How to Grow a Healthy Agile Culture


At the heart of Agile transformation is culture change. And the two most important ingredients in an Agile culture are: 1) an organizational commitment to relentless learning and improvement; and 2) an organizational commitment to self-management.


In times of rapid, disruptive change, we either evolve or face extinction. MIT’s Peter Senge taught us how to survive by building a "learning organization" committed to continuous listening, learning, improving, and innovating. Before that Edwards Deming gave us the iterative, incremental "Plan-Do-Check-Act" cycle. Deming got it from a physicist, Walter Shewhart, because scientific research and development evolves the same way. And Shewhart learned it from philosophers, who call it empiricism, because it's how most of life works.

So there is much we know about building a healthy culture of relentless learning and improvement. We know we must build a closed-loop, metrics-based feedback system focused on the 3 P's of Success: business Performance, business Process, and business People. Agile is designed to help us do this via principles such as visibility and transparency, and Agile practices such as stand-ups, showcases, and retrospectives.

We know we must build a process to ensure the team-level learning--the most important learning--is shared across the organization and affects management decisions at all levels of the organization. And we know we must engage our teams in building all this because whoever builds it owns it.

Most important, leaders must lead and become the change you want to see—to quote Ghandi. Brad Smith, CEO at TurboTax, once said his most important business discipline is asking the people around him, on a regular basis: “How am I doing? What did I miss? What can I do different? How can I be better?" "And I have two rules,” he said. “First, you can’t tell me I’m doing fine because that doesn’t help me, you, or the business and, second, I must do something constructive with your feedback.”

That’s a personal discipline you want to develop, model for others, and encourage in others. Because organizational change only happens as more and more individual members make the personal commitment to relentless learning and improvement.

The second ingredient in a healthy Agile culture is an organizational commitment to self-management. Why? Because you want a high-performing team. Gallup’s annual Employment Engagement research shows that only three out of 10 employees are engaged. Imagine if you had four, or five, people who care?

Long ago, organizational psychologists taught us that great teams are made up of people who feel wanted, they feel needed, and they derive a strong sense of purpose from their work. More recently, behavioral scientists have added to that a growing sense of mastery and autonomy, or self-management.

If your job is to manage others, you'll get a team; if your job is to equip and empower others to manage themselves, providing both the skill and the will they need to succeed, you'll get a high-performing team.

So now what? A first step is to discuss all this with your team. Because, as Peter Senge says: “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” The conversation might go something like this: “Think about a great team you’ve been part of. What made it a great team? Hopefully you’ve had that experience; if not, this will be your first.” (We’re setting up positive expectations here.) “If not, think about a bad team you’ve been part of. What might have made it a great team? Write down everything you can think of, then we’ll collect it anonymously, talk through it, and agree on shared values and ground rules, a social contract.”

Committed to relentless learning and improvement, and to self-management, you’re well on your way to growing a healthy Agile culture. Bon Voyage!

Mo Hagar has led Agile transformations since 2005 for dozens of Fortune 500 companies, state and federal agencies, and the US military. Visit us at Solution-Focused Agile and let us know how we can help you get IT done!

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