Agile Culture vs. Behaviors

The following is a cross-posting from Eric Engleman’s Blog post on GeoVoices, the conversation at Geonetric, one of our clients who adopted agile as a process in 2007, and have continued their road toward organizational agility for the past 5 years. He describes the key difference between “doing” agile and “being” agile…

There are lots of companies that use agile software development methods like Scrum to varying degrees of success. Just getting the hang of the techniques is difficult for organizations steeped in traditional development approaches. