, creating new experiences, communicating it to the people, aligning hiring decisions to the envisioned culture and rewarding those who embrace the newness and uncertainty.

If the culture is not right—people unwilling to collaborate and embrace change, then the organizations will fail in Agile adoption.

On a team level, agile teams are also structured differently than most traditional teams:

  • Traditional teams: Usually one key lead (project manager) with a more generalized responsibility.
  • Agile teams: Usually a business lead, technical lead, ux lead, scrum master

With more ‘captains on the ship’ in Agile teams, there can be greater incidence of differences in opinions. Though the Agile methodology tries to create boundaries within specialized roles, it does not change the fact that there are still different leadership perspectives in the mix. Conflicts will arise if healthy collaboration and mutual trust is not established. There is a need to focus on effectively collaborating and leading a high performing and self-organizing team team in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. Otherwise, we expose Agile teams to greater risk of failure or implosion, which collectively, can have a large business impact.

Here are some additional reasons why Agile is dependent on a strong organizational culture.

  • Existence of more specialized roles, which means that there are fewer people who have an overall holistic outlook. That means everyone needs to hold their own and have mutual trust for each other
  • “Dilution” of accountability by having multiple leadership roles
  • More dependence on adaptability due to greater amounts of change
  • Overall, there’s more moving pieces that need to be collaborated on

Overall, Agile is an excellent methodology, especially in the Software Development and Marketing space, due to its adaptive nature. When we simultaneously build/evolve a strong organizational culture, we can anticipate the following benefits:

  • Improved understanding of stakeholder expectations
  • Greater anticipation of risks
  • Smoother communication
  • Improved change agility
  • Increased success rate
  • Better integration with the rest of the organization
  • More business value
  • And more…

Organizations often underemphasize the business value of building stronger organizational cultures alongside Agile processes. This is why many organizations have differing experiences in successfully extrapolating value from this methodology. There is a large correlation between the success of Agile teams and culture, to the extent that it makes business sense to proactively invest in it.

Culture can be rather nebulous topic for many, and few can truly rationalize how it works and how to implement it. It is also extremely operator and technique-sensitive, and requires the right people with the right skills to successfully strategize, plan, implement and sustain. That means we need to get past the “fluff” of what culture is often portrayed as, build the right team to steer this effort, allocate sufficient resources, and promote this endeavor organization wide. Only then will we have the potential to truly build an ecosystem where Agile can thrive and make an impact.



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