Agile Fits Better in Some Company Cultures than Others

At XPDays Benelux last November, Pascal Van Cauwenberghe told me that his main focus is to stop companies from doing Agile. I didn’t get it then. I think I finally understand.

(Note: Post used to be named “Problems with Agile? Check your Culture!”)

Agile (and Kanban) from the perspective of Culture

Rather than seeing Agile as universally great (aka silver bullet), I see it as a tool or philosophy that fits better in some company cultures than others.

Consider the following diagram illustrating how Agile, Kanban, and Craftsmanship principles align with various cultures. If, for example, you are working with a competence culture, then a good starting place is to focus on software craftsmanship and help them get really good at building quality software. Similarly, Kanban for control cultures and Agile for collaboration and cultivation cultures.

For this to make any sense, it would be advisable for you to check out the four related posts on culture:

  1. How to Make Your Culture Work (Schneider Model)
  2. Agile is about Collaboration and Cultivation Culture
  3. Kanban aligns with Control Culture
  4. Software Craftsmanship promotes Competence Culture

(Seriously, go read them now. They are pretty short and have great diagrams).

Rock my World

For me this is pretty profound. Cultural analysis provides me a tool for understanding clients and helping them where they are right now.

When a client contacts me as a coach, it is because they want help. What they think they need is a better process to help them with their problems. They do not want to change their company culture – they just want results. Well, depending on their company culture Agile may fit or it may not. Perhaps this is why many of us are experiencing the Post-Chasm Agile Blues.

A lot of my clients ask for Scrum and I am actively working on helping them understand where they are and where Scrum will take them. This is part of stepping away from one-size-fits-all. Scrum isn’t a good idea for every company.  That should be obvious, but true believers may want to burn me at the stake.

What this means is that we may need to act more like a consultant than an Agile Coach. Some people have already been doing this to greater or lesser extents. A good example is David Hussman, who shares his thoughts on Coaching and Producing Value.

Empirical data that Culture is the Problem

Courtesy of VersionOne, I would like to share a snippet of the results of their 2010 Agile Survey. Thank you, VersionOne! (The image below is copyright VersionOne and is reproduced without permission).

Note that:

  • The #1 problem (51%) is cultural change
  • The #2 problem (40%) is resistance to change

Maybe it’s time we start paying attention to Culture!

Cargo Cult and Being Agile

There is the famous line from Ken Schwaber about 75% of companies not getting the expected benefits from Scrum that they expect. Why?

Scrum is a disruptive, transforming technology and most companies don’t want to be disrupted or have some Agile consultant tell them how they need to change their core culture to succeed. (But we don’t actually tell them, we just create lots of conflict and may even create a mess). So what is the result? Lot’s of Cargo Cult behaviour where people Do Scrum (or worse Scrum, But) without Living Scrum or Being Agile.

What do I mean by be Agile? Fortunately, some great minds in our community have written on this topic, so you can go read their stuff:

Post-Agile? Agile-AND?

What I am saying aligns with the concept of becoming Post-Agile. If it means using tools beyond Agile, then I am there and so are most people practicing Agile.

I like the term Agile-AND. I still like and use Agile. AND I use other tools and approaches depending on the situation.

We as a community need to get better at communicating when and where to use Agile and more importantly when not to.

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  1. It’s always about the culture. So much of adopting (anything) is culture and personalities!

  2. Talking about culture. “open and honest communication” use to mean something to most people in the Agile community.

    Clients need to be told the truth, It then becomes their choice. Are they to blame if the consultants never tell them what they are letting themselves in for? Most think they are getting a quick fix.



    • I don’t think the problem is mal-intent or intent at deception. I think the problem is unconscious ignorance.

  3. Insightful recent posts re: culture and it’s bearing on effectiveness of Agile, Scum, Kanban, etc.

    The notion that Kanban maps well to a control culture really hit home. I’ve experienced some phenomenal recent success implementing it with a sustaining team, but now I’m starting to question my plans to use it with a user experience team as well.

