Oct 082013
organizational culture

organizational culture (Photo credit: nchenga)

In survey after survey, the #1 reason agile practitioners cite for the failure of an agile effort is that the company culture didn’t support it.

That’s probably true, but I think we might be letting ourselves off the hook, here.  For an agile consultant to say the failure of the initiative was due to the company culture is sort of like saying that a patient’s cancer treatments would have been effective if it weren’t for that cancer.  Or making a PSA to announce that death is the #1 killer in America and we should all take steps to avoid it.

In the interest of transparency, I have been guilty of this more than once.  I’d go to a place, get an uncharacteristic amount of resistance (it’s a weird phenomenon that organizations will sometimes pay for consultants and then ignore them), and after a certain period of time, decide that agile just wouldn’t work there because of the culture.  If I’d been really honest with myself, the truth would have probably been closer to, “I’m not wise and experienced enough to know how to handle this situation,” or maybe even, “I don’t want to put in the amount of effort and longsuffering it will take to weather this situation.”

A dysfunctional culture is exactly one of the things greater agility is supposed to challenge and gradually alleviate.  The kinds of things you do to empower people to turn from victims to self-improvers are the kinds of things that begin to dissolve cultural problems.  Command and control cultures begin to thaw when they see the gains that a high level of self-direction gives.  Trust and cooperation begin to build among traditionally hostile departments when teams become more dependable and transparent.  On and on.  This isn’t just me waxing hypothetical, either.  I have personally seen this cultural transformation several times at the hands of a burgeoning agility.

Only trying agile initiatives at companies who have the culture for it is like testing your hangover remedy with teetotalers.  A company culture that’s ideal for agile is inevitably going to be agile all by themselves.  You might still add value in helping them optimize here and there, but you won’t have substantially improved that organization.

It is the entrenched waterfall, hierarchy out the wazoo, big planning up front, command and control, whirlwind priorities, siloed organizations that need the gentle erosion of improvement, agility, and optimization the most.

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