Too often, when organizations apply Agile ways of working, they limit themselves to their methods and frameworks. They fail to acknowledge that they need to change at a deeper level.

Because you’re not simply adopting new tools, practices, and roles — what you are changing is something more subtle and non-tangible. You are dealing with the “DNA” of an organization”: its culture.

We have facilitated and witnessed this transformation in many organizations, and it’s a beautiful thing.

In this blog post, we will walk you through the basics of this cultural change, and the steps you need to take to succeed where so many others have failed.

But first:  

What we mean by culture

Organizational culture is the tacit social order of an organization. The unspoken norms on which your people believe they are encouraged, discouraged, rewarded, or sanctioned.

Culture resides in shared behaviors, values, and assumptions. It is almost always experienced and enacted through unwritten rules.

Cultures do not form overnight. It is a process that takes place over a period of time, guided by behaviors that are either encouraged or discouraged by the members of the organization. An organization’s culture is a group phenomenon that permeates multiple levels of the organization.

The visible part of culture

The visible part of the culture can be seen in:

  • shared behaviors
  • rituals
  • the physical environment 

All kinds of legendary stories about the organization, as well as symbols, are part of the more tangible representation of your organization’s culture.

How to Notice your own organization’s culture

If you want to see culture in action, take a look at your own organization.

  • Can you identify patterns in your “dress code”?
  • Do you have a Friday Breakfast?
  • Have you heard about any legendary exploits?
  • What kind of language is used in the office?
  • How do you talk about your customers?

These are all part of your culture.

The invisible part of culture 

The invisible part of the culture consists of people’s:

  • mindsets
  • motivations
  • unspoken expectations
  • mental models

Whenever an event takes place in your organization, your people’s responses to it are based on these.

Furthermore, since culture is a group phenomenon, it means that people are assimilated into the culture of the organization. Humans are hard-wired to fit into their environment, which means they adapt to the prevailing culture — or if they don’t like the culture, they just leave instead. This assimilation implies that cultures are self-reinforcing. The people are enacting the same shared norms that shape their daily actions and decisions.

Therefore, the organization itself is both the creator and the guardian of the culture. And that makes cultural change difficult. 

But not impossible.

How change happens

Change happens at two levels:

  1. Practices, tools, and frameworks
  2. People’s behaviors

For the change to work well, you need to create it at both levels. It’s not enough to simply adopt new ways of working without understanding their purpose — and not taking into account the need for changing the behavior.

One way to guarantee failure in your transition to Agile ways of working is to expect that once all the practices are in place, nothing needs to change. On the contrary: sometimes many things need to change. To analyze, understand, and change the current organizational culture, it is absolutely paramount that you challenge the existing status quo. 

It’s quite the journey. So now let’s outline what your path will look like. 

The 6 steps you need to take to change the culture

Changing a culture is a slow process that happens in many places and levels, at a different pace, around the organization. You cannot create a project plan for culture change, but there are certain steps you need to take. And we will not go through the one by one.

1. Recognize where you are

Your existing culture always prevents the new culture from being born to a certain extent. 

It is important to understand what type of culture is prevalent in your organization. Performance, Adhocracy, Competitive, Clan, Customer-oriented, and even Pathological — these are all examples of cultural archetypes. 

Understanding the characteristics of your current culture will help you steer the change forward. In some extreme cases, the existing culture can be so strong and counter-agile that you rightfully end up asking if you should even consider a transformation. 

2. State where you want to be

It is important to have a clear vision of what kind of organization you want to be. Even more important is to make this vision concrete.

  • If you want your organization to be more collaborative, how does this show in practice?
  • What kinds of behaviors are required to achieve this?
  • How do the benefits of increased collaboration show in practice?

These are important factors to consider, since having a solid vision provides you a clear direction to steer your cultural change toward. 

3. Iterate toward the target culture together

Even though you can’t create project plans, you can schedule workshops, trainings, town hall meetings, and Q&A sessions to discuss and work on the transition, and listen to people’s opinions. 

What you hear and learn are important inputs to use when adjusting course and actions along the way. Culture evolves over time, and the main thing is to make the transition visible and give everyone a possibility to contribute to the change process. Transformations do not happen in the boardrooms alone.

4. Be consistent

Change involves everyone. All too often, Agile transformations are seen as an “IT thing”, and doesn’t affect other parts of the organization. This cannot be further from the truth. 

Change is always all-encompassing, and requires considering every part of the organization at some point or another. It is especially important that senior management is behind the change and even more importantly, enacts the change. 

The readiness of management to show concrete support for change by changing their own behavior is really one of the make-or-break decisions in any change. “If the management is not willing to change their ways, why should I?”

5. Document your culture

Stories are a part of any culture, so why not document them? Consider creating a space where people can document how they have enacted your values, how their actions were in line with the anticipated target culture, and so on.

This will help the culture to take root and it also serves as a great source of information for your new employees as they join the organization. This “culture book” is a living document, which updates over time — and yes, some companies actually have a culture book.

6. Be vigilant and persistent

It is all too easy to fall back into old patterns, especially when things get difficult. This is natural, since the old ways have proven to be efficient in the past, and learning and using new habits takes time and practice.

Therefore, it is important that you take notice when someone strays from the new accepted ways and make this clear to everyone.

For example, if a team for some reason does not follow the agreed ways, it should be noticed and made clear to everyone on the team. Then a course correction maneuver takes place. The trick is to give the transition time and to encourage the behaviors you like to see, and discourage those you don’t.

Let’s sum up

Change is essentially about altering the ways you act and behave. These changes are necessary if an organization wants to reach sustaining agility and reap the benefits from its Agile transformation. 

But changing a culture is far from easy. You need to give it as much attention as you give to, for example, changing the development frameworks. You won’t get full value from any operational model or framework if you don’t change people’s behavior. 

To change your culture, you need to understand your current culture and its potential limitations to the transformation effort. Sometimes your culture has characteristics that even rule out the transformation — it just makes it impossible. 

Changing a culture does not happen overnight. It takes time, and you need to do it at a pace that fits your ways of working. If your changes are too fast or too radical, you will face major challenges within the organization. For example, ill-conducted transformations often unnecessarily result in key people leaving the organization, taking all their experience and knowledge with them. 

Remember that change, both in ways of working and behavioral, happen iteratively and evolutionary over a period of time.

This blog is the second entry in a series that explores organizations’ transition to true and lasting agility. Read first blog from the series:  The truth about why your organization needs agility


Published: Mar 28, 2023

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

DevOpsAgileProduct management