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Scrum, Kanban, SAFe or LeSS – it is not only the choice of method that teams use to embark on the journey to an agile working environment that plays a critical role in its success. The success or failure of many agile transformations is often down to a mysterious force in the company that is repeatedly addressed but the impact of which is regularly underestimated – the corporate culture.

Simply doing agile is not enough

A department or project team starting its journey towards an agile working model is a change that cannot come soon enough for some employees, while for others it is simply an irritating inconvenience. The team holds workshops to analyse its value stream, examine its work processes and requirements and select a methodology. Everyone quickly agrees to call each other by their first names, as it gives the working environment a modern touch, and off you go – you plan everything based on sprints, hold retrospectives, maintain backlogs and stand around a lot in daily meetings. But it still feels like there is something missing. Decisions are not made quickly enough, employees do not have the impression of being more productive and the newfound transparency becomes a burden. The immediate reaction to this is that your colleagues probably need a mindset workshop. It seems as if everyone involved in the project is lacking ‘agile enablement’.

Do not get me wrong, holding an exciting workshop to discover what agile methods can do and to let people try them out together without any pressure in a new framework is great, and it is a good idea. However, it often only deals with the symptoms and does not change the working environment itself.

The world behind the meetings

Agile working models are based on the firm conviction that people want to achieve great things and that the workplace is a great place to live out self-efficacy. In that case, what needs to change for the team to develop its full potential? The person or the environment?

When I, as an agile coach, come into a team that is new to me, I not only look at the traditional agile artefacts, such as the burndown chart or the WIP level, but also try to understand the environment in which the team is working.

I often find that the corporate culture influences the team and supports agile methods as an external factor – or contradicts them completely. You can generally see the company’s official (or unofficial) values in artefacts.

  • Who are the heroes in the company? Is it the thoughtful project manager who carried out the project without much friction and displayed a high ability to compromise? Or is it the assertive colleague who defended and implemented their ideas despite a number of opinions to the contrary?
  • What does the office building say about cooperation in the company? Are there a lot of individual offices where employees are supposed to work undisturbed, or are there a lot of meeting rooms that are quick and easy to book and contain lots of material that can be used immediately?
  • Is the company’s corporate colour scheme vibrant and unique or is there an emphasis on a high degree of uniformity?

Other cultural aspects also usually play a key role in the cooperation of agile teams, for example

  • The professional culture that develops in individual professional and development paths – and has a strong influence on factors such as risk-taking or going with gut feelings, for instance.
  • The national/regional culture that shapes and forms employees long before they enter the workforce.
  • Family cultures and customs, which can themselves vary greatly from region to region and shape employees’ self-image from an early age.

As a coach, you can only ever look at these aspects from the outside and get in touch with the employees concerned in order to understand and evaluate how their cultural background affects the cooperation. And therein lies the challenge of this profession.

Are the team members heavily detail-oriented and do they try to do every job with a high degree of accuracy and conscientiousness? Or is speed or functionality more important? Do they like to create a lot of documentation or do they prefer to use resources to meet customer needs more quickly?

From doing agile to being agile

Agility only works in an environment where the Scrum values (focus, openness, commitment, respect, courage – and also simplicity) are practised and promoted – independently of Scrum or Kanban. This is the foundation for agile working from my point of view. The question is then what can I do to shape not only the mindset of the team members, but also the corresponding work culture?

A change management toolbox is crucial for the coach here.

The team is not the only target of the change – the company environment the team works in clearly is as well. The course of agile transformations is heavily dependent on the corporate culture of the company involved undergoing a transformation – meaning it is heavily dependent on those supporting the transformation, too.

In the end, the success of a cultural transformation is mainly determined by one question: can the agile coach successfully plant new values and cultural artefacts in the company?

If they manage to shape the environment in which the team is active in based on its tasks, to build on the strengths of the existing corporate culture and to complement it with new facets, then nothing will stand in the way of the team making a successful start in the agile world. Otherwise, the corporate culture will stop the beginnings of new work and communication processes before they can start.

What is the situation at your company? Are you still ‘doing agile’ – or are you already on the way to ‘being agile’?

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Picture Joy Borsutzki

Author Joy Borsutzki

Joy Borsutzki is an expert in agile project management and agile transformation of companies in a waterfall context. For more than 10 years, he has been advising departments and (project) teams on the introduction of agile methods, giving lectures and researching the characteristics of modern, human-centred corporate cultures in the VUCA environment. As an agile coach, he is primarily active in the insurance and banking sector at team level.

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