Letting Go of Agile (Culture)

Letting go of Agile Culture“If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.” - Harry Kronman

I have discovered the truth of this with Agile. The one time in my whole life I truly surrendered my attachment to Agile, it resulted in a beautiful transformation starting. But most of the time I was too attached to Agile to let it go.

This post is about how we may accidentally harm organizations with Agile and how we can let go so that we may succeed.

Accidentally Harming Organizations

Here is the basic thinking:

  1. Agile is a good thing.
  2. We can help companies if they use Agile.
  3. Let’s do it!

Trap #1: Accidentally introduce cultural conflict

Agile for me is basic common sense – this is how to get stuff done. BUT Agile does not work in most organizations due to culture. Sure there are some small pockets where Agile just works but this seems to be relatively rare – especially now that Agile has crossed the chasm.

Agile is a different culture from most companies, so the first trap is to accidentally introduce organizational conflict. That’s why I wrote “An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture” – to help people notice this trap and avoid it.

My suggestion was to look at two options:

  1. Adopt elements of Agile that fit with the culture.
  2. Transform the organizational culture.

For many, option 1 is like giving up on Agile since they key part of it is missing so many Agile folks don’t like that option.

Increasingly Agile experts go for option #2 instead: Transform the Organizational Culture. I sure did. I set out to learn how to change organizational culture. And I figured it out. But there was a problem. A big one.

Trap #2 Attempt to Transform to Agile Culture

The core of the problem is that Agile is not an end in itself. It is means to an end. Some common goals (ends) are: a quality product, time to market or engaged staff. The problem is not that Agile doesn’t help with these goals (it certainly does), the problem is that people confuse Agile as the goal and often act in ways that undermine the real goal. We see Agile being used as a Whip or a Shield. That is why it’s a good idea to Stop Agile Initiatives. A better alternative to an Agile initiative is to have an initiative around the real goals. One way to get at the real goals is to run a workshop to clarify why people want Agile.

It is a good thing to change culture in service to what organizations really want for themselves. A specific culture is not a goal in itself, but a means to accomplishing something. We may seek a culture of engagement and innovation not for itself, but because we want our organization to thrive in a competitive landscape.

There are many many beautiful, productive organization cultures all over the world that have nothing to do with Agile. The implication is that there are many ways to get to a place where people love what they do. If we really want to help people, then the best move is to work with them to evolve a wonderful culture that is right for them. And for sure it will not be exactly “Agile Culture” (especially since this is not completely precise). If it is a progressive culture, it will likely be Agile-compatible and using Agile to get benefits will be very natural. It’s a win – win.

Agile Culture should never be a goal. If it is, we will likely just cause harm.

Let Go of the Outcome to Find Success

Here is my secret to success: Let go of the outcome.

I wrote a couple of years about about how leaders have a choice between the red pill (deeper reality) and the blue pill (surface reality). I stated it like I gave people a choice. But I didn’t. The only choice I wanted was the red pill. I wanted so much to help the people in organizations I pushed for the red pill. The truth is I cared so much for the outcome which I assumed was best that I didn’t really give a open choice. In subtle and more obvious ways I was attempting to coerce leaders into taking the red pill. Ooops! Coercion is not any part of Agile, but here I was wanting my outcome for others. And it is not just me. I have talked to dozens of professional coaches and this is pandemic in the Agile community.

The solution is obvious. If we really want to stay true to Agile values, we can’t coerce. We have to let the people (especially management teams) make their own decisions and their own mistakes. We have to help them find and walk the path that they choose. This means letting go of the outcome. This means letting go of Agile.

This business of learning to let go is not new. In fact, letting go of attachment is a central message of Buddhism.

To close, the one time I fully let go of Agile it came back in such a beautiful sustainable and lasting way. Time to rinse and repeat.

“If you want Agile very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s there forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never meant to be.”

(Stay tuned for a follow-up post on Agile as a means of creating freedom by Olaf Lewitz.)

My Apology

I helped a lot of people see Agile as a culture system and learn how to stop causing accidental conflict.

Unfortunately, I also energized a lot of people to seek culture change with the goal of growing Agile. As clarified in this blog post, this was a mistake. I am sorry.

What’s the alternative? For those who want real change, let’s help them meet their organizational goals with culture transformation and let Agile come willingly.

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Stop Agile Initiatives!

Stop Agile HeadlineI am sick to death of Agile Initiatives because they usually fail. Sure there are some companies where Agile just fits, but the most common case is a culture conflict. Best fix I know is: Agile is NOT the Goal (Workshop)

The core problem is that the typical approach used to initiate Agile is inconsistent with Agile goals of empowerment and engagement.

