Is your organisation's Culture ready for Agile or will its Organisational Gravity pull you back down?

Is your organisation's Culture ready for Agile or will its Organisational Gravity pull you back down?

Is your organisation's Culture ready for Agile or will its Organisational Gravity pull you back down?
 Is your organisation's Culture ready for Agile or will its Organisational Gravity pull you back down?

Over the years I have seen many Organisations engage in an Agile Transformation. Why did some succeed when others failed? Simple, the Organisation’s Culture. This article looks at the impact of culture on transformations and provides an assessment for what cultural changes need to take place.  Bizarrely, let’s start out by looking at the Lamborghini Gallardo.  This is an amazing and beautiful car. It has a 5 liter, V10 engine with a top speed of around 199mph / 320kph. 
It is capable of accelerating from 0 – 62mph / 0 – 100kph in less than 4 seconds and 0 – 200kph in around 11 seconds. It cost when new around $200,000 / €180,000, and a little over 14,000 were built in its 10-year production run.  In all categories the Lamborghini Gallardo is not just a Sports Car, it is a Supercar!  So, you have saved up (a lot of money), visited the showroom and bought one. You now expect to be racing around the streets with a massive smile upon your face. Well, err, no.
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You might own this beautiful car, but the environment in which you drive it will define which of its many capabilities you can actually use. If you are surrounded by bad roads full of potholes, speed limits and speed bumps, other cars, lorries and buses, maybe even sheep, this environment will slow you down or may even bring you to a complete standstill. To get the full potential from this Supercar, place it in the right environment. Take it to a racetrack, put on racing tyres and be supported by a dedicated racing team and some wonderful track marshals.   
Just like this Lamborghini, the same applies to Agile Transformations.   Organisations pay a fortune to initiate change strategies, they bring in hordes of excellent but expensive external Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters, run loads of training for the teams and in turn create a powerhouse for delivering Value to their Customers. Then they place these coach-supported Powerhouse Teams into an old, production driven, command and control, unsupportive culture and expect them to not only succeed in strong, adaptable and rapid Value delivery but also adopt a truly Agile way of working almost as a ‘side of desk’ activity.

This cultural issue was explained to me beautifully by Mike Cohn in his book Succeeding with Agile, Software Development Using Scrum. In it he explains the concept of organisational gravity through a rocket, striving for space by the power of its engines, but constantly being pulled back by the forces of gravity. If it cannot gain orbit it will get pulled back to earth, right back to where it started. 

In Chapter 20 of his book, Mike states:
"To achieve long-term success with Scrum, the implications of becoming agile must be transferred into other parts of the organisation. When this is not done, organisational gravity—those influences that formed the organisation into whatever shape it existed in before the start of the transition—will kick in. I have seen Scrum transitions stalled or completely stopped because they ignored the impact of becoming agile on groups outside development."
Without taking the time and working to change the whole of your organisation, its structure, its very culture, you put at risk all you have done to bring Agility into your organisation, stopping you from flexing your objectives and satisfy your customers through delivered Value. You put at risk all you have spent, both energy and money, to develop and deliver a Transformational Strategy.  This risk was also highlighted in the now famous quote by Peter Drucker, which has since been expanded by others. 
“Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner”

In his excellent article, Here's why culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Chuck Schaeffer shared some great thinking on this. Organisational Culture and Transformation Strategy are separate but also symbiotic. Culture will either advance or undermine your strategy. There are lots of things within your organisation that will drive growth, but the one thing that will directly impact everything is culture. Organisational Culture can be the human performance engine, the rocket engine from Mike’s analogy that drives the level of success, or it could be the gravity that brings failure for every business strategy, revenue initiative, operational performance and change transformation.
Impact of Culture
Recently I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with Jorgen Hesselberg at an Agile Day Conference in Brussels with Euroclear. The night before we hit the town and, over a cold drink or two, we discussed the influence that Culture has on organisational behaviours and activities.
In his book, Unlocking Agility: An Insider’s Guide to Agile Enterprise Transformation, he argues that Culture is an essential element in embracing a more Agile way of working at the organisational level. Although other dimensions such as Technology, Organisational Design, People and Leadership all play important roles when transforming an organisation, the impact of Culture is critical.  

