Agile culture – what's behind, what's in it?
12 October 2020
Posted by: Dr. Stefanie Puckett
Corporate culture is the one biggest obstacle and at the same time the biggest lever in agile transformations. This is one thing that practitioners and researchers agree on. So how does culture become a lever?
Corporate culture – between phantom and excuse
Talking about corporate culture might seem a little fluffy for many. Others may have experienced the gravity corporate culture holds when trying to make a change. While the first ones are not so sure such a culture thing really exists, the others conveniently use it as an excuse why things aren`t moving in the right direction. Key is, culture exists, and yes, it can hold you back but it can also pitchfork you ahead.
Look at forests or fields. If people visit them, you`ll find traces, a path. Now most of us, visiting the area for the first time look for this path and follow it. Why not? It is easier to walk on and will guide us.
In the corporate world, this is, too, how culture manifests itself. Providing a path for working and problem solving. How do people approach their work and solve problems? What attitudes determine the way people set priorities, take decisions and collaborate? Unwritten rules, shared assumptions. Manifested collective experience in what worked in the past that we pass on to help others assimilate and avoid “doing the wrong thing.”
There is the often-described story of the five monkeys, a story that is a tale based on a study of learned responses among Rhesus Monkeys (Stephenson, 1966): Bananas hung on the ceiling of the monkey cage, too high to reach but with a ladder underneath it. Each time, a monkey would use the ladder to reach the bananas, he would get sprayed with water. They stopped trying. Furthermore, when a new monkey would be added to the group, he was prevented to use the ladder from the other monkeys. And when the next new monkey joins, this very monkey, who had never been sprayed, participated in preventing the new monkey from using the ladder.
Makes you understand parts of why culture is the biggest obstacle in an agile transformation. But let`s focus on the potential the “right” culture has to establish and sustain organisational and business agility.
The “right” culture for organisational agility – the TEC Culture Code
Combining insights from organisational psychology with culture observations in successful agile companies and transformations, the TEC model (Puckett, 2020) describes three elements as the common denominator of agility-promoting culture.
The three elements start with transparency. Transparency builds the base on which everyone can use their brains to advance the organisation. Everyone can take informed-decisions and think strategically. Transparency also supports trust.
Empowerment is the second element that – in short – allows people to act on the insights they gain. Responsibility is moved to the front line where decisions can be made and implemented fast, and close to the customer.
Collaboration, lastly, makes sure that knowledge is shared and combined. It enables fast and strong reactions to the market, as people organised in flexible networks focus on contributing what and where they can add the most value. Through collaborative reflection and adaption, the company advances.
Pillar 1: Transparency
1. Information: transparency with information and data
To keep up with changes in market, technology and customer preferences, a company needs every employee to use their eyes and ears. With also internal data and sources accessible, everyone can make informed and strategic decisions. With company and market figures available, people can come up with ideas and identify opportunities.
2. Intention: transparency with intention and plans
To channel ideas and align personal effort with the organisation`s priorities, one needs to know those in real time and be clear on the vision and strategy. Sharing plans and their goals and intentions will generate trust and inspire independent thoughts and solutions on how to achieve those goals. Everyone can prioritise and adjust accordingly.
3. Effect: transparency with results and impact
To self-organise and -steer, teams need to be able to track their success, to evaluate the impact of their work on strategic company goals, the success of other departments and customer response. Direct access to feedback and data reflecting the effects of their doing, makes it possible for teams to self-correct and identify needs for adjustment and ways to optimize.
Pillar 2: Empowerment
1. Freedom: freedom to adapt and create
To come up with creative and innovative ideas, one needs freedom to explore and experiment at work, to try things differently and try different things. Room to maneuver is key to adapt to changing circumstances, too.
2. Enablement: empowerment to take charge
The more responsibility we move to the edges of the organisation, the more autonomy we give teams, the faster they can adapt to changes, mitigate risks, and seize opportunities.
3. Ownership: ownership with a bias toward action
The possibility to take ownership for an initiative, to hold end-to-end responsibility, encourages entrepreneurship and demolishes the “not-my-job-attitude”.
Pillar 3: Collaboration
1. Exchange: collaboration through exchange and sharing
In order to come up with complex and connected solutions, people need to be connected. Knowledge needs to be shared and combined in new ways, and multiple perspectives need to be included.
2. Contribution: collaboration through contribution and flexibility
The focus must lay on value creation. Therefore, utilising one`s talents to make contributions when and where needed is key. This requires open job descriptions and role flexibility as well as structures that allow building and rebuilding teams fast.
3. Learning: collaboration through learning and growing together
To stay competitive and advance, organisations explore, reflect and adapt. A psychologically safe environment, where people leave their comfort zone and take risks, talk about failure and are open to learn from each other, is key.
Agility lies in the way we advance, respond to change, operate, in the way we work, short: in the corporate culture. To develop that culture to support agility does not have to take much. Sometimes, small measures make a big difference. The TEC model can provide an orientation.
We are culture. Let`s look at our own area of influence, what and where do we need to tweak, to set ourselves and our immediate environment up for agility?
Source: Puckett, S. (2020). THE AGILE CULTURE CODE – A guide to organisational agility. BusinessVillage.
Dr. Stefanie Puckett, psychologist, has lived and worked globally for several consulting firms, in management and global roles for a Fortune 500 company, and ran her own business.
Agile transformation has become her passion as a consultant and executive coach. Stefanie is co-author of “Agile Leadership – leadership competencies for the agile transformation” (BusinessVillage, 2020) and author of “The agile culture code – a guide to organisational agility” (BusinessVillage, 2020).