Much has been written on the distinction of being agile versus doing agile. The crux of being agile is embracing the values and principles that underpin agile. Those values and principles are compiled in the Agile Manifesto and have been tweaked and restated many times, but they boil down to the same basic ideas. Organizations that cherry-pick or decide that culture that is inferred by the values and principles are only for parts of the organization will not get the value they are looking for. That is a failure in adoption not a failure of agile culture. Helping an agile team interface with a waterfall organization is the same as asking can we be agile when everyone around us is doing something different. The answer is sort of.  So far in this theme, we have explored two potential changes within the team’s span of control that can “help.”

  1. Prioritizing Work Entry (discussed in An Agile Team In A Waterfall World)
  2. Postponing Commitment (discussed in An Agile Team In A Waterfall Company – Postponing Commitment)

The problem is that they are bandaids for a cut that needs stitches; important but not sufficient in the long run. Culture must be addressed throughout the organization’s hierarchy. There are two common threads in the definition of organizational culture; definitions that center on value and definitions that center on behaviors. Regardless of the definition to even have a chance at getting benefits from agile the executives and other senior leaders MUST understand what the agile values and principles mean and what that means for their behavior. 

In a perfect world, we could use the Vulcan mind-meld to give everyone in an organization an understanding of what it means to be agile and how their behavior should emulate that knowledge. Unfortunately, the world we live in is more complicated.  Several interventions are required. They are:

  1. Training – Executives and leaders need to understand, not only the words but nuances of how each value and principle needs to be interpreted in their organizational context. For example, the principle that the most effective means of communication is face-to-face needs to be understood for what it is and then translated so that the most intimate communication approach is used that is possible. A fully remote organization will have a different approach to addressing this principle than an organization in which everyone sits together (once upon a time this happened).
  2. Controlled Experiential Learning –  Exercises and role-playing case studies overseen by a coach are tools to provide safe learning experiences. The goal of this approach is to help leaders learn and practice so they build the mental and muscle memory needed to behave in a manner that facilitates the adoption of agile values. 
  3. Coaching – Coaching is a core role in facilitating getting work done — all kinds of work. The role of a coach intertwines observation and intervention. Both of which require the permission of the person or team on the receiving end of the coaching. Coaches provide feedback as they are continuously on the lookout for discovered/harvested for learning opportunities. 

All of these steps require a commitment of time; time that, unless executives are convinced that there will be an impact on their organization’s bottom line, won’t be found. Serious measurement is required to understand whether agile or any other change is delivering value (I highly recommend reading the section on Throughput Accounting in Tendon and Dorion’s book, Tame Your Work Flow). Bottom line –real change needs to be led from the top, and for that to be possible leaders need to know how to act and why they are acting that way.