Everyone Wants Agile Culture – Why Few Achieve It

What is Culture?

Trendy startups, aspirational businesses, and large organizations that want to mimic the fashionable startups state they have an agile “culture.” These organizations often dupe audiences, but rarely achieve the claim. The big problem – no one seems to know what culture is. Culture is long-lasting; it contains collective norms that remain after the original practitioners have passed and usually survives trials that reinforce its validity as a tool for your group’s survival. When speaking of nations, the 1st imprints of culture emerge based on the most straightforward and fundamental element – their geography. It influences their food, their exposure to threats (competition in the form of humans, weather, predator), clothing, housing structures, etc. If you want to develop an agile culture for your team or organization, it is critical to understand that culture doesn’t just happen – it grows from an origin point. The key to obtaining your desired outcome is setting up a structure that reinforces the agile culture you want around that initial point. That means the surroundings of your team reinforce the right behaviors, make successes easier to obtain, and failures easier to survive. These are three things leaders need to do, to avoid the practice of empty agile:

1) Practice What You Preach

Team members cannot mimic a behavior they have never seen. If you want to be agile, you need to push decision making down. Get comfortable with the discomfort of being accountable for something someone else is responsible for completing. Empower individuals to make decisions (if it requires your signoff, it’s not there yet). There are, of course, limitations to what each person should be empowered to do, but leaders fall short of finding that limit. They emulate helicopter parents because they either fear the consequences of a misstep or desire control. Get to know your team, allow for safe failure, and continuously push and prod the limits of what can be pushed down so your people can grow.

2) Foster Transparency

The ability to adapt requires visibility into what has transpired and what lies ahead. So much so, that “transparency” represents one of Scrum’s three pillars. Given that agility is often synonymous with adaptability, it’s importance cannot be understated. Create environments that let everyone see what items their peers (and you) are actively working. Promote questioning by actively inviting others to disagree or provide alternatives to your own decisions. You can use these moments to teach your team how to question an idea without attacking an individual. This lesson allows team members to leverage transparency to challenge, strengthen, and collaborate with peers on work outputs.

3) Understand Your Context

A critical detail that will spell doom if forgotten is your origin point! What constraints and barriers exist that will fight your implementation. If you’re a startup, it might be churn or growth (culture is long-lasting, and you haven’t been around long!). If you’re in a large organization, it may be a pre-existing culture or pre-existing structures. Be purposeful in analyzing where you are; you may need to tear some buildings down to build new roads to where you want to go.


Don’t fall for the buzzwords. They may dupe outsiders and even your bosses, but they won’t fool your team. They will drudge through the consequence of “agile in name only” if you neglect structuring an environment conducive to the culture you seek.

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