Paul Heidema and I ran a session to explore this at Agile Open Toronto this Spring and this post is a way to share the key learnings.

This is a great workshop to run with people to help them understand different options for engaging with change.

I Caused Damage By Agile …

My mom used to say: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Here is how I and others have caused damage with Agile:

 I caused damage with Agile by...

Of course you can replace the word “Agile” with any other word such as “Lean”, or “Total Quality Management” or <Fill-in-the-blank>.

 Real Change Happens When…

We then reflected on the times when we participated and witnessed real change and found that it emerges – it’s not forced:

Real-change-happened-when

How Change Your Agile Initiative into Something Better

Real success comes from digging in deep on what is important and really valued in the organization – not just jumping on the Agile bandwagon.

Here is are practical exercise you can use to transform your Agile Initiative into something more resilient and lasting: Agile is NOT the Goal (Workshop)

Acknowledgements

We really appreciate all the folks who showed up and participated in this session. It was awesome.

Stop-Agile-Initiatives-Contributors

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Transformation Case Study – Video Interview

At Agile 2014, many people were inspired by this case study so Olaf Lewitz interviewed me. Here is what happened.

Slides and Highlights are here.

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Agile is NOT the Goal (Workshop)

Here is how to run a one hour workshop turn your “Agile” initiative into something valuable, sustainable and open the door for real change (transformation).

This may be the most important hour in your whole change effort.

Setup: One Hour to Clarify Goals

Get the senior managers and stakeholders together for a one hour workshop to clarify the purpose of the Agile initiative you are leading or participating in or hope to undertake. Also consider including key influencers from the organization.

Remember that the higher up you go, the bigger the scope of possible change. See How to Build a Culture Bubble for why the choice participants is crucial.

Step 1: Ask Why?

Give everyone sticky notes and sharpies and ask them to brainstorm Why are we doing this Agile Initiative? Ask people to work on their own for three to five minutes before sharing as a group.

I find with senior management, I usually need to explain How to go Fast with Sticky Notes. If they will not use sticky notes, then real change has little hope and focus on adopting Agile practices or use stealth Agile.

Step 2: Data collect around What, Why, How

Once they have finished writing sticky notes, then setup three flipchart pages with labels What, Why and How. Ask them to put each sticky note on the spectrum made by these three words and cluster based on matching concepts. Circle each cluster. See diagram below.

Why Agile

Explain to people that we are using this model to help clarify thinking around why we are doing this.

As you can see from the photo, I sometimes add the label Outcome to help clarify meaning of “What”.

THE TRICK: It is really important to ask WHY when brainstorming and only during playback separate the reasons into What, Why, How.

Step 3: Explain What, Why, How

Here is my explanation:

  • What/Outcome –  This is about the result: what we want want to achieve. The outcome we are looking for as an organization.
  • Why – The motivation for this undertaking. You may also see here leading indicators of success.
  • How – This is about the mechanism or means that support getting to the outcome. How we actually do things.

Note: it doesn’t really matter where things go as long as it generally makes sense to participants.

Defend the What/Outcome. It is really important that the What or outcome only contains the end result that is sought after by this group. If it has means and intermediate elements, then expect unhelpful distortions in your initiative.

Step 4: Pick most important Elements

Quality ProductUse dot voting to have them select the most important elements for this initiative.

Important: Have them vote in reverse seniority order to avoid hierarch bias. See Highest Paid Person in the Room (HIPPO) bias problem for why this is very important.

Summarize  the results to check for understanding: “So it seems like the outcome for this initiative is X and we see Y and Z helping us get there?”

Step 5: “Agile” is Not the Goal

Let them notice that Agile is gone! The outcome that they seek has nothing to do with Agile! Agile is not the goal.

Help them notice how Agile will help with the What, Why and How (if that is true).

Step 6: Replace the “Agile” Initiative with something else

Suggest officially dropping Agile as a goal and instead re-brand the initiative to focus on whatever their desired outcome was.

This will help people focus on the outcome, and not on “doing Agile”.

In a recent transformation, this turned out to be a key element in our success. Do not underestimate the value of a name and the stories we tell about ourselves. 

Being Agile & Transformation

It probably seems scary to let go of Agile as an official goal.

It turns out that this is necessary to Stop Agile from being used as a Whip or a Shield.

My experience is that the only way we can really get to an Agile mindset is to let it arrive of it’s own free will. Coercing a system as an evangelist (I have done this) guarantees limited results.

If you love something, set them free.

