Is culture really “a thing”​ in agile change? Or is it all about process?

culture or process in agile change

I’ve been asked countless time to “work on the culture” in agile change with many of my clients. The culture seems to be the line no one has been able to cross.

So I thought I share my thoughts on the matter. Is culture really a thing in agile change? Or is t more about process? Where should we focus?

My answer is… “Yes!”

Let me take you through this journey.

Defining culture

Culture is not a mythical creature: values and beliefs are expressed as behaviors in human beings. Those, in a group setting, define the culture of an organization or community. It’s true for Amazon or for your running group.

Culture is already there, no matter if managers take notice, no matter if they agree. It might not even be the culture you want. Regardless, it’s there.

Now, the culture does not magically transform if we pay attention to the statements above. Behaviors and ways of thinking are what makes it. So, for new culture you need new ways of thinking, since ways of thinking are what guides behavior. Think in a new way: adopt new behaviors.

It feels obvious when we speak, but just think of it: you can’t have certain behaviors and ways of thinking at odds with the future direction for your culture. Not if you want the future direction to be the compelling path. They must go together.

You can’t reward dissonant behaviors and be upset that change doesn’t stick.

Processes affect culture

That’s when processes enter the scene.

What about processes?

Processes in organizations are important when you think of the organization as a system. The modus operandi of the system includes the lack of or the overload of processes, and that will influence the culture for the organization.

We notice mostly when there is dissonance.

CLIENT: “Teams are the unity in the company”.

COACH: “Well, that’s great! I’m all for collaboration! How will bonuses be given to a team? Are the teams then responsible for the subdivision of bonuses on how they see fit among themselves? No? Interesting. Tell me more on why not.”


CLIENT: “We’ll let people take infinite amount of vacation”.

COACH: “Well, that’s great! Research shows actually people don’t take more than 6 weeks total and that is because…”

CLIENT: “Wait! 6 weeks? That is more than we can deal with right now.”

While they might seem inconspicuous or exaggerated, these differences in discourse versus practice do happen. And they will eventually take a toll in any agile change. It generates frustration.

And to be clear, I am not advocating specifically for team bonus or unlimited vacation, although those are practices I’ve seen in place in organizations. I’m advocating for alignment between practices/processes and behaviors we want to encourage.

Whatever they are, when management says they want to adopt new ideas, then policies and organizational processes should not undermine these new ideas. They should not even be “mildly bumping” against them. They should be in alignment.

We want affinity, not resistance.

The current hype of “agile dream”

It is OK executives are not willing to take the leap on certain practices and live the “agile dream”. I work as a coach under a few important premises and I encourage you to do the same.

They are:

  • the client is the owner of the agenda, being the one who lives with the impact of the decisions they make. It is true for executives and it’s true for developers.
  • framework-neutral agility informs the process: principles and values are more important and allow more freedom for the client to experiment. They also allow yourself to check and course-correct more easily; and frameworks are beautiful tools of which you can make informed use.
  • scale or spectrum in the definition of agility: the client defines the level of appetite for agility (for adaptation, for flexibility) and let’s work on getting them there.

But integrity is required. If we can only turn the ship one degree, let’s turn only one degree and be clear about it. Communicate one degree only. And to be fair, overtime, if we don’t get too scared and re-direct many more times, that one degree alone over time leads to a new destination for sure.

The problem I think I observe with some clients is the hurry of what I just called the “agile dream”: magic agile in 2 or 3 years. A clear and fantastic destination, usually well beyond the company current appetite for change, and that we can arrive to in just a few years.

But there is no such magic, and the reality is that the duration of the transformation will be proportional to the size of the dreams. Big dreams… we are in for the long run!

In the agile dream, the future direction executives give is unfortunately too bold to the level of actual change they are ready to admit in the organization internal practices. Many people, executives not excluded, are not ready to adopt the behaviors that embody the very culture they wish to see in place.

We end up hurting integrity.

And while I am a believer in the best of people, and I will defend the good intention of executives who dream big…

promising so much and not being able to adjust internal processes will result in heartbreak and the terrible loss not much accounted for: employee trust.

Jaded employees barely clock in and out and could not care less for the organization success. Their loyalty gets compromised (and with reason), and momentum is lost for the change.

Small steps toward adaptation allow everybody to “try it out and see if it fits” with much lower levels of disturbance.

Can coaches play a helpful role?

I believe culture is “THE THING” in agile. The norms that are created are in balance with the culture. And they reinforce certain ways of thinking and behaving.

Now where do I find the issue gets more complicated?

Clients always dream. Many clients don’t know about what is possible and that is true in any industry.

Coaches, consultants, experts who want to help should know better. I’ll speak for my kind.

Coaches need to be curious, bold, and knowledgeable to have the conversation about the impact of the change. You will ask questions such as:

  • What is the dream? How big?
  • How much is too much?
  • How prepared are you, my client, to give to the change what the change will require?
  • Do you want to tone it down and try to see if it fits?
  • What do you like about this (particularly huge and complicated) framework?

Fundamentally: the coach must clarify under what assumptions the client is operating.

Working with explicit assumptions and expectations will make things easier and is fundamental to assess progress.

And most importantly: don’t sell the agile dream.

In Conclusion: culture or process?

Culture shows up as tangible behaviors. Practices and processes are important to guard those behaviors and shape culture.

But here’s what I think is a misconception to undo. Processes don’t drive the change. They should support the change. In fact, they emerge as a result. New processes are generated, tailored, based on the direction the group wants to go. And the best way to do so is to being highly customized. As in no “agile company” will look the same.

I’d love to know your thoughts. Curiosity, opinion, and bias are all welcome.

2 thoughts on “Is culture really “a thing”​ in agile change? Or is it all about process?”

  1. First of all thanks for the email. And went trhough your blog immediately.

    I’m at a point in my career, that I know the essence of Agile. And after a burn out and a lot of hard work. Because that is recovery, hard!
    I understand way better what mistakes I’ve made, what I could have done better and learned.

    A certain mindset and key improvement points as a result. Of studying and involvement in the community thought me some lessons. I’m brainstorming now.

    Key lessons:

    1. Team values, I underestimated the power of it.

    2. Get out of the comfort zone and be as transparent as possible even if it has a high chance of conflict situation.

    3. More point about point 2, however its about confidence and don’t fear hyarchy.

    4. Build an excellent relationship with the PO,s and involve as much relevant stake holders. So we can build the right product!!!!

    5. Don’t fall in love with your work. Enjoy it instead!!! This one can save you years of misery.

    Moreover, love your work, and hope you will keep doing what you do.

    One strange question.
    If I want to be an Agile coach. I had around 80 job offers to be a coach. But do I need to know all frameworks? I understand Scrum, dev ops, kanban… because the goal is similar or the same, right? Let’s say Scrum and Agile.

    1. Petula Guimaraes

      These key lessons you present are really KEY, Jasper!

      And As for being an agile coach, what you need to know inside and out is agile. If you know a framework that’s great! If you know many, even better for perspective. But agile coaches don’t defend a particular framework, they work with whatever the client is inclined to do, in the spirit of agile values and principles.

      Coaching, facilitation and usage of agile techniques “from the trenches” is what will really make a difference.

      If you want to see what usually is expected in terms of knowledge, checkout our page https://allthingsagile.ca/icp-acc/ and take a look at the program outline.

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