Corporate Cultures and Agile

Episode 46

February 09, 2012



The Agile Weekly Crew, Perry Reinert and Alan Dayley discuss Corporate Cultures

Jade Meskill: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Scrum Cast. I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy vandeWater: I’m Roy vandeWater.

Perry Reinert: I’m Perry Reinert.

Alan Dayley: I’m Alan Dayley.

Corporate Cultures

Jade: Today, we wanted to talk a little bit about corporate cultures. To get it started off, do you guys think that there is a particular type of corporate culture that is more naturally inclined to be Agile?

Roy: Yeah, absolutely, there is. Any kind of culture that really embraces change is one that’s definitely more Agile, more likely to be good at Agile.

There are different cultures where, I’ve been in companies where there definitely is more of an inertia that is against change. I’m also in companies where it’s, “Let’s make changes. Let’s make changes,” and it’s through the company.

It’s at all levels, and all different departments. “Make the change and see what happens. Make the change and see what happens.” That’s a good thing.

Radical Candor

Alan: I think cultures that don’t have a stigma against talking back to your superiors, that’s not quite the way I want to put it, but the idea of the people in charge are open to input. Not just open, but constantly asking for input from the people that are beneath them.

I would even say that the flatter culture is the more everybody feels comfortable to add to the entire organization that that would help Agile adoption, and the organization would be Agile a lot, I think.

Perry: There are certain managers who, in my experience, naturally, or they’ve learned to allow, usually it’s individuals because they haven’t thought about it on a team level yet, but they allow people to self‑manage, or self‑organize as it were, in the Agile sense.

Cultures and managers, or departments that have people in charge that have already allowed the people that work around them, and with them to make choices and take risks. Those are the types of cultures that will accept Agile. Or just look at it and go, “Hey, somebody codified what we already do.”

Ability To Fail / Response To Failure

Roy: Kind of to build on top of that, I think failure, and being able to fail, that’s a big thing. I’ve been in companies where the president or CEO stands up and says “Hey, I screwed this up. I made a mistake, we did the wrong thing. We learned from it, and let’s move on.” I think that attitude coming from the top really makes a big difference. Everybody sees that it’s OK to fail then.

Jade: I’m really glad you brought that up, because it’s not just a willingness to change, right? It’s, how do you respond when things don’t go according to plan?

Roy: Yeah.

Perry: Yeah.

Jade: What do you think leads organizations down that path? What has happened in that organization that has put them in a place where maybe they’re tolerant of risk, accepting of failure, and they’re willing to embrace change? What has happened in that organizations development that has put them in that position?

[microphone bump]

The Right People To Start

Roy: Perry is pointing at me, but I don’t have an answer to that question. I have encountered companies that are that way. I have encountered companies that are the opposite, if you would call it an opposite. They’re a different flavor that doesn’t allow failure, or is not a safe place to fail.

I haven’t seen a company change or been in a company when it’s changing that drastically, to know exactly, or be able to point out an instance, when that changed. The only one I can think of is when there was complete change of management in a department one time.

The managers that came in were considered a little more radical. But it wasn’t instantaneous. It took six or eight months before some kind of new thought around failure, and being allowed to try new things, happened.

Alan: I think a large part of it comes down to having the right people, especially to initially get a kick‑off. If you have already got an Agile organization, and somebody comes in that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the culture, it’s not as a big of a deal to indoctrinate them.

If you’re in an organization that has the wrong culture now, and you’re trying to transform the culture, I almost feel like you have to have the right people. In fact, the transformations that I’ve seen, nearly all of them, there has been significant turnover as the wrong people left the organization, so that the organization could transform the way they wanted to.

Roy: Yes, I’ve seen that also.

Stagnant and Compliant Cultures

Perry: Yeah, I really believe, again, from the kind of leaders, on down and how they handle things, and that’s kind of what starts it. I think, having leaders that are either seen the success of making rapid changes and rapid corrections, failing fast and making those rapid corrections, or also seen the failures from not making changes.

Being sort of stagnant and you can end up failing that way also and that can be a big impact on the leadership.

Alan: Do you mind if I take this, Jade, in a little bit different direction because the subtle thing I’ve noticed recently about culture…

Jade: Yeah, go for it.

Alan: There was a company I was visiting with last week that their culture compared to many companies is good and the bosses are nice guys. The managers do well and they help their employees and they smile, and all that.

The culture at this particular company is that of the managers telling people what to do. They tell in a nice way and a kind way, but as they sit the employee down, and they say, “Here’s what’s going to happen and here’s what we’re going to do. Do you have any objections?”

I noticed that creates a kind of culture of compliance. Nobody is unhappy and they won’t say they’re unhappy, but the employees are not taking risks because they expect to be told what to do. When they’re told what to do, it’s presented in such a way that the decision has already been made.

I think this is a subtle culture that is hard to describe to people the negativities of it. I wonder if anybody else has seen that sort of thing and how do you point that out to people?

Perry: Yeah, I’ve seen that on all sorts of different levels. You’re right, when you’re telling people what to do, what that really does is that, just tells them that they don’t have to think about it. They don’t have to think about the problem or what to do.

You end up losing a lot that way because, there are a lot of smart creative people out there that think of things, and think of the ways to do things that are different than just you. If you’re not taking advantage of that and providing that freedom for those people to think that opportunity for those people to think, by just telling them what to do, you’re missing out.

Guilt Trip Management

Alan: I’ve also seen in kind of a similar way, where the management says that they’re open to criticism or open to new ideas but then, the people that work for the organization are almost guilt‑tripped into choosing what management wants anyway.