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Guy Laurence – Culture Change Through Renovation

Guy Lawrence – former CEO at Vodafone – tells of an organizational transformation effort that is intrinsically tied to office renovation – he says: “Conventional offices and working is dead”.

A Simple Recipe: Death to cubicles and offices

  1. Buy everyone in the company a cell phone and a laptop.
  2. Remove all offices and cubicles. Open plan office with desks.
  3. Remove all personal material so that every day starts fresh
  4. People sit with the people they need to work with that day.
  5. Meeting rooms are just for meetings of 6 or more people.
  6. Build coffee shops in in the center of each floor to create a “buzz”

Innovation & leveraging Gen Y

The motivation for undertaking these sweeping changes is to have people from Generation Y (born after 1982) actually want to work at Vodafone. A basic requirement here is that the tools they get at the company are as good or better than what they have personally. Nobody wants to use an infrastructure that sucks but for Gen Y this is a real problem.

Gen Y work on a collaborative model and do not tolerate a dominant hierarchy. Their employee engagement score plummet and they quit in droves.

Subversion of Management Hierarchy

A central part of the plan is to put the organizational hierarchy in the background and push communication and decision-making lower down in the organization. Part of the idea of getting rid of offices is to reduce the power differential between managers and subordinates. Guy reported that 49 of his 5000 staff did not make the adjustment to this brave new world.

The net of all this is to create a place that can rapidly respond to changing events. To use open networks of communication to tap into people’s creativity.

Video of Guy’s Talk at Google

What About Teams?

I am curious about teams in this brave new world. Agile Software Development and many others observe that building stable teams is a great recipe for high performance. My suspicion is that this model would be further enhanced by having a clear role for teams.

Curious About Culture

One thing very interesting is that Guy is leading a cultural transformation without clearly outlining the culture of the organization the way many other great organizations such as Zappos do. Instead, he uses simple rules to subvert traditional corporate behaviour. I imagine that this type of transformation could be even more successful if accompanied by an explicit culture model.

What’s next? Rogers Media/Telco!

I have been involved with Agile at Rogers (based in Toronto) on more than one occasion and it is by and large suffering from the typical culture and bureaucratic challenges of any large organization. I have been wondering what hope there is for the organization to truly transform without top-level leadership in a new direction.

Guy starts at Rogers in December, 2013.I am truly delighted to see that he will take steps towards a people-friendly work culture. I am also very curious to see if he will be able to overcome deeply entrenched resistance to change. Go Guy, GO!

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10 Things Executives Need to Know about Agile

Slide deck with the top 10 things executives need to know about Agile:

Here’s the list with some handy links:

  1. Agile Is Mainstream
  2. Many Benefits from Agile
  3. Agile is not a Silver Bullet
  4. Agile Fails Due to Culture
  5. Agile Differs from Most Company Cultures
  6. Most Value Comes from Mindset/Culture, not Practices
  7. Adopt Agile Practices that fit Culture (Option 1)
  8. Change Culture through Organizational Transformation (Option 2)
  9. Culture Mismatch will Slow and Ultimately Fail Your Agile Initiative
  10. Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Of course, it is fine to proceed with either option – adoption or transformation – it’s about what is the best fit for the client environment and their wishes.

There are two conversations around transformation that this deck is designed to trigger/encourage:

  • What does break-through organizational culture look like?
  • What does organizational transformation look like?

My Favourite Slide in the Deck

Benefit of Practices vs Culture

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the hundreds of people who have attended my workshops and talks over the last two years to help clarify and refine this message.

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How Change Initiatives Damage Organizations and Fail

Change Initiative - ForcesA simple (and misunderstood) way people think of their change initiative like this:

Their organization is just sitting there, ready to change in wonderful ways. We just have to tell people how great our new initiative is and they will be lining up to learn more and make things happen. Right?

Unfortunately, organizations are complex adaptive systems with their own dynamics and forces at play.

Note: we could be talking about the whole organization, a group, or a team here.

Forces Acting on an Organization

In the following diagram, I will use the word Culture to capture the existing forces at play in an organization. The real situation will be of course much more complex with various attractors influencing the system in different ways, but this will reveal the essence of what I have seen with change initiatives around Agile.

Forces on Org Change

 

Some remarks on the diagram:

  1. It is difficult for a change initiative to make real progress if it runs against the culture of the organizations (as is usually the case with Agile). It’s like trying to roll a giant boulder up hill.
  2. When forces pull an object in different directions, the object is under tension. Too much tension and the organization will be damaged (red squiggles). So, when you notice resistance, applying more force will damage your organization. A few weeks ago, this simple explanation helped a client reduce tension by shifting the blue rather than adding more green.
  3. The change initiative will eventually fail. Why? Energy is required to keep the change initiative going. Eventually, people will just declare victory or give up and move on to the next initiative. At this point the boulder rolls down the hill, crushing supporters of the initiative on the way.