During our conversation he restated “Achieving organisational agility involves balancing the impact of these inter-connected, dependent dimensions with each other. Culture is a force multiplier in achieving that balance: without a culture that invites ignorance – the idea that you don’t know what you don’t know – building an environment of learning and continuous improvement at the organisational level will be a Sisyphean [endless and ineffective] task.”
Jorgen Hesselberg and Jon Kessel-Fell on stage in Brussels
He also stated that in a Culture characterised by lack of psychological safety, a need for high levels of predictability and a significant degree of control, organisational agility will be difficult to sustain. But what affects the culture in the first place? If culture has such an enormous impact on the other dimensions of agility, what influences the formation of that culture?
The answer is complex: not only does culture affect the way organisations approach the four dimensions of Technology, Organisational Design, People and Leadership, but these dimensions in turn affect the Culture in return. For example, if an organisation, characterised by a top-down command and control culture, changes its organisational structure towards a more flow-optimized delivery of value, it will have an inevitable effect on its culture. And if that same organisation also changed its incentive structures and leadership norms towards optimising for the whole, it will influence the culture further and gradually shift towards a more collaborative working environment. 

But how would these changes happen in the first place? What would prompt these changes to occur if the culture was already risk-averse and resistant to change? The answer is simple: a fundamental change in business context, a sense of danger to the organisation’s very survival in its current form. If the context within which the business operates changes so dramatically to the point where the organisation’s culture no longer supports its goals, inevitable changes to the other elements of agility will affect the culture and ultimately transform the entire organisation. 

Frequently however, the business context changes so fast that other ‘more nimble’ competitors will gobble up market share before the incumbent has a chance to react. Organisations with a less resistant culture will be able to act faster and adapt quicker to the rhythm of the beat of business. This did not seem so obvious a few years ago: in an environment with sustainable competitive advantages and severe barriers of entry, organisations with dysfunctional cultures could afford to organically – and slowly – emerge towards more agility over time. 
This is no longer the case: the clock speed of business continues to accelerate to the point where having a dysfunctional culture is not only an impediment to organisational agility, it’s a recipe for its short-term demise. For an example see my recent post on the effect Sony is having on Nikon and Canon.
Areas of Cultural Change
So, the adoption of Agility will change our culture, but when that culture is ‘set in stone’ and immovable, this Organisational Gravity will slow or stop the adoption. There therefore needs to be a concerted effort to actively change our culture, but what areas of our organisation do we need to concentrate on and in what order do we approach them? One item I really liked that helps identify these areas of change is the Agile Fluency Model and its work with both team culture and organisational culture.  

Of course I had my own viewpoint based on my work with the 12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership, especially with the second leadership activity of building the right environment in which delivery teams can work. For me the first teams that should be impacted are the Organisational and Portfolio Leadership Teams as, without their shift in Mindset and Culture, the nurturing environment to encourage and shape a lasting transformation and Agile Fluency will never be created.
The Agile Fluency Model
Organisations themselves cannot be fluent but do enable fluency in the Teams within the organisation. Team fluency depends on more than just the skills of team members. It also depends on management structures, relationships, organisational culture, and more. Don't make the mistake of blaming individuals for a team’s lack of Agile adoption or fluency, or assuming that one highly skilled individual will guarantee that adoption or fluency. The organisational context often matters more. 
These Organisational and Portfolio Leadership Teams will need to change their own Focus and Skills, not just the delivery Teams’ Focus and Skills, becoming true Servant Leaders and supporting the move away from a hierarchical, command and control organisational structures. Only then can they lead by example and help bring about a cultural shift across the whole organisation. This in turn allows teams to transform and provides the environment to become Agile Fluent.
This organisational support is one of the biggest factors affecting team fluency. An organisation that expects Agile adoption and fluency without providing the appropriate support and culture is bound to be disappointed. Even worse, insufficient Leadership support and positive cultural change can cause turnover and negative cultural change, creat
ing a cynical corporate culture that hampers improvements. Before embarking on a journey toward Agile adoption and fluency, be sure your organisation and its Leadership is prepared to offer the support the journey needs.

