Cultural change: overcoming the number one barrier to Agile success

By Amy Finn

Changing employee behaviour is an essential part of any successful transformation programme. But old habits die hard, and cultural and behavioural change is often one of the biggest challenges organisations face.

When the creators of the Agile Manifesto met in 2001 they developed a set of values and behaviours. But when organisations start their Agile journey, all too often the focus is on new tools and methods – working in sprints and setting up backlogs.

In my experience, while there’s value in having Agile practices in place, having the right culture to support those practices will increase the benefit exponentially. In an Agile environment, decisions are decentralised, experimentation valued and cross-functional teams work collaboratively and transparently. This is about more than just tools and techniques, it’s adopting a new value set and a new approach to work.

So how can leaders begin to transform culture and accelerate their Agile approach? Here are three areas to think about.

Engage the whole organisation

Embedding an agile mind-set and practices needs to extend beyond delivery teams. Organisations won’t see the full benefit of agility unless all areas of the business adopt new attitudes and behaviours, as points of tension which slow progress will emerge. For example, if HR takes three months to bring in the skills and capabilities required to support an Agile team, overall progress will be blocked. Similarly, if procurement teams are only set up to contract for outputs rather than outcomes, this will slow progress.

I saw how important this drive to engage the whole organisation is with a UK regulator. The organisation was undergoing a full Agile transformation, so we worked with the CxO community to create a commitment to ‘delivering excellence iteratively’ organisation wide. This involved training over 500 employees – including finance, HR, commercial and technology teams in Agile values and ways of working.

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Pull the right levers

Levers such as reward, recognition and organisational structures can play a powerful role in changing behaviours fast.

Reward and recognition are usually attained through achievement of specific outputs or delivering key projects. In an Agile environment, team outcomes should be measured and rewarded, as should efforts to ensure continuous improvement, innovation and collaboration.

Traditional organisational structures are often hierarchical, with layers of governance that must be navigated before approval is given or funding granted. Specialist skills are siloed into separate teams. Agile organisations must move at pace, so they need to decentralise decision-making and create flatter, cross-functional structures – sometimes known as pods or scrums.

I helped a leading global pharmaceutical company create a more collaborative organisation to support their Agile transformation. This included setting up an Agile Centre of Excellence to train over 1,500 employees. As a result of greater collaboration, change managers delivered their programmes faster than with a conventional, sequential approach.

Put users at the heart

Shifts in economics, demographics, politics and technology mean the world is in a state of hyper-change. This change can no longer be delivered through big static programmes. Instead, organisations have to accept that constant change is the new norm and adapt their delivery approach accordingly.

When it comes to transformation, users’ needs should be the driving force. Rather than thinking of transformation programmes as responsible for delivering a product with a shelf-life, shift the focus onto the delivery of a set of iterative, value-driven outcomes for a group of users. This move to a service mind-set drives focus and innovation.

Getting staff to adopt new behaviours is essential for any successful transformation – and in particular for organisations embedding agility. That’s why the Agile Manifesto puts such emphasis on how Agile teams should behave. Building a culture of agility can be difficult and an aligned leadership team is essential, as they are the organisation’s cultural architects. Our experience shows that focusing on cultural and behavioural change will ensure much greater benefit is realised from Agile practices.

About the authors

Amy Finn PA people and talent expert

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