An agile culture is one that has a bias towards collaboration and cooperation and minimises autocracy, control and bureaucracy. It pushes decision-making down the organisation to enable teams to take ownership of business outcomes and holds them to account.
Adoption of an agile framework requires more than just adding a new project management methodology. For the new approach to embed and reap the benefits, organisations often need to develop a new culture alongside it.
Culture clues from the Manifesto for agile software development
The Agile Manifesto highlights the focus on people and interactions, noting that the sum of the work and collaboration between developers and their customers creates the working software. By implication, organisations must eliminate barriers to cooperation between these two groups.
Alongside the manifesto are twelve principles that underpin many of the agile frameworks. From these, an agile culture must support:
- Frequent delivery
- Changing requirements
- Trust and empowerment of teams
- Low barriers to communication
- Low bureaucracy
- Empirical reporting
- Technical excellence
- Self-organising teams
- Continuous improvement
Many agile frameworks include values to guide the behaviour, beliefs and attitudes of people who use them. XP consists of values, communication, courage, simplicity and feedback. While Scrum includes focus, respect, openness, courage and commitment.
The values are often said to put life into their respective frameworks, and the absence of these values has coined expressions such as “zombie scrum” to describe a lifeless approach.
Values direct behaviours and actions, while culture is the emergent property of how any group works together. It is, therefore, mostly dependent on the values that the group adopts.
Agile frameworks require self-organising teams
Managing the complexity of technical product development requires a diversity of thought. Complex problems require new, novel and bespoke solutions. Best practice will not help solve complex problems.
It is unlikely that the big boss will have all of the answers, and have sufficient knowledge and experience to dictate the solution. Solutions will arise from the interplay between experts that self-organise to solve the problem in the best way they see fit.
Self-organising teams require a specific kind of leadership. Coercive command and control style leadership combined with hierarchical organisation structures run counter to self-organising teams. Servant leadership based on respect and support is better suited to supporting self-organising teams.
Continuous improvement grows cultural change
Each of the agile frameworks includes continuous improvement mechanisms in the form of retrospectives. Including behaviours, beliefs and values in these improvement cycles will allow the agile framework to grow its desired culture. Those in leadership roles must provide the space and authority for teams to make their own changes.