For more information read the articles on and InfoQ
Assess where to change your Culture
So, a lack of cultural change, due to ineffective leadership that enhances organisational gravity, will not only affect the organisation’s transformational accomplishments and team Agile Fluency, it will put at risk the organisation’s very existence in today’s volatile and uncertain world, in the current storms of rapid change and customer demands.  

VersionOne’s State of Agile surveys have consistently highlighted the main Challenges experienced in Adopting & Scaling Agile as:      
  • Organisational culture at odds with Agile values     
  • General organisation resistance to change     
  • Inadequate management support and sponsorship
With this in mind and all of the discussions and comments above, what are the cultural characteristics we need to focus on, what positive cultural changes do we need to bring about?  During my studies around culture and its impact, I came across the amazing work of Geert Hofstede and his National Culture Model. This was a massive eye opener for me and lead to quite a few months of in-depth learning and reflection on how this could apply it to Organisational Culture.
Geert Hofstede’s work, which helps countries understand their own and each other’s cultures, was an assessment based upon 6 main dimensions and allows you to understand your country’s position. I felt the same style of assessment would be excellent in helping organisations understand where their current culture sat and in what direction it might need to move to remove Organisational Gravity and boost the engine to be more accepting and supportive of transformation and change, especially in bringing about Agility. 

I took a few of Geert’s original assessment dimensions, altered to be from an organisational viewpoint, and then added a few more of my own based on experiences, studies and conversations. The result was this simple assessment, which you can take by drawing 7 scale lines on a sheet of paper, reading the description of each Cultural characteristic and then marking on your scale where you think you, your team or your organisation sit on that scale. Then calculate if a cultural change is required based on your needs and towards which end you find yourself on the scale.
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Here are the descriptions of these cultural characteristics and, from my studies and experience, where we need to be on this scale to remove Organisational Gravity and bring about a more sustainable transformation and supported Team Fluency.
Power Distance
The power distance indicator, an original from Geert Hofstede’s work, is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of an organisation accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. A higher degree indicates that a hierarchical organisational structure is clearly established and executed within the organisation. A lower degree signifies that people question authority and attempt to distribute power and decision making.  An Agile Culture = Low Power Distance

Accept New Ideas
This explores the degree to which people in the organisation are open to new ideas, new ways of working or even different types of people or roles. Parochial defines a blinkered, narrow or close-minded view of the things around you. Its counterpart, Cosmopolitan, describes an organisation at ease with many different ideas or concepts coming from all levels of the organisation, as well as different people and interactions.  An Agile Culture = Cosmopolitan

Uncertainty avoidance
The uncertainty avoidance indicator is defined as an organisation's tolerance for uncertainty, where people either embrace or prevent the start of an activity where the ‘details’ are unknown and may lead to something unexpected or away from the status quo. Organisations that score a high degree in this demand a lot of upfront requirements, design and planning, even when the actual outcome is not fully known. From a people and HR side they have stiff codes of conduct and heavy Theory X company policies. A lower degree in this shows more acceptance of differing thoughts or ideas, a willingness to explore, with requirements, designs and architectures emerging as you go along, and more autonomy provided for the individual and teams with less imposed regulations.  An Agile Culture = Low Uncertainty Avoidance
Where is your Focus  
In this dimension we look at how leadership works and recognises or rewards the people around them. Power Focus is defined as a preference in an organisation for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Leaders typically take an analytical approach to problem-solving, making logical decisions to find a rational solution and then work tirelessly to implement and analyse the results. 
However, they can come across as overly critical and may not realize when their questions or decisions alienate others. In contrast People Focus has a preference for team spirit, modesty, caring and intrinsic rewards. A relationship-driven leader is more empathetic, patient and tolerant. They approach decision-making subjectively, using personal values as a guide and examining how each option will impact others and develop the people around them.  An Agile Culture = People Focus

