Culture Not Practices is The Key to successful Agile Transformation

cultureibmYour organization has embarked on a bold new journey towards transforming itself into a truly Agile organization. Any transformation involves bringing a new set of artefacts, values and changing culture. Artefacts are the practices and methodologies (e.g sprint planning, demos etcs..), values – the agile manifesto.

But what is culture? As Henrik Kniberg puts it nicely “Culture is the stuff people do without noticing it”. No prizes for guessing what is the hardest to change. Even defining it properly is hard.

So..we start with our transformation. As they say, start with innovators and early adopters and the late majority and laggards will follow. For a moment, let us leave alone the late majority and the laggards. The innovators and early adopters jump on new things because it’s their nature – they are fundamentally open to explore a new way of doing things and geared to show patience and successfully navigate through the initial dip that will happen. But even for those, beyond a certain point, will the new agile practices stick especially when real challenges crop up. What will be the straw that will hold them from falling back to the old patterns. They are in a tight spot and there is a known and tested way of handling things. Now they realize, that may not necessarily be the perfect way, but not easy to stay rational under pressure. People argue.. ahhh. they must think agile. That is rubbish. Thinking agile is far easier said than done, especially in an ecosystem that is not fully Agile.

Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” talks about two systems in our mind – System 1 and System 2. System 1 “is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach, System 2 “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates.”. The first response would typically be from System 1 unless they are aware and making a conscious effort, then system 2 takes over. For someone who has been through years of traditional and waterfall thinking, it’s not intuitive to “think agile” even though they want to. They would not even be aware of it. Actually they may think they are agile thinkers when they are not.

And that is where the stickiness of a transformation would come in play. More and more players need to cross this chasm from “Do Agile” to “Think Agile” intuitively as a first response and in most situations. The practices will follow. Harder part is the culture change to “Think Agile”, not the practices. Practices is something you can teach. Thinking is something they would need to learn and adopt on their own. At best you can facilitate a bit and you must if you want to succeed at your transformation.

If most of your focus is only on practices, after initial success you are bound to struggle since the majority would be non-Agile thinkers and they would pull the Agile thinkers down. The non-Agile thinking of the majority is bound to rub off on the motivation of these early adopters because as Jim Rohn put it “You are the average of the five people you most spend time with”. Unless of course they have got “it” and in which case they will be the influencers and not the influenced. You want more and more people to be influencers to have a cascading effect.

There are no cookbooks or best practices to do this. It will be a lot of sweat and blood and most cases, this culture will be transferred one to one – heart to heart. At some point, there will be enough momentum that Agile thinking will be natural to many people. When this happens even the late majority and the laggards will see the light. But until then you need to focus on building and especially protecting the new culture consciously.

Building culture to me is more important that practices. Once the culture sinks in, the right practices will follow and voilà – You are Agile !!

Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..