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Establishing Agile without having an Agile Culture?

These days talking about Agile is very popular. And definitely many company leaders have discovered the potential value of an Agile organisation for their businesses. Hence, quite a significant number of initiatives have been started and programmes have been set up in order to establish “The Agile Organisation”. But can it work just that way?

Lapin Agile

Lapin Agile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everybody who is in business for a while has experienced situations when something new got introduced. A new software system, the new solution sales approach or a new compensation system for the variable part of the employees salaries. The question I’d like to ask you, is: Did it ever pay off? Did it bring the value add that was expected? Finally: Was it the solution to the problem that has created the initiative?
Long time ago, I was part of the Leadership team of a group in a Telco company that was looking after its largest customers globally. The market for global Telco solutions was (and still is) quite competitive and well structured, only a very few companies could play in that field. That situation required the players in that market to create and deliver strong Unique Selling Propositions (USP’s) in order to maintain and sustain the business with these big customers. So, a program was created and introduced to the global teams. The purpose of that program was to apply better treatment, better service and more competitive offerings for the largest customers. Many aspects of comprehensive key account management had to be considered and many departments, hence, individuals from those departments were involved globally. A huge approach because many of the changes did disrupt the standard processes and could have easily screwed up the service quality for other customers. Also the cultural differences that had to be taken into account as well as the scale of the initiative (overall about 3.000 people have been involved initially) were critical.
This initiative was not just introducing a new system. It was a cultural shift. From now to then the whole organisation had to understand that there is a need to serve the customers that did stand for 80% of the companies revenue differently than the others. The organisation, that was built according to the defined processes, had to change its values and the mindsets of everybody who was involved. It was important that the department leader had to take responsibility to apply the changes within their teams or even had to change themselves. And, of course, the company leaders had to understand their responsibility to lead the overall change program. It was the learning, that a cultural change could only be done if leaders became servant leaders (and at the time the Telco culture was not the most innovative or servant leadership like). Helping their teams to change their behaviours while sticking to certain working rules. To collaborate with other departments and to stand in for each other because there was this joint responsibility: Securing the business to safe the jobs!
The company did it very well at the time. They started with workshops for the Leadership Teams. Those workshops were actively supported by the very top management that, btw, showed great commitment for the program and didn’t miss any occasion to underline the importance of it and to show personally (by acting) their believe in it. From the leadership level it went further down the organisation in several workshops, trainings and coaching initiatives to make sure the program got established as best as possible.
Did everyone in the organisation get it and apply it? Of course, not! But the majority picked it up properly because they understood why it was so important to change. And they had the chance to understand it because of the people that were there to explain them, to work with them and to create the results so they could prove to themselves that the whole thing worked. It was culture that was created in which people had the same mindset, had the same understanding of the goals because it was their JOINT PURPOSE they were working for. And this was such a strong dynamic that the people who didn’t pick the change up didn’t really matter. The problem of having some people not delivering didn’t really exist because the power of the ones that were delivering was so strong. Problem solved without touching it!
When companies think of introducing Agile principles and methodologies into their organisations then often they miss this important thing at the beginning: What ist purpose of the initiative? As Simon Sinek has explained: WHY are we doing that? Telling your employees that you need to increase your revenue and your profit is not a purpose. Those are just numbers and numbers are only results. Always! Employees that are working for numbers (equals salary) are not the employees we want to have working for us. We want employees working with passion and an understanding of responsibility that makes them feel like an entrepreneur themselves. But we cannot expect them to just do so only because we say they must because of the numbers. They usually don’t own the company but we’d like them to behave like that. Hence, we must create an environment that allows them to act and behave like that. We need to build and live according to the culture and the values ourselves that we expect others to work like. And we need to provide the tools and support that helps them to get there.
Finally, picking an Agile method or principle is easy. So is training the teams and make them capable of understanding it intellectually. Applying it successfully in their daily working practice is another story. The differentiator is the environment, the culture in which it is applied. And the one who is responsible for creating that is the one who looks at us every morning from the bathroom mirror. If that person understands that he or she has to change first, then let’s start from there. But let’s also be prepared that we might have to wait for positive results. Change is not a destination, it’s a journey!

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