Considering an Agile Culture

We are on a journey to being an agile organisation. In this post, the second in the Business Agility series, I describe our thinking on the type of culture we wanted to create prior to us leaping into implementing change.

Culture trumps everything and as Simon Sinek said “people don’t ask what you do, they ask why you do it.” So, starting with a clear idea of how the Assurity of the future feels is a great starting point.

Our first failure came quickly and rather awkwardly. We were missing an important pre-requisite: we weren’t entirely clear on our Purpose. How could we possibly define our desired culture unless we were all on board with our purpose?

As a leadership team, culture was something we frequently discussed, however our agile journey required us to crytalise it into something simple, accessible, tangible and clear.

We started with what we believed – what motivated our people to leap out of bed every day: “we believe there are much better ways to deliver software. We want to help NZ companies achieve this.” We then translated this into a simple Purpose:

We will lead New Zealand in the delivery of better software outcomes.

This speaks to a number of things. Firstly, we are all about “better” – better software, better outcomes, better companies, better lives.

Secondly, we are all about delivery. There are a number of different types of consulting firms. We like getting in there and doing. We are squarely a delivery consultancy.

Thirdly, we strive to be brave enough to lead. This is important as it helps guide us when making difficult trade-offs. Should we take on this piece of work if we can’t influence for a better way of working? What should our consultants do when they can see a better way of working but there are entrenched positions to overcome?

And finally, we are focused on New Zealand. While we might look at opportunities overseas from time to time, our purpose is all about helping New Zealand companies improve.

If you are struggling with purpose here are a couple of things that might help:

  1. Trying asking yourself what would happen if your company disappeared? What hole in the market would that leave? What would people miss? THAT is your purpose.
  2. Jim Collins book Good to Great has an excellent model called the Hedgehog Concept. It is designed to use iteratively over time to get extremely clear on your purpose.

Hedgehog-Concept
While this all sounds simple, it took us a number of years to get ours to a point where we are happy with it.

With our purpose relatively clear when then wanted to understand our current state. If we desired an agile mindset aligned to our purpose, what was our current mindset? We used Ahmed Sidky’s definition of agile an agile mindset to check ourselves – “what is your established set of attitudes and habits towards succeeding when there is uncertainty and change?

The honest answer? With the exception of our agile coaches, we found in general, when faced with uncertainty we tended to

  • reach for process as a means for control
  • engage in extensive consultation with anyone who might be impacted with what we are considering
  • escalate issues to company leaders (typically our CEO), with the belief that we weren’t in a position to make decisions (despite there being little or no evidence of this).

The result had shaped a culture that didn’t fit what we wanted. Good people felt constrained and frustrated, unable to implement new concepts and this was leading to attrition. In order to change we needed to understand was what sort of mindset were we trying to develop?

Enter Carol Dweck’s work on mindset (note Carol recently released an update to her work, based on concerns that many people were misapplying her concepts. In her update she alters “growth mindset” to “learning mindset” and I used that term here).

 

mindset

 

In the face of uncertainty we were applying a fixed mindset.

Assurity started as a software testing company and our culture had rewarded the deeply analytical and rigorous approach of a software tester. Via years of waterfall projects, testers felt they were the last line of defense between the typical behind schedule software project, and a customer expecting a usable, quality product. They often wanted to see process, rigour and governance – all good things in context. We needed to compliment this highly valuable mindset with the agile mindset – one that accepts things may not be perfectly defined and we can discover a lot of what we need as we go.

We spent a lot of time talking about what an agile culture is and isn’t. In the end we realised a lot of the hard work had been done for us. We especially liked Tanmay Vora’s graphical illustration of Aaron Sachs and Anupam Kundu work “The Unfinished Business of Organizational Transformation” and decided to use this as our basis:

 

30_orgmindset

This fitted perfectly, given our core values –challenge, lead, care and value potential – along with what we were aiming to achieve.

Clearly, simply defining an agile culture is only a start. The real work comes from living this culture as behaviours that ultimately become habits. As a leadership team it is our job to do this.

 

Our ever inspirational CEO, Garth Hamilton, is accountable for the leadership team and based his approach on Steve Denning’s Radical Management.

  • Shift from making money for shareholders to delighting customers
  • Shift management from controlling individuals to enabling self-organizing teams.
  • Shift the way work is coordinated from bureaucracy to dynamic linking.
  • Shift from a preoccupation with efficiency to purpose/values that foster innovation.
  • Shift in communications from top-down commands to horizontal communications.

All the leadership team were expected to read, understand and discuss the book with the purpose of trying to find some tangible ideas for implementation.

We had an intention, a desire, motivation and an idea of the culture we wanted. We had a start!

In the next post I will discuss how we started to actually implement this including how we changed our operating model and our leadership.

Boy (4-6) smiling, close-up

Boy (4-6) smiling, close-up

Comments

  1. Hi Edwin thanks for sharing your journey. I guess I am grappling with how an organisation that teaches and guides others in Agile – whilst on an Agile journey now – wasn’t Agile to begin with? How did this happen?

  2. Edwin Dando says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I guess I think about this a few different ways. Firstly, to me agile is not a destination but an ongoing journey. I don’t know if you can ever say an organisation “is Agile” with a capital A. To me agile is about flexibility.

    Secondly, like I said in the article, Assurity didn’t start out as an agile firm. It acquired Clarus, which did start out as an agile firm, in 2012. Over the last four years the difference in culture has bought us to where we are today as we ask ourselves – “how can we blend all the good stuff Clarus did, with all the good stuff Assurity did, and make it really work together?” Clarus was very agile and entrepreneurial, but it lacked the business rigour, structure and discipline that allows a company to operate effectively and make a healthy profit that can in turn be reinvested into new ventures and services. The two companies together are a match made in heaven 🙂

    Thirdly, a lot of our work is still in the non-agile space – what Gartner referred to as “mode 1” work. A lot of our clients still choose to operate parts of their business traditionally, and rightly so – agile isn’t a “solution” for everything.

    Finally, don’t forget that pieces of organisations often innovate and operate differently to the whole. We don’t want a monoculture approach across the entire organisation. We want to encourage the opposite – to allow pieces of an organisation to develop their own subcultures that ultimately stress, challenge and change the whole! For example, I know your workplace uses Kanban in some areas, but does that mean it should use them in all? Probably not!

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