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Why Culture-First or Practice-First Agile Transformations Don’t Work

In our industry, we notice there are typically two ways people want to approach Agile Transformation. Either they want to add in practices like Scrum or SAFe and go from there, or try to shift the culture through beliefs and mindsets first. The trouble is, neither of these really works. 

Inserting Agile Culture First

It’s a very commonly held belief that if we can change the mindsets of people in the organization, they will adopt the practices. Once they adopt the practices, then that will get us to break the impediments necessary to get us working in an Agile way.

We expect that leaders will start to delegate authority and push the work down to the people most able to do the work. We think this will work because we want to empower and trust our people, and not be “command and control.” Maybe we have consultants come in and do mindset or beliefs training, etc. 

The idea is if we can let the people closest to the ground decide how to do the work, then we will be able to operate with greater Agility. The problem is that this doesn’t produce benefits quickly enough, even if you somehow miraculously do get 5,000 people to do it.

Culture first is a great idea. But in reality,  it doesn’t work. How do you get all the hearts and minds to change and then align into an operating model that’s going to produce the business results you want without injecting chaos into the organization? This may work at a small scale. But at a large scale, you simply won’t get the alignment you need to then get practice adoption sufficient and your impediments organically removed fast enough to demonstrate business results. It’ll fall apart before you ever get there.

Implementing Agile Practices First

Alternatively, we think it sounds easier to install Agile practices first. This one is easy to buy into because it’s so easy to hire a SAFe trainer, or go to Scrum school. 

The idea is that we can take the organization in place and teach it the mechanics of Scrum or SAFe. Then when we start doing the practices, they will show us our organizational impediments, technology architecture problems, organizational design problems, governance problems, leadership problems, and so forth. By doing the practices at the team level and removing our impediments we’re going to get the systems changes we want in our structure, governance, and metrics. If we just learn the practices, then the systems will emerge and our culture will begin to change. 

In reality, what we find is that the impediments are quite often outside the purview of a Scrum team, so on the ground the practices start bending to the immutable systems within the organization. Scrum and SAFe aren’t adaptable to the organization. The organization has to be adapted to the practices. 

When you add practices overlaid on a broken system, not only does it create cynicism around those practices, but the culture is never going to emerge because there’s so much incongruence because the system doesn’t work.

Creating a Foundation of Systems First 

The idea behind a systems-first Transformation is that we know the kinds of problems in systems that are out there. So why don’t we start by enabling those systems? 

What we want to do is anchor on The Three Things: teams, backlogs, and working tested product, which at scale become structure, governance, and metrics. Our hypothesis is that if we can get teams formed, operate off of known backlogs, at a stable velocity, in a model focused on small batches, that are strategically aligned—we design a knowable system. That system is where we start.

Then we enable that system with practices like Scrum, Kanban, etc. at each layer. If we enable a realistic viable system with the right kinds of practices, what we end up doing is getting the culture shift we want over time. 

Yes, it’s true that no matter what, there has to be a culture change eventually. But we want to answer the question of, “How do we get culture to change at scale?” We get there by first getting the structure, governance, and metrics sorted out. Then let the culture follow. 

When you start by first getting the system aligned in a way that you know is going to deliver effective results, teach the right practices at each level of the organization based on what they do, and then coach the culture so it changes over time—that’s when you’ll start getting the business outcomes you want because your Transformation will actually work.



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