Culture: Some steps to improve it (for Scrum)

I have been thinking a lot about corporate culture lately, and what we can do to change it. For example, to enable Scrum to get better results.

Here is one article by John Kotter.  Pretty good I think.

So, what can we do.  Here’s my advice to myself:

1. “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

In other words, don’t give up before you start.

I think we have to be modest. We don’t control anything, really.  But we all do have influence.  If clever, we can gather and leverage some influence, and make some change happen.

2. Show up.

Show up every day. Do something every day.  Very few of us are great change artists. By working at it every day, we become better and better.

3. Gather your ‘friends’.

Don’t try to do it alone. Never works. I don’t think it has ever worked.  Although if you look at some changes, there has been a stronger clear ‘leader’. In other changes, it appears to be more of a ‘group.’  Even Gandhi and George Washington gathered their fellow ‘agents of change.’

If the change you are proposing is at all good, you will find others to help you. Pull them together. Work together, as best you can.

4. Decide what culture means to you. Be as specific as possible.

Most of us, in my experience, are terribly vague about what we mean by culture.  Make it more specific. Describe what specifically you’d like to change.  Propose, clearly, what you want to add or put in the place of something.

As one minor point: If you say “We need to redesign things around here” many are likely to object. If you say “I want to exchange the old faucet set in the bathroom for this faucet set,”  they might easily agree.  The FUD factor is gone (Fear Uncertainty Doubt).

5. Pull together some ideas about people. You’re going to discover a lot about people.  Your new BFFs.  You need ideas to help talk about people and groups of people.

In my experience, most people don’t understand people very well.  It turns out a few people, over the course of time, have studied people and how they change.  So, study up with these ‘experts’ on what people are like, how they work in groups. How they change.

Get some theories and talk about them with your group of revolutionaries.

I expect, hopefully, that you start to have some sympathy with the people you want to change, whose lives you want to change.  Start to see them as rich complex people in a social milieu. They are not just ‘in the way’ things to fix.  One quote related to this: “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”

Also you will see that people ‘lie.’  They will be supporting the change, or say they will, and then they will become your ‘enemy’ in an important meeting.  Did they really ‘lie?’  Well… it’s complicated.  People are complicated.  Be patient. Be forgiving. Expect some bumps, some surprises.

Freud, Maslow, Daniel Pink, John Kotter, Dan Mezick, Geoffrey Moore, …I am not that picky which theory or theories about people you select. I would look at multiple theories.

6. Decide how you would know if some useful ‘change’ had happened. (eg, “They allow us to start a 2nd Scrum Team and fix these 3 impediments.”)

Metrics. Well, maybe that’s what I mean.

It does not have to be metrics per se.  But, how will you get an idea that you are making progress?  This can be a problem for any kind of knowledge work.  Changing culture is about the most abstract kind of knowledge work I know of.  So, making progress visible with culture change is key.

Culture change can be a hopelessly vague concept.  Example: “We want the culture to accept failure.”

But if you say: “I want George and Sridar to accept that, at the end of the Sprint, the Team may not get all 8 stories done. And this is ok, in part because the Team learned a lot in the Sprint.” — if you say that, then you have made the vague culture change much more do-able.  You can see progress, one Sprint, one Team at a time, or maybe lack of progress. But it is more visible.

7. Define the culture you want in increments.

It is difficult to make a large change happen, all at one time.  I find it hard to lose 5 pounds in a month. And that is a small change for one person.

So, define what you want. Pick a few things in a limited scope.  Then do that.  Pick out the next few things in a limited scope.  Do that.  Step by step.

Allow your plan for change to … change itself.  As you learn more.

The definition of a culture change in this list does not have to be super-precise.  But precise enough that you can ‘feel’ how big each piece is. And feel that it all fits together.  And feel whether those things together will lead to a good result.

There will be, roughly, 3 sizes.

A. Large changes.

Ex: We got 4 teams doing Scrum.  This might all happen in 1 week.

In Lean, they call large changes Kaikaku.

B. Medium changes.

Ex: Team 3 started moving toward TDD at the functional level (A-TDD).  With mostly automated testing.  They do not have automated regression testing yet.  (In some places, this could be a big change.)

C. Small changes

In Lean, they call small changes ‘kaizen.’

Ex: In the Retrospective, we made our Daily Stand-ups better.

Now, even each of these can be made more incremental, if that would help.  Usually taking things step-by-step helps.


These ideas are not everything. We have more.  I think they are a good start. Some of you will note that several are inter-related.  They make more sense together.

To some of you, at least some of these ideas will be basic.  Assumed.  “Of course we do that.”  This is not so for others.  And often we disobey our own obvious rules.  So, remember to talk about these with your change group, and remind them.

Make it so!


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