    Any thoughts on the impact of using a Kanban system wrt creativity and innovation?

    • Hi Erik, glad you are finding value in my posts and also to hear you are getting some success.

      With regard to innovation, I would tend to think Scrum/XP/Agile a better fit than Kanban. See post – Scrum or Kanban? Yes! Also, very cool stuff happening with Lean startup if there is exploration in the marketplace.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Finally found the time to post a comment 🙂

    I think you are right: Culture is a set of cards that we are dealt with when starting with a client. We cannot and shouldn’t expect for these elements to magically align to every methodology, practices and principles. So, I like the idea of being able to map out of the box best fit between a client’s Culture and an agiler step forward.

    However, I feel that when mapping a client, it is also necessary to understand the problem they are trying to fix by introducing agile. When the problem is made clear, there is also a better opportunity to setup a transition strategy that may start a certain way, with certain teams or functions – in order to deliver quick wins for instance – and will evolve through time.

    To summarise my thoughts, if the client really has a strong sense of urgency, and depending on the type of issue they want to fix, the higher yield agile way might be different than just mapping their existing culture to a methodology. Sometimes, their culture will have to change to get to the right instance of agile they require.

    • Great comments – thanks for taking the time. I absolutely agree with you.

      My thinking is that Agile in many cases requires organizational transformation or evolution. Stay tuned – blog post coming.

      And as you point out, depending on their problem they may not want to go there.

  5. Thanks Michael for this series of posts.
    I’m so pleased to see more and more discussion these days about agile mindset and culture. That’s been my mantra about agile since before the Manifesto (“Teamwork Is an Individual Skill” was written in 1998-99 and published in 2001). My view is that if your life, work, project, or operations are exposed to change, uncertainty, and complexity, then there are ways of thinking, value systems, and tools that can help.
    I place relatively low value in any n-dimensional matrix that purports to analyze and make prescriptions about culture. That’s based on (1) my 30-year experience as an applied organization scientist that business cultures are deep structures that defy easy and quick analysis, and (2) the theory-building principle that any model is a trade-off between being simple, generalizable, and accurate (i.e., if it is simple, then it is not very generalizable and accurate. imagine these three words placed equidistant on the diameter of a circle. All theories/models lie somewhere on that diameter of that circle and cannot approach the center).
    However I also believe that coaches and consultants are effective to the extent they can make a limited number of observations of a system and then make an educated — and sometimes highly intuitive — guess about how to provoke that system, gauge the response, and provoke again. So if these models help you do that, then cool!
    I love that agile thinking, lean thinking, Scrum, Kanban, WIP, TOC, complexity theory, all challenge people at work to think — some a little and others a lot — about what they are doing at work. I do believe the agile movement is causing a sizable shift world-wide at the level of individual discipline. I think it is beyond critical mass and irreversible. I tell my clients that if they –like me–came of age in a world of linear thinking (i.e., waterfall-like planning and execution), and they don’t embrace agile, it is very likely that someone who today is 30 years-old and has been practicing agile thinking for 8 or 10 years will soon be taking their job and running their department and company.
    My clients and I have found a fair amount of success using the Leadership Gift (the Responsibility Process and its associated principles and practices) as a Leadership Development program to rapidly and predictably shift the operating environment in order to greatly facilitate agile thinking and adoption. If that same leadership then promotes and backfills based on individuals who practice the Leadership Gift and agile thinking, then the shift in the operating environment has a chance to become more deep and permanent, i.e., cultural.

    • Hi Christopher,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree with your sentiment: “All models are wrong, some are useful”.

      In the case of the Agile community, it is better to have a bad model than no model at all. So, my deepest desire if for someone to come up with a better first order model (than culture) to help me become more effective.

      Thanks for sharing regarding the Leadership Gift. This is perhaps a good place to start and Agile transformation.

      – Michael



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