People before process: How culture catalyses Agile change

By Emily Stammers, Fin Reddy

Research shows that in nearly half of all cases, the move to organisational agility fails because the current culture is at odds with Agile values. It’s clear that adopting organisational agility requires as much a focus on culture as it does ways of working and operating models.

On a journey towards enterprise-wide agility, many organisations begin by ‘doing Agile’. They adopt the tools, processes, and practices that are needed: the stand-ups, sprints, and introduction of tickets and stories. But while considering method, what’s often left behind is the all-encompassing Agile mindset; the drive for customer-obsession, collaborative ethos, and the need to embrace change.

Without focusing on creating an Agile culture, transformation stagnates as there’s no compelling case for change, or recognition of the value in new ways of working. In the dynamic landscape of an organisation’s journey to agility, Peter Drucker’s statement “culture eats strategy for breakfast” takes on a new dimension.

The Agile Manifesto, the guiding light for Agile philosophy and principles, puts customer-centricity at the heart of an Agile organisation. In fact, during an Agile transformation, it’s arguably the most important thing. This means ensuring value for customers is the centre of your culture. It should guide everything you do, from strategy to delivery. Many organisations talk about putting customers at the heart of everything they do, but very few have genuinely achieved it. Placing customer-centricity at the heart of culture means every individual in your organisation is empowered to collectively create customer value in all their actions.

To begin to move the dial on an Agile culture, and simultaneously become more customer-centric, focus on three important principles:

1. Creating professional excellence

Excellent teams strive to beat their own benchmark. These teams include multi-skilled, diverse, and curious individuals who seek to continuously improve. An experimental learning mindset means teams stay current and balance delivery and strategic long-term self-development. Professional excellence is promoted through:

  • Implementing Communities of Practice (COPs): Through our collaboration with a global bank, we created COPs for colleagues to develop mastery, collaborate, and refine ways of working. These communities supported the development of an innovation culture through knowledge acquisition by providing the tools, systems, and space needed for colleagues to learn new technical and business practices, primarily from one another.
  • Moving away from a traditional approach to recruitment: The multi-skilled nature of building Agile teams means that organisations can take advantage of skills- and aptitude-based recruitment. Rather than focusing on a set of fixed roles with defined tasks, and instead focusing on outcomes that need to be delivered and the skillsets required to do so, organisations can harness the strategic value of expanding and diversifying talent pipelines. We helped a national cyber organisation find non-traditional talent using an aptitude-based approach. Through extensive profiling to understand the specific aptitudes that differentiate high performers, we opened the door to new career pathways and unlocked new pools of talent.

2. Enabling autonomous delivery

Being able to consistently deliver value to customers, and respond to their changing needs, are fundamental traits of Agile organisations. Alignment between the team’s delivery and the organisation’s wider strategy and purpose, while maintaining adaptability and reliability in delivering on commitments, is essential. Organisations can support this continuous delivery of customer needs by:

  • Going with the flow: By Introducing Fixed Capacity Planning, the ability to complete work within a given time frame, Agile teams commit to delivering a fixed amount of work crucially prioritised against the value it adds to the customer. This fosters a sense of ownership and accountability throughout teams. By managing their own velocity, teams can ensure that the work they do is generating the most for their customers and ensure their workload is balanced – an increasing priority in today’s ‘always-on’ work culture and guarding against burnout.
  • Empowering teams to prioritise, plan, and replan: In an Agile culture, teams have the confidence, and safety, to pull work into scope, based on changing information and situations. Whether it’s because of change in capacity, capability, or context, teams have full control over how they get work done, leading to empowerment and satisfaction.

3. Developing a community culture

To unlock a culture of agility, people must come before process. This means adopting a community culture; empowering your people by embedding psychologically safe spaces to share insight and ensuring employees feel heard. Communities can be created by:

  • Investing in employee-centricity: The concept of 'employee-centricity' is gaining momentum as organisations recognise value is created through the skills and talents of their people. By actively investing in initiatives that boost engagement, organisations ensure employees feel supported, empowered and psychologically safe – all of which is a catalyst for innovation. When employees are comfortable proposing new ideas and taking calculated risks, they are more likely to come up with innovative solutions to meet complex customer challenges, and therefore create a culture of customer-centricity.
  • Empowering across all levels: Leaders play a key role in the empowerment of their people. By creating workspaces that are transparent and dynamic – through embedding continuous feedback loops to actively gather insight, ‘open door’ style initiates such as fishbowl meetings and Shadow Boards – leaders give employees a voice. Given that 60 percent of hybrid employees say their manager is their most direct connection to company culture, the role of leaders as champions for culture is critical to embedding a community ethos.

Achieving a culture of agility isn’t just a nice concept – to truly transform into an Agile organisation, it’s a necessity. Whilst organisations can do Agile by adopting tools, processes, and structures, they can’t be Agile without fully investing in their culture.

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