Focus on the End Goal
This indicator helps identify the difference between how the organisation views their current and future actions, their challenges and achievements. A Short-term Orientation indicates that short-term goals and immediate gratification are valued. Sales teams push for this month’s figures at the expense of long-term profit, relationships and reputational damage, delivery teams for early deployment at the expense of quality, throwing it over the wall for other to resolve later. On the other hand, Organisations with a Long-term Orientation view the allocation of extended time to people development, continuous improvement and built in quality as a necessity, and are willing to take short-term hits to realise long-term goals or visions. An Agile Culture = Long-term Orientation
Continuous Improvement brings Results
For results or goal focused organisations growth is sometimes incidental: they grow only because their current goal requires them to. Process focused organisations, on the other hand, achieve results because their processes will take them in that direction anyway. For them, growth is not incidental, it is necessary, and results are eventual. Because of this difference, the results focused organisations will not necessarily be able to look beyond the current goal to the next or future goals until they reach their current goal, lurching from goal to goal with little control over the environment, skills or technology that enables great results. A process focused organisation will instead already be preparing for future goals, since everything they do is focused on continuously improving the day to day activities, technological innovation and delivery environment.  An Agile Culture = Process Focus (but with an eye on Accountability)

Control Factor
In organisations with Loose Control company culture, different departments are able to operate without forced coordination between each other and the team members have more autonomy, allowing people to perform their tasks without being micromanaged. This allows them to use their skills and experience to rapidly adapt to changing demands and quickly resolve issues. On the other hand, tightly controlled organisations work in accordance to a more “centralised” operating strategy where management coordinates the activities of all departments. 
This, they perceive, reduces waste in work hours and ‘resources’ because the hierarchy is clearly defined and everyone has a specific role. Even though bottlenecks will result, people know who they are answering to and supervisors know precisely what their employees are doing and so can control all situations.  An Agile Culture = Loose Control     My thanks to Mike Cohn, Diana Larsen and Geert Hofstede for their ongoing inspiration and dedication, and especially to Jorgen Hesselberg for continuously taking the time to chat, uplift and educate. Sir Isaac Newton says it best.
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

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                                                      Jonathan Kessel-Fell
With over 25 years’ experience in the IT industry, Jon is using this knowledge to help support Organisational Agile and DevOps Transformations through his role as an Enterprise Agile Coach, Agile Coach, Training Facilitator and Consultant. He is also sharing his enthusiasm for Agility, Leadership and Cultural Change as a Keynote Speaker at International Conferences and organisational events.  
He is a longstanding and highly respected Coach, having helped lead two of the largest FS Agile Transformations in Europe and has hands-on experience in the Investment, Retail & Online Banking, Business Intelligence, Automotive, Retail & Government sectors.  His professional experience covers:  
> Implementing and maintaining Transformations in adopting Agility in large scale organisations such as UK Government, Barclays, HSBC, BNP Paribas Fortis, Euroclear, Volkswagen, Volvo or IKEA, either as part of the Transformation Leadership (AWG / LACE), a large Coaching Team or as an individual Coach / Consultant.   
> Implementing and supporting Agile@Scale for co-located or distributed teams through the pragmatic application of scaling frameworks such as SAFe, Spotify, Spoti-SAFe, LeSS and Custom-DA.  
> Promotes Agile cultural and environmental change to support and accelerate the adoption of Agility, by tracking adoption progress through continuous improvement and maturity assessments.  
> Guidance in the application of Test Automation, Continuous Integration, and in the use of Agile progress and collaboration tools such as JIRA, JIRA Align, Confluence, Azure DevOps, ServiceNow & Rally.  
> Providing training in Agility and DevOps practices, especially in Leadership, around the globe as a Capgemini University* Qualified Facilitator (UQF) and ICAgile Authorised Trainer.   
* Capgemini University was recognised by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) as one of just 16 accredited corporate universities in the world.

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