Rolling Rocks Downhill

Rolling down hill - culture A much better way to go about this is to forget about change strategies and work on an organization’s culture so that it moves the organization towards the desired outcome without conflict. This is of course a vastly simplified version of reality, but it helps us stop and consider the root cause of dynamics and forces in an organization.

Acknowledgments

There is a great exercise on force-field analysis called “May the Forces Be With You” that I learned from The big book of humorous training games.

Olivier Lafontan wrote the insightful post Being an Agile transition coach feels like Sisyphus that inspired the boulder in my narrative.

The phrase “Rolling Rocks Downhill” came to mind from Clarke Ching’s new book by that title.

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Organizational Transformation Checklist

In this post I am sharing workshop results on how to understand the readiness of the leadership to undertake organizational transformation such as the intentional upgrade of the cultural operating system. It is partly a checklist and partly a diagnostic tool to understand current perceptions.

In his seminal work, John Kotter identifies a Sense of Urgency as the key first step to any major change initiative. Success requires that “75% of a company’s management is honestly convinced that business as usual is totally unacceptable.”

In this post, additional considerations are considered.

Transformation is #1 Organizational Priority

In addition to Kotter’s remarks we add the following litmus test for undertaking transformation.

Transformation - Litmus Test

A common symptom of failure is that transformation or improving culture is listed as the fourth bullet point in the yearly objectives.

Leadership Team Readiness Checklist

What follows is one readiness checklist to assess whether the leadership in an organization is really ready. The text in blue indicates activities that can support a leadership team in understanding where it stands on each item.

Transformation - Readiness Checklist

Red Flags is a term from Good to Great where great companies have hope and faith to see the red flags or difficult truths.
Red Pill is a term from the movie the Matrix that denotes the willingness to explore disconnects in our belief system to understand the true and perhaps discomforting reality.

Dear leaders, how are you doing?

The following diagram shows a set of diagnostics that can start a real discussion around the perception of the current state of the organization. It is intended to be used for one or more people to put an “x” on the line indicating where they see that aspect. The scale increases from left to right with either a rating of 1 to 10 or from ☹ to ☺

Readiness Questions- Dear Leader

 

The astute reader will notice the last question is not a scale, but an open-ended exploration called My Worst Nightmare.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the participants in this session including Don Gray and Claudia Melo. I would also like to acknowledge the financial contribution of the Agile Alliance for sponsoring this workshop through the Supporting Agile Adoption Program.

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How to Build a Culture Bubble

The post is about how one can create a bubble of a new culture inside of an existing organization. For example, this may be used by a group interested in developing an innovation and learning culture inside a typical bureaucratic organization. This post is a continuation of my earlier post on how to Build Culture Adapters to Avoid Agile Failure.

I realized that I have drawn the diagram below dozens of times with clients, prospects and colleagues over the last year and realized other people may be interested in it.

The drawing below shows the hierarchy of a typical organization with a dominant culture (in blue) and a new culture bubble formed (in green).

Leader growing different culture in org hierarcy

Given the nature of a power hierarchy in traditional organizations, a leader/manager can induce a culture shift in the organization that reports into her. See Transformation? Leaders Go First! for an explanation of how leaders can support a transformation process.

It is of course, critically important to build adapters around your bubble so that it can safely interface with the rest of the organization and avoid trigger the attack of organizational anti-bodies.

A final comment is regarding the cooperation of partner groups (in light blue) that are tightly bound to the same customer value stream. The close cooperation required for success necessitates a higher level of alignment. This means that the partner group must either help lead the culture change (and go green) or at a minimum be neutral (as show in light blue).

In a software context, a very tight relationship exists between the product and development groups since they need to work together to create customer value. A common pattern is for the green bubble to be the development and the blue bubble to be product.

When and How to Use This Diagram

I typically draw this picture and provide this explanation when socializing alternative approaches to Agile. In virtually all cases, the change agent leading the Agile initiative is not the CEO and does not have a span of control or influence over the whole organization. It is usually the case that typical “modern” management practices are in place that are regressive and hostile to fostering an Agile culture. So most leaders have the option of sticking to the adoption of practices that are consistent with the existing organizational culture or undertake a transformation of their group to realize a new culture that is supportive of Agile.

It is of particular importance, that as an external change artist, we are fully respectful of our client’s wishes and intents. It’s their organization after all. For some coaches this means letting go of the dream of helping the organization move forward on the road towards an Agile mindset – or “real” Agile.

