What is culture? When do we start to change it?

Some of us in the Agile community think:  an organization’s culture needs to change before agile can be fully adopted.

This certainly seems to be true.

Let’s define this more precisely.  The idea is this:

Before a company can realize the full and extreme benefits of lean-agile-scrum, it must change its corporate culture to be consistent with lean-agile-scrum values and principles.

This can seem a daunting task.

First, what is culture?

To me, it is that air in which we live and breathe and have our being.  Well, not exactly that.  It is the culture of the main group or groups within which we work.  It is what is in our heads (or the average head), as a group. It is values, norms and common expected behaviors.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.  (Peter Drucker)

So, if we think culture is dominant, it includes the idea that we are not individuals (so much), but rather we are more ‘groups’, and that the key ideas, values or principles or norms of the group ‘control’ to a large extent our individual behavior.  Without our even thinking about it.

Now, from one point of view in terms of change, in many ways, the new behavior is more important than new thoughts (or subconscious thoughts or feelings).  But we want the people to be autonomous, and ‘do it on their own’, so we want the thoughts or feelings to be there, so they naturally do it, naturally act agile, on their own.  And continue to do so.

Moreover, we want the broader culture to be consistent with agile.  With lean-agile-scrum.  People typically find, if they do things consistent with the culture, those things seem relatively easy. And, if you do things counter to the culture, it usually is hard or at least harder.  So, having an agile culture should mean that agile will be more successful. Other things being equal.

Ways of changing

Asking people to change their culture is difficult.

Well, clearly to ask “the culture” is not difficult, in the sense that talking is not difficult. But to ask, and expect results, and then to know if results actually occurred…that is difficult.

Let’s consider 3 ways to make cultural change:

1. Talk to them.

Depending on your point of view, this is either remarkably successful or remarkably unsuccessful.

I mean this: My expectation is that this should have almost no impact.  Yet, for a few people, it can have an impact.  Sometimes.  For a period of time. So, compared to my expectations, this can be remarkably successful, sometimes.

There are many ways to talk to them, or with them. Many different contexts, different people who can do it, frequency, etc, etc. A lot more to discuss than we will discuss here today.

From another point of view, many people expect this approach to be very successful. And, compared to that expectation, it is remarkably unsuccessful.  Often it turns out to be ‘just words’ and no real change.  Or maybe some real change that fairly quickly reverts back to the old culture.

2. Get them to act and ‘reward’ their good behavior.

Pretty close to classic behaviorist theory.  Maybe it works. It is not tried often.  And, it must be tried a lot, I think, to have it replace the old culture with the new culture.

Actions come in many shapes and sizes, including speaking original or new words.  Rewards come in many types.  Rewards must be close in time to the action.

Frankly, this is treating people like monkeys or dogs. I don’t want to believe in this theory. But it is there.  There seems to be some real truth to it.

3. Have them experience something

What you want to do is get them to help you create the new culture.  You teach them a bit, and then they become self-acting.  By teaching themselves things, they begin to replace the old culture with the new culture themselves.

If you are clever, you can start to build this self-reinforcing system.

According to Kotter, it starts with a gut experience. An experience that is fairly profound. That gets them to commit to changing themselves. Kotter calls it ‘a sense of urgency.’

We mention, in another post, the idea of Open Space Agility.  This enables everyone to co-create the new culture and the new “way of working.” In simple terms, not just the internal ethos, but also the practical practices.  We recommend this, but it needs leadership.

Let me say again:  Changing the culture is the work of many months (or more) for a group of people, and then the new culture will start to replace the old culture (or, be overwhelmed by the old culture).  It takes many months and many people before it starts to be self-sustaining.

So, given the likely counter-action by the original culture, what you need is not one experience per person, but multiple experiences.


If it is a culture of mediocrity, then sustaining it is less of a problem. But if the new culture is (or should be) a culture of high achievement and difficult tasks, it can take extra energy to maintain it at a high level.  (I think this is the case for lean-agile-scrum.  It has many pleasures or rewards, but it is demanding in terms of energy commitment and overcoming obstacles.)  So, a focus on the successes and pleasures can clearly be part of sustaining the new culture.

Let me make clearer what we are doing with this last method.  We are not just asking them to change. We are inviting them to join us in changing the culture. Maybe quickly, maybe little-by-little.  We are inviting them to participate and become engaged in ‘making it happen’.  Over time.

By the way, often in inviting them, you tell them to do something concrete, or what seems concrete, such as fixing an impediment.  But, if you ask me, what is really happening is that they are changing each others’ culture.


In the above words I have over-simplified.  To explain some key basics.  Much I did not say, but a start in setting out a basic framework.

One tip bears repeating: It is easy to start out to ‘change the culture’ and end up accomplishing nothing.  Be careful.  Pick your battles.  Prioritize. Get small wins.  Build on progress.  And check that behaviors are changing.

It is, in many ways, a battle in the air over ideas. But make it concrete and tangible too. Show the new culture in actions.  Then others can help you.

Lastly, let people tell you the truth.  As one example: If they can’t explain well why we do a specific thing in Scrum, do not punish them for being human. Give them some support.  Maybe add a local person in their location to support the change.  Changing the culture is not easy.


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