“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” – Peter Drucker
This is the first in a series of articles that I will be writing concerning the various aspects of individual and organizational culture and their impact on agile transformations. During this journey, I will be providing my own insights, as well as those obtained from the likes of William E. Schneider, John P. Cotter, Michael Sahota, Michael Spayd, Lyssa Adkins, Frederic Laloux, and many other people who have influenced me either through my job, teaching, mentoring, books, or articles.
For the purposes of this article, I am dividing both personal and organizational culture into two levels of manifestation: The Open Level, which involves interaction and is on display for the world to see, and the Concealed Level, which involves values and beliefs, and can be hidden.
The Open Level of personal culture reflects how an individual interacts with others, how he/she reacts to given situations, and his/her habits (i.e. habitual nature).
The way an individual interacts with others will vary and will depend on many factors, not the least of which is his/her relationship with those with whom he/she is interacting. Interactions between close family members will differ from those with indirect family members, friends, coworkers, etc.
How an individual reacts to situations is just as varied as his/her relationships with other people. During times of stress, some people will laugh or cry, others will shout, some may even become verbally abusive. Regardless of how an individual responds to situations, much of it can be directly tied to his/her own personal culture.
Habits are an interesting aspect of personal culture. An individual’s habitual nature is an amalgam of his/her life experiences to include where the individual was raised, his/her religious upbringing and beliefs, the societal norms of his/her tribe/family, and his/her educational experiences. It is important to note that habits can change. For instance, moving from a northern state to a southern state or from one country to another can greatly modify an individual’s habitual nature as can changes in religion and/or religious perspective, joining the military, and/or traveling around the world.
Culture emerges from experience, and I believe that experience is a result of the development, continuation, and modification of habits.
The second cultural level, the Concealed Level, is concerned with an individual’s personal values and beliefs. Many times, an individual’s values and/or beliefs are in direct opposition to the cultural aspects he/she displays on the Open Level. For instance, an individual can appear to be outwardly compassionate and understanding; yet in private, he/she can be cruel and abusive. An individual may openly support civil rights, yet inside he/she may harbor hatred for groups of people because of their race or sexual preference.
At this point, you may be asking what all of this has to do with a personal agile transformation. In my opinion, an individual’s personal culture will determine whether he/she will have an easy or difficult agile transformation.
Speaking strictly from my own personal culture, my transformation to agile was very easy in the beginning—when I was learning to “do agile.” All that changed when I left the path of just “doing agile” and began my journey down the path of “being agile.” I will not lie. At times, I have found the transformation from just “doing agile” to “being agile” difficult.
I will go deeper into my personal cultural agile transformation in the next article; but I would be remiss, if I did not say that “being agile” has changed not only my professional life but my personal life as well. It wasn’t until I really started “being agile” that I realized that I needed to take a closer look at my own personal culture and the impact that it was having not only on myself but possibly on the agile transformations of my clients. This realization and the soul searching that it brought about has made me a far better person and a more effective agile coach.
But I digress. . . . Let us move on to . . .
The Open Level of organizational culture also encompasses interaction to include:
- Interaction between executives, mid-level managers, and non-management employees
- Interaction between individuals within the group/division
- Interaction between a group/division with another group/division in the same organization
- Interaction between an organization and 3rd party contractors
- Interaction between an organization and customers
How people respond to stress within their organization is dependent upon the personal culture of the individual employee, the personal culture of the management staff, and the personal culture of the organization as a whole. Some organizations are exacting and demanding of their employees and will accept nothing less than perfection. In these organizations, mistakes are taboo and could possibly end a person’s career. Other organizations are understanding and accept mistakes as an opportunity for growth.
In my experience, the Concealed Level of an organization is where conflict between an employee’s personal culture and that of the organization is most prevalent. Some organizations paint a wonderful picture of having high moral values on the outside, yet internally they expect their employees to “win at all costs.”
In an organizational agile transformation, the underbelly of the concealed level of organizational culture is exposed when executives and management staff say they support an agile transformation but their actions/habits reveal otherwise.
As you can see, organizations are an amalgam of the personal cultural experiences of their employees. One employee may fear an agile transformation will cost him his job, another may just fear the change that the transformation will bring about. Both will have different cultural experiences, and both will fight the agile transformation based upon these experiences.
Carl Jung said, “It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.” How we look at things truly does depend on our personal cultural experiences. We then bring these experiences into the workplace and they become part of our organizational cultural experience.
People are different. In life, as in agile, there is no one size fits all. A successful agile transformation requires teamwork. Teamwork requires collaboration. Collaboration requires trust, effective communication, and an overall understanding, by all involved, that everyone’s needs and concerns are going to be addressed.
Teamwork and collaboration are enhanced when the individual team members feel that they are not only heard but also understood. A common goal requires unity, and unity requires understanding. This is why it is imperative that the agile coach understand not only the organization’s cultural narrative but also the team members’ personal cultural narratives as well.
Assessing the clients’ personal and organizational cultures is an integral part of a successful agile transformation. Organizational change is never easy, but a successful agile transformation depends upon it.