Related Work?

Some time ago I shared George Schlitz and Giora Morein’s Agile Enablement Battlefield model to help understand how a transition is progressing. I am no longer a big fan of the metaphor of war, however, the notions of “fog of war” can be helpful. As well, I have seen increasing danger and harm caused by wolves in sheep’s clothing. These are the folks who say they are on board and go along with changes, but resist in passive ways. Of course, this is a natural and understandable response to coercion. If we really want to change our organizations then coercion is a tool that we need to leave behind.

Acknowledgments

The basic ideas of managing gaps in culture comes from William Schneider’s book How to Make you Culture Work. Many thanks also to all the various workshop participants who validated that these patterns apply.

 

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Build Culture Adapters to Avoid Agile Failure

The purpose of this post is to explain why building culture adapters around at team or group is a good idea. It is important for me to revisit this topic from my book and conference presentations since I have learned something new and wanted to share it. All but the last section is an excerpt from my book.

It is by now well known that Agile is a mindset and culture system and that it is incompatible with most organizational cultures.

Let’s talk about one way of moving forward with Agile – building adapters. This is an effective approach when the span of control and influence of the leadership does not cover the whole of the organization.

Start with A Successful Agile Team

A very powerful way to think about introducing a foreign culture such as Agile to an organization is through a cellular model. Consider a successful transformation of one team or group to Agile. This may have been a special pilot project with all the people keen to do Agile.

Imagine that the team is very excited about the new way of working. The team exists in the context of some other culture.

Team+Culture - 1 Cell adaptor Model

The team is not that excited about all of the organizational barriers and limits on productivity and success. So, what typically happens is they start to push back on the needs and requirements of other groups that are not adding value to the team and to the customers.

Attack of the Organizational Antibodies

The result sounds like a B-movie: “Attack of the Organizational Antibodies!” In the human body, we have antibodies (Killer T-Cells) that are designed to eliminate foreign elements to keep us healthy. In a similar way, organizations will react to the introduction of a foreign culture system such as Agile. These are the elements that work hard to preserve the status quo.

Team+Culture - 2 Anti-bodies

Build Culture Adapters

The movie doesn’t have to have a bad ending. One common pattern is to build adapters or translators around the foreign culture so that it fits within the overall culture. These are depicted in the diagram below as shapes surrounding and protecting the team. In this situation, the adapter allows the team to blend in with the overall organizational culture and avoid triggering the antibodies.  It looks like this:

Team+Culture - 3 Barriers + Adapters

In practical terms, the adapter could take the form of a Microsoft Project Plan that has no value to the customers or team but is required by the organization. Another might be team use of a peer-based review for merit increases that still gets submitted by the manager since the system requires input only from her.

This sounds like a lot of effort! Is it worth it? The value is equal to the benefits derived from Agile less the cost of adapter maintenance. Assuming there is good value in the team’s new state of functioning, then sadly some of that productivity will be lost maintaining the adapters. But this is a much better situation to be in compared to getting attacked by organizational antibodies. The adapters are part of the cost of doing business. Like taxes.

Lean differentiates between different types of waste in organizations. Type I Muda (waste) are non value added tasks that are required at the current time. Type II Muda are non value added tasks that can be removed immediately. Maintaining the adapters is type I since the environment requires them.

The model above points a way to success with Agile transformation – it is possible to transform one team or group provided that care and attention is provided to satisfying the requirements of the larger organization. It is a feasible strategy to consider this a first step before a wider organizational change initiative.

THIS WILL EVENTUALLY FAIL!

The adapter strategy is not sustainable in the long term. Why? Eventually, the manager of this group is going to leave and a new manager will be selected. The new manager will typically be chosen to reflect the host organizational culture and will become a powerful attractor for the host culture. An then Agile gets dissolved or neutered. And the people who love working in this new way to deliver great products quit the organization and go work somewhere else.

At a number of conference presentations, I presented the arguement that no responsible manager should undertake using this pattern since it is ultimately doomed to failure. And this is my mistake. I was wrong. Sorry.

But that’s Good! (My New Insight)

I was at a client earlier this year and this topic came up. As I have been working very hard on supplicating and having compassion for the organizations I coach, I noticed something interesting. This particular organization was focussed on short term results and not long term results. (Yeah, I know this is a losing strategy but it’s their culture not mine). So, in the context of their organizational culture is was not only acceptable but highly desirable to do something that will work in the short run but fail in the longer term. So, if you are a manager in an organization that is fixed on short-term results, then the adapters are a truly great strategy to use with a clear conscience. Happy trails.

 

 

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