Agile is about culture not processes

At the Cegedim UK conference in Dundee on Wednesday 23 January 2019, Steve Bradley introduced us to the company goals around which the agenda was organised. The third goal was about people and culture:

To develop our talents and to promote an open, empowered, collaborative and energised working culture that embraces change, nurtures innovation and makes us a truly amazing and rewarding company to work for.

This excited me.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as ‘the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society’. While I’ve not found the word ‘culture’ in any of the books I have on agile or any of its particular flavours (DSDM, Lean, Scrum, XP) this is something I came to realise very early on: agile development is not a process, it’s not a methodology, it is a culture.

This makes sense. The first statement in the agile manifesto reads, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”.

Agile development is not a process, it’s not a tool, it is a culture. It is about the ideas, customs and social behaviours of a particular team or company that uses experimentation and validated learning to rapidly release quality software and that learns from its serious use with real users.

Jeff Patton wrote an interesting post about agile and culture in which he advocates teaching culture first to new developers before processes and techniques. This is done through shared a language, through stories, heroes, myths, legends and jokes, through shared values, norms, folkways, laws and taboos, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, mental models and symbols, rituals, rites, ceremonies and celebrations. If you’ve ever worked in a successful agile team many of these will sound familiar.

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the culture of work can either help or hinder teams. I’ve also been thinking about how systems (including teams) influence outcomes; like a machine, if you want a different outcome change the configuration of the machine.

For those who don’t know, I used to work as a full-time Anglican priest. This is the same lesson that many churches have learned over the last few decades. Think of churches here as sociological communities of people, rather than focusing on any particular religious affiliation. While many of these communities insisted that newcomers should first behave in a particular way, which they hope will lead to a particular belief, and only then will they be allowed to belong to the community, they are now discovering that it should be the other way around. First welcome people to the community—make them feel like they belong. That belonging will lead to a change of mind and an alignment with the group’s beliefs and philosophies, which in turn will lead to a behaviour that lives out those beliefs.

It’s the same thing with agile teams. Jeff Patton again, “After working through the cultural discussion with other agile colleagues, we were left with the realization that we spend a fair bit of time teaching process and techniques, when it’s the culture that matters most.”

First ensure that team members feel they belong, teach them our philosophies and approaches to how we work (our culture), and this in turn will result in the behaviour we want—they will begin to live out the Scrum values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect in a safe culture where we are encouraged to try things out and learn from our mistakes.

These are a few of my favourite resources from the last few years that continue to help me explore ideas about work culture.

Podcasts

  • Eat Sleep Work Repeat by Bruce Daisley, VP for Twitter EMEA — His guests and topics are always interesting and inspiring, e.g. Cal Newport, Seth Godin, Patty McCord on the Netflix culture document, Teresa Amabile on unlocking workplace creativity, etc.
  • The Rework podcast from Basecamp — Each week they look at different aspects of work culture, e.g. should you use Facebook, the myth of the overnight sensation, it doesn’t have to be crazy at work, owning your own bad news, etc. They often feature case studies, going out to speak with businesses about what they’ve learned.

Books

Of course, culture is an evolving thing. But we have an open invitation from the top to “promote an open, empowered, collaborative and energised working culture that embraces change, nurtures innovation and makes us a truly amazing and rewarding company to work for.”

Let’s be courageous.

Originally posted on the Vision intranet blog

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 50 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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