Culture Makes or Breaks Scaling Agile (29 april 2014)

One of the primary reasons Scaling Agile is so difficult is Culture.  Yes, I know the list of other reasons is long, but this one is most important.

Let’s be a little realistic for a moment. It’s a pretty good bet that not all of us get to work for Spotify, King or for any of the other lean start-ups that have integrated Agile into their culture right from the start.  Most of us work for organizations where the culture has emerged over years, if not decades and in some cases it has developed over much longer periods of time.

And, even for those working within a truly Agile organizations, my gut feeling is that there is a threshold at which the fast growth of the start-up slams into the wall of reality and the young start-ups discover that Agile is really challenging to scale.  On top of that, an Agile Culture in one organization is difficult to duplicate in another.  Sohrab Vossoughi hit the nail on the head in an article he wrote on copying cultures:

“‘Culture’ is one of those fuzzy terms that makes business analysts roll their eyes, but its true power lies in the fact that, unlike other competitive advantages, it is nearly impossible to copy, and that’s what makes it the real ‘secret sauce.’ On the surface, culture is not that complicated: it’s simply ‘the things that people in an organization do without thinking, often because of a precedent set by management.’ But the roots of culture go very deep.”

And, copying, changing and/or customising it just doesn’t happen by itself, either.  Changing an organization’s culture in a large enterprise is roughly akin to trying to steer the Queen Mary from the boiler room. It can be done, but it’s not pretty to watch. Changing the culture should not be done with a big-bang program or announced with a lot of fanfare. Done correctly, it should be imperceptible to those participating in the change and should become as natural a breathing so that five to seven years down the road no one remembers how things used to be.

It will be rather difficult for a company to Scale Agile if they first do not create a culture that enables Agile to thrive. How do we do that? We begin with Vision.  And, “VSPT” is one of the key tools for transforming a culture. As I shared in the Keynote a couple of weeks ago, the VSPT leadership framework is:

Graphic 6 - VSPT

The theory in most organizations is that People and Tasks (the “P & T”) are somehow automatically linked to the company’s Vision and Strategies (the “V & S”).  The reality is that there is usually a huge disconnect between these two in every enterprise … and, so that is why we put a line separating the “VS” from the “PT” above.

Vision should include clearly defined:

  • Purpose (answers the question: why we exist?)
  • Core values and attitudes (tells who we are and what we believe)
  • Mission (defines the business we are in; and, the business we aren’t in)
  • Goals and measurable objectives (concrete, measurable goals that are linked to the Vision).

Vision, as defined above (including Purpose, Core Values and Attitudes, Mission and Goals) includes, and is part of, the organization’s “culture.” In order for VSPT (or Agile, Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, XP, etc.) to function properly in any company you have to have the right culture backing it up. This is crucial since it is a well known adage that culture eats portfolios, products, services, programs, projects and processes for breakfast, lunch AND dinner.  And, tradition is the bulldozer plowing it forward; i.e. “we’ve always done it this way…”

As I shared in a previous blog post Complexity Costs – Embrace the Agile Manifesto it is vital that the organization understand the iterative nature of Vision. Not only do we need to Cascade Vision down through the organization, but we need to link it back from the bottom-up so that every level of the organization is involved in shaping the overall Vision of the enterprise. That’s why linking each level’s vision to the level above it is absolutely essential for creating the feedback mechanism needed to have an iterative Vision. It also is a transparent and powerful way to have the teams involved in having a say in shaping the overall Vision of the enterprise.

The Team (including the Product Owner and ScrumMaster) needs to define their VSPT right up-front if they want to have any hope of succeeding with their program, product, service, result, etc. Both the individual and the team need to align their respective VSPTs with each other and with the Product they’re trying to create.  As I shared in the last blog post, VSPT cascades along with the overall “VISION” of the company:

Cascading Vision and VSPT

Cascading Vision and VSPT

VSPT is a key component in the 4D model’s (Define, Distill, Deliver and Drive) definition process. It’s one of a team’s key Definitions.  The individual Team Member’s Vision needs to align with the Team’s Vision (i.e. Project Level), as well.  If that alignment doesn’t exist, then you will have chaos with everyone doing what they think is right or best for the project.  To get that alignment, Distillation much occur:

Graphic 5 - 4D w VSPT

Distillation can be a stormy, chaotic process.  Getting agreement on Definitions is always a challenge, but that part of the Distillation process is essential if the team is going to avoid falling into the trap of Groupthink.  Ultimately, Vision “Drives” the Product Backlog; and, the Product Backlog should encompass the entire Product Vision.

What do all of these tools: VSPT, Cascading Vision and the 4D Model have to do with scaling agile? Everything. Scaling Agile goes way beyond structuring the teams (but that does help) and synchronising releases. It’s more than rewriting job descriptions (although that’s part of it, too).  It’s more than using Release Burnup charts to share with Senior Management and the C-Suite.

Using these tools from the Unified Vision Framework, or any other Vision clarifying model, and implementing it correctly will help create a truly Vision-focused culture where good people are free to create outstanding value and one in which Scaling Agile occurs with less of the usual heartburn of taking Agile to the next level.

For more on the journey to an Agile culture, see our new White Paper on the Three Journeys to a Truly Agile Culture.

Bon voyage!


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