Is culture change necessary?

Posted by Doc
Aug 10 2010

I’m spending a lot of time doing training these days. Training on various aspects of Agile Software Development, with a focus on Extreme Programming (XP) and Scrum, although it’s not specific to those approaches/schools of thought.

Most of what people hear is foreign to what they’re accustomed to. Among other things, there’s a different way of managing their work, organising their work and their team, and communicating with the rest of the organisation.

Inevitably, someone will ask “Is it possible to be successful in adopting these practices without an organisational culture change?”

That’s a hard one, because achieving culture change in a large organisation is like turning an ocean liner. It takes a lot of energy, and doesn’t happen quickly.

And yet, I would say that it is not possible to adopt different practices and methodologies – in this case, specifically, Agile Software Development – without a culture change.

The interfaces between the levels of an organisation change. People who expect status and progress reports are now going to be told “come look at our story wall and our burn-up chart.”

The interfaces between the different peer organisations change. If one organisation is still working in the “old” way, then there are serious challenges in working together with an agile organisation that is doing iterative work.

The interfaces between the agile organisation and its external vendors/partners change. Sometimes, it forces a change of vendors. In the Toyota world of the Toyota Production System, their vendors/partners/suppliers not only had to adopt TPS, but were also treated as though they were part of Toyota. As with so much else in agile, there’s far less us vs. them and far more us.

Recognition changes. Instead of a culture of heroism and a culture of blame, we have a culture of shared commitment, shared responsibility, and shared ownership. As a result, recognition and accomplishment go to the team instead of the individual.

Can it be done? Can you adopt “agile” without an organisational culture change?

I’d say no.

5 Responses

  1. Twitter Comment

    RT @athought: Blogged: Is culture change necessary? [link to post]

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  2. Twitter Comment

    Yes, yes, yes. Anything else is fleeting. RT @athought: Blogged: Is culture change necessary? [link to post]

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  3. Twitter Comment

    Is culture change necessary? [link to post]

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  4. Jason Yip says:

    I would see the question as odd because I consider culture change to be a result not an input. Is behaviour change necessary? Yes. Will this lead to a change in the stated and actual values believed in the organisations (aka culture)? Yes.

    • Doc says:

      I agree completely. I hope I didn’t say that they were causal. Rather, I don’t believe that behaviour change – adopting a new set of principles, practices, methodologies – can occur unless the larger body is receptive to change and unless that change accompanies the behaviour change. If they just do the practices without recognising and understanding what that means, then they will most likely revert to earlier behaviours that are consistent with their culture.

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