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What Does Agile Culture Look Like & How to Get There? (Part 1)

Agile is being embraced by a wide range of industries

‘Going Agile’ appears to be a burgeoning trend among companies across Europe.

At the time of writing, on just one of the top international online recruitment sites, there are 772 job postings for Agile coaches in the UK, 779 in France, and 1327 in Germany. Organizations big and small are keen to adopt Agile principles. What’s more, these organizations are no longer limited to software companies. Browsing through the online job adverts, Royal Mail, Comic Relief, ING Bank, UK Cancer Research, and Lufthansa are among those companies looking for coaches to help introduce more agility into their ways of working.

So, Agile is spreading outside of the IT industry. But what does ‘Agile’ really mean?

Scrum-sprint-Kanban-backlog-burndown chart? What on earth are you talking about?

For many years the term ‘Agile’ was chiefly used to describe a methodology of software development in which requirements are delivered in smaller increments instead of bigger chunks.

When you hear an IT expert try to explain Agile, it is often difficult to decipher what they are talking about. They mention scrum masters, sprints, Kanban, daily stand-ups (at least I understand this word! But what is the point of standing up every day?), retrospectives, and so on.

The jargon can make the entire topic largely inaccessible for ordinary human beings. Ten years ago, when I first encountered ‘Agile slang’, my instinctive reaction was: Let’s just leave this whole thing to the IT guys!

What is Agile in real terms?

Agile is so much more than a prescribed process to develop a better product.

If you are willing to look past the weird language and take a closer look at companies where Agile really works, you will see

  • employees taking the initiative to come up with newer and better solutions to problems rather than waiting for somebody else to sort out the issue;
  • people willing to discuss their mistakes openly and learn from them;
  • high-energy team meetings in which every minute is valuable and constructive;
  • well-informed, active customers willing to offer instant feedback.

All these characteristics don’t just come about from applying a strict series of rules and practices. Agile is rather a set of values and principles shared by the leaders and employees of a company which creates a company culture distinguished by its adaptability, the continuous learning of its employees, and a strong focus on customers.

The hallmarks of Agile organizational cultures

The original Agile Manifesto and the 12 Agile Principles capture the essence of the Agile mindset and culture. Back in 2001 these key principles were phrased with a primary focus on software development. The question is, what are those elements of the Agile culture that we can apply to all organizations and not just software companies? Here are some of the important ones:

  1. Empowered teams. In Agile cultures there are very few rules to determine how teams should operate. Instead, teams work with a high level of autonomy. The goal is defined and given to teams, but thereafter it is largely up to those teams to decide how they are going to solve the issues at hand. Such an approach shortens response times dramatically, as you don’t need high-level approval to make decisions and move forward. It often results in much higher employee engagement compared to traditional command-and-control cultures.
  2. Vision and values are the ‘glue’ that holds the organization together. Empowering different teams to do their jobs as they see fit can be a scary prospect for those planning to implement the Agile principles. Won’t this result in anarchy? Well actually, no it won’t do, providing there is strong alignment within these empowered teams. How can we create such alignment? In Agile cultures a shared vision and shared values are two of the strong forces that align individuals and teams and point them in the same direction. Leaders in Agile cultures step away from micromanagement, and instead they place great emphasis on developing a credible and motivating vision, while defining and communicating the company values.
  3. Storytelling is a powerful tool used by Agile organizations. Stories can capture the company’s vision and help people identify with it; stories encourage colleagues to put themselves in their customers’ shoes, while success stories and stories of epic failures promote learning. In the absence of sophisticated systems of control, it is these shared stories that create a high level of alignment among teams and individuals.
  4. Delighting customers. In Agile cultures employees have their customers in mind when they do their jobs. Employees ask themselves and each other on a regular basis the crucial question: “Does what I am doing create value to our clients?” Naturally, it is impossible to focus on customers’ interests if you have never met them. Therefore, Agile organizations make sure that their employees have regular contact with the company’s clients so that employees may appreciate what they really need.
  5. Horizontal conversations – a network of empowered teams. In classic bureaucratic organizations there is a lot of vertical communication: information flows up and down the organizational hierarchy. Members of the leadership team define standards and processes to follow and these are communicated to their respective teams. Teams – ideally – follow those processes. Should these teams face any obstacles, for example, difficulties cooperating with other departments, they ‘escalate’ the issue to their managers. In Agile organizations there are very few standards and processes defined at high levels of management. Instead, teams operate with a high level of autonomy. To ensure smooth collaboration between teams and organisational units, horizontal communication is key. Potential conflicts are solved, decisions are made at lower levels of the organisation, rather than having to ‘escalate’ issues to higher levels of management. Knowledge- and best-practice sharing among teams is also a natural part of everyday life. Several online and offline forums are available for employees to connect with eachother quickly and efficiently. Thus instead of a hierarchical structure with relatively isolated departments, an Agile organisation’s structure can be described as a ‘network of empowered teams’.
  6. Failing and learning is one of the core qualities of Agile cultures. The business environment is changing so quickly that only those companies that can come up with new solutions fast will survive. Frankly, this is impossible without making mistakes. The fear of making mistakes slows down development and kills innovation. Therefore, Agile cultures learn to be comfortable with making mistakes. Failure is regarded as a natural part of the job. But learning from these mistakes is just as important. In Agile organizations there are regular events to celebrate mistakes as well as forums to analyse these failures; from both of these lessons are learnt and acted on. While the saying “Every mistake is an opportunity to learn something new” might sound clichéd, Agile companies take it very seriously.
  7. Transparency, no politics. Open communication and a lack of fear of making mistakes mean that Agile company cultures are very transparent and, for the most part, devoid of organizational politics. After all, if failure is OK, you might as well be open and honest about your shortcomings. This creates an atmosphere of emotional safety in which people can focus all their energy on creating something great and not waste it on defending themselves from gossip, political manoeuvring and backstabbing. It is amazing how productive people can be if they can just relax and focus on the work itself instead of watching their own backs.
  8. Feedback culture. In Agile cultures, feedback is taken extremely seriously. Valuing customer collaboration (see the Agile Manifesto) means regular, intensive communication with the clients, asking for their thoughts and opinions on products and services in order to create maximum value. But the feedback culture doesn’t end there. In Agile organizations teams regularly reflect on their way of working and on their cooperation with each other so that they get more and more efficient. This reflection wouldn’t be possible without open and honest feedback among colleagues. Feedback between managers and employees is equally crucial. Employees don’t have to wait for half a year for their next performance evaluation session to receive relevant feedback on their performance. Feedback is given routinely and openly by their managers, and vice versa; people are also not afraid to express honestly what they need from their managers. All this ensures a high level of adaptability in the organization, an organization in which workers can speedily change their behaviour, their methods and even their ways of thinking based on the inputs of their colleagues, bosses and customers.

Is it possible to introduce all these aspects in your own company?

You might be reading the section above thinking: Yeah, right, it is nice to dream about such a culture, but this will never happen in my company.

Maybe your organization is far from agile at the moment. Nonetheless, moving the culture towards Agile principles is possible. This has been achieved by many organizations, both big and small, in many different industries.

It is hard work, and it requires much perseverance – but believe me the effort is well worth it.

In the 2nd part of this article, we will discuss what steps need to be taken to make the Agile shift.