8 Ways Organizational Culture Kills Agility
Your goals may be lofty, but is your organization ready?
Agile is mainstream. Many organizations pride themselves on being Agile. The harsh truth is that often, they are not. Saying you are Agile doesn’t make it the truth. Very often, organizations merely have a few Agile teams. Another issue is that many organizations are AINO - Agile in Name Only.
The main culprit is the company culture. You can’t simply “implement” Agile without heavily impacting your culture. And given that changing the culture is hard, we’d better understand how this can surface.
Here are 8 ways culture kills agility.
1. Hierarchical organization structure / Taylorism
Agile teams need to make the important decisions on their work. These include:
what to do next
how to build the product
when they will be ready
They discuss with their stakeholders to understand their needs and receive feedback on what they created.
A hierarchical organization structure typically doesn’t allow this. The manager decides what the team works on. Project Managers (or Product Managers) talk with the customers and decide what the team will be working on and when it should be ready. This breaks the Agile learning loop and with that any agility of the team.
2. No learning culture
Agile approaches centre around the premise that you don’t exactly know upfront what will bring the highest value or what brings you closer to your goals. This implies that Agile teams sometimes work on things they later learn aren’t bringing them closer to their goals. That’s ok. As Agile teams work in short iterations, they can pivot in a timely fashion. Failing to achieve the expected results equals learning.
But when an organization doesn’t permit failure, teams will stop experimenting. They will avoid the risk of trying something that might be very successful but also could fail. This is fine in a predictable environment. But when you don’t know what the future brings, this is destroying the team’s effectiveness.
3. Fragmented responsibilities or silos
Agile teams need to have all the skills to create an increment of value without being (too) dependent on other teams. When a team needs to build and sustain a product, they need people who can create the product, deploy the product, and support the product. In Agile, this is called a cross-functional team. Often, these are DevOps teams.
On top of that, teams need to be able to collaborate with internal and external stakeholders. People from marketing, sales, operations, finance, risk, security etc need to engage with the team regularly.
When an organization is heavily siloed and every silo works towards its own goals, collaboration and alignment are heavily obstructed. Especially when the goals of the different siloes conflict with each other. As an example: support may not want any changes to hit the production environment as they fear instability while the team wishes to add value regularly. The less these teams collaborate, the more the Agile team will be blocked in their progress.
A sure sign that Agile teams are not empowered is the Change Approval Board (CAB), requiring at least three stamps of approval before a change is deployed, often costing precious time and effort. CABs are an indication of mistrust. There are better alternatives, including collaborating with the people behind the CAB early and often.
4. Individual appraisals
One of the key elements of any Agile approach is teamwork. A team of cross-functional self-organizing professionals works together to create value. They need each other. Individual appraisals, however, incentivize individuality. It tells the people they’d better do what’s good for them to get their rewards. Even if this is bad for the team.
5. The organization values output over outcome
In today’s world, you can’t predict what will happen. Just look at how ChatGPT rocked the world and how global events like pandemics and wars can have an impact. This is why it doesn’t make sense to trust that when you build your product according to specifications and requirements, you will have the expected impact. Agile teams should verify what outcome their work generates and learn from this to understand what may be the best next step.
Sadly, many organizations don’t allow teams to focus on the actual value they create. They should focus on building features instead. This feature factory culture is another way to kill agility.
6. Efficiency over effectiveness
The ultimate goal of Agile teams is to be effective in creating value and achieving their goals. They wish to solve a problem or fulfil a need. That is what matters. It sure helps them to learn and become more efficient in doing their work. But it should not be efficiency only.
As soon as an organization wants the team to focus primarily on becoming more efficient in doing their work, they will start avoiding doing experiments. After all, experiments take time and can lead to undesired results. With that, they will move away from learning and towards building features. Bringing us to point 5 of this list.
7. HIPPO culture
HIPPO is the Highest Paid Persons' Opinion. When the organization has a culture of always listening to the highest-paid person in the room, any idea of having teams without hierarchy is gone. Instead of respecting anyone's input equally, the team only listen to the HIPPO. The impact is similar to point 1. It breaks the Agile learning loop and with that any agility of the team.
8. HR ignores agility
When HR, or people management, doesn’t have an idea how agility impacts culture, they will continue to recruit, manage compensation and benefits, handle the training, etc. in a non-Agile way. Not every person is happy to work in a self-managing team. On the flipside: when you recruit people with the promise of being an Agile company, they will soon discover it’s only lipstick on a pig. I already discussed the negative impact of individual appraisals. And what about offering outdated pieces of training to Agile teams? An HR that ignores agility hurts Agile teams.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Agility has a profound impact on culture. If the organizational culture doesn’t align with an Agile way of working, you can’t be truly Agile. Changing the culture is hard. Also: what if companies don’t WANT to change their culture?
When you don’t want to change the culture: stop thinking about Agile and try something else. Something that fits your culture. Or something that doesn’t disrupt your culture too much.
Perhaps it is time for organizations to realize that an Agile way of working isn’t suited for them. When this is the case, I have one advice: stop pretending and be honest. This way, you respect your people more than by faking it.
Do you recognize these 8 examples? Do you know other cultural disasters? Please let me know in the comments!
Culture eats strategy for breakfast - attributed to Peter Drucker
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