Overcoming Enterprise Agility Obstacles Related to Your Organization’s Culture

By Doug Rose

Your organization’s existing culture can create a great deal of inertia that your organization needs to overcome in order to change direction and move towards enterprise agility. In fact, an inability to change an organization’s culture is one of the leading causes of failed enterprise agile transformations. Here, you learn how cultural factors can undermine an enterprise agile transformation, and I provide guidance on how to overcome cultural inertia.

Seeing how culture can sink agile

According to an annual survey conducted by VersionOne on the state of agile, the number one challenge companies face when they attempt an enterprise agile transformation is “Company philosophy or culture at odds with core agile values.” Number four on the list is a “General organization resistance to change.” Further down at number six is “Insufficient training.”

Most organizations understand and are willing to embrace a more agile mindset. The real challenge is overcoming cultural inertia. The organization wants to adopt enterprise agility, but agile conflicts with a deeply engrained incompatible mindset.

Acknowledging the challenge

The first step to overcoming cultural inertia is to confront it. Many teams try to change culture through training. They think that once individuals understand agile they’ll be more likely to embrace it. Unfortunately, more training is rarely the solution. Even when all employees in the organization understand agile and appreciates its potential benefits, they often feel that it’s not a solution that’ll work in their organization. They lack faith.

If you think about it, this feeling makes a lot of sense. A lot of organizations have a strong control culture. Some of agile’s key values may be in direct opposition to long-established practices. A culture that puts a lot of emphasis on hierarchy and accountability, for example, is going to have a tough time embracing self-organized teams and distributed authority.

Prioritizing the challenge

When you start your agile transformation, make culture your number one priority. Agile teams always begin with the highest value items first. Training is number six on the list of common challenges, and culture is number one. It’s clear that you need to start with culture. Your effort here will make or break your enterprise agile transformation.

Build on your success. If you’re considering an enterprise agile transformation, you already have at least one agile team in your organization, and now you’re looking to scale agile to work on larger projects. Leverage the success of your existing agile team(s) to drive cultural change throughout the organization.

Gaining insight into motivation

Managers and developers often clash on the enterprise agility battlefield because their motivations differ. While management often embraces big organizational change and enterprise agile frameworks that promise improved productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction, developers often want management to get out of their way so they can do their best work.

Management

High-level managers are the first to embrace big changes. It’s not because they’re less conservative or more adventurous. It’s because they’re evaluated by how well they improve the organization’s processes. When they can take a group of people and change the process to improve results, they see that as good management and strong leadership. Large frameworks, such as Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and Large-Scale Scrum Huge (LeSS Huge) are like catnip for these high-level managers.

Developers

On the other side, software developers and engineers see themselves as craftsmen. They want to build something that’s elegant and satisfying, and they often view a large framework as a way for management to gain more control over their work. If you’re a craftsman, the last thing you want to do is create something ugly because someone forces you to make a quick fix.

Large-scale organizational changes often create a tension between managers who want to rewire the machine and developers who want to create a world with fewer wires. Developers want agile, and they may think of enterprise agile as an attempt by management to make them less agile.

When you’re starting your enterprise agile transformation, take a long objective look at each of these groups’ motivations. If you have a manager who wants to make big changes, prepare yourself for a lot of communication and pushback from many of the developers. If the change is driven by developers, be prepared to convince the managers that this is a worthwhile change.

People often assume that others share their motivation. Managers assume everyone wants a big framework, while developers assume that everyone in the company wants (or should want) to deliver beautiful, elegant software. The truth is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have a large framework that provides developers with the creative freedom they crave.

Whether you try the Kotter approach or Fearless Change, think about your particular organization and how each group feels about the change. Both of these approaches push you to better understand everyone’s motivations so you can mitigate resistance and avoid unpleasant surprises.