The choices are presented and you get an illusion of choices, but then there’s an obvious right answer and if you pick anything other than one of those three options, it doesn’t feel that you have more than three options and there’s only one right answer and those three options.

I’ve seen that happen in the past. I don’t know if that still works. If the developers still get a choice or if they consciously or subconsciously see right through that and if that really hurts them, I don’t know.

Jade: What are risks to the teams in a culture like that?

Alan: The Company that I’ve been thinking about is normally always doing Scrum and what they end up with is this ritual that doesn’t really have too much meaning.

They do the retrospective and they talk about the little things that can be changed, but not big things because they’re waiting for the boss to tell them, what the big things are and they plan things that are safe. They know exactly what the boss has told them through the product owner and maybe just the boss directly, what they should be working on and how they should create it.

They just plan it as if they’re going to do it the way they’re told and they don’t interject any contrarian ideas in the planning, etc. It becomes very flat.

Perry: I think, what problem we get with that is that you’ve a bunch of mindless drones that are working. You lose a ton of creativity and innovation because really you have one in that situation where everybody listens to the boss and then the boss comes up with all the ideas.

You have one creative person within the entire organization and there is no way, no matter how creative that person is, that he is ever going to be able to be even close to the sum of how creative an entire organization could be, if everybody was allowed to add their own experiences and add their own unique viewpoints and ideas to whatever the product is.

Roy: Eventually, they’ll self‑select. Your team will become the ones that are willing to follow and the ones that want to lead, want to try something new and stuff. They will find other places to go.

The Joy Of Being Surprised

Alan: Yeah, I agree with all that especially the lack of innovation. I think you get less ownership, too, from the people that are working on that, whatever it is, less ownership. You kind of teach yourself out of the joy of being surprised when somebody overachieves and comes up with something great that you hadn’t thought of.

Roy: “The joy of being surprised,” I like that.

Alan: Yeah.

Getting Over Mediocre

Jade: Let’s imagine that you’ve been brought in by somebody in this organization, who has realized that this is going on, but not the top leadership, how would you approach this with them?

Because they’re nice guys, they’re doing a good job, they’re treating their people well, what are you going to do?

Roy: Not the top leadership, but sort of the mid‑level leadership?

Jade: A second level manager has noticed that this is going on.

Alan: That sounds like that’s really tough, especially, when the entire organization thinks it’s a good thing and everybody thinks they’re as happy as they could be. That makes it really difficult to convince anybody that there is anything wrong especially like introducing change and having to see their CEO or whoever is at the top to try to convince him to start listening to the input is going to be hard on him, and why would he do that because he is happy as it is?

There’s a lot of benefit for the business as a whole and for all of the employees, but I think it’s going to be very difficult to justify that to somebody who has never seen the effect of that type of culture in person.

I would try to maybe see if you can integrate that CEO, or whoever the bottleneck, is into a culture that houses open quality and show off the benefits and show what’s possible when you allow that type of stuff to happen.

Perry: I would seek out experiential ways to show the benefits. I am trying to think of specific ones, but there are certain different Agile games, innovation games, etc., that even the playing field and create a situation where people who usually don’t talk or usually don’t introduce creative ideas are allowed that space to do so. Including, perhaps, doing some things that are just with the team members and not with management to try and create some safe environments to let some of the creativity blossom.

I’d have to go where I can look at some of those ideas, but I know they exist. I always remember the first retrospective I did with a team where we did the dot voting at the end where the most outspoken member of the team waited to the very end to do his votes. He went up to the board and he said, “I don’t have enough votes to make it go to the way I want.”

That was a radical change to the team because suddenly the rest of the members realized they had a voice, and they had a way to start speaking up and they could say things, and this dominating player didn’t have the ability to dominate in that situation.

Roy: I agree with all that, just more education, lots of reading material about this, self‑organizing teams, letting the team make decisions and seeing it done, going and visiting other teams, and watching how they work is absolutely a good thing.

Root Cause Of Stagnant Culture

Jade: What do you think is the root cause of a behavior like that?

Roy: I think, the root causes could be just coming from an organization that worked that way where you were expected to be that guy. You don’t have a team and you’re the guy who has to solve everything and so you solve that. As the people grow and the team grows, you still solve things and just tell them how to do it.

The traditional project management model is certainly much closer to that approach than the Agile approach.

Perry: In smaller companies, this is kind of a natural thing where you have a three to five person company that has grown a lot within a year and, say, they have doubled the number of people.

As those new people come on, they look to the people that were there, as they answer people and that can stick.

I am not sure how it creates in a large company, how you would have a department or a team or a group of teams that has these sorts of ideas. It could be the managerial breeding that you guys had at Scrum Cast recently about how we tend to hire people who think the same way we do.

If you think that you should tell people what to do, you’re going to hire people that think they should listen to what you say to do, and you can grow a whole company that way probably.

Rescuing Feels Good

Alan: It feels good to be that person who is the one who rescues everybody. He’s almost got that martyr syndrome where it feels good to be the guy that saves the entire team every time. As soon as somebody else starts stealing your thunder, like as the boss, I could see how it would be really tempting to throw him out like “No, that’s mine. I get to save this organization. You get to be saved. That is your privilege.”

Jade: Does that mean there’s only one superman on this team?

Perry: That’s right.

Jade: All right, guys. Well, thanks a lot for joining us, and we will catch you next time.

Perry: All right.

Alan: Great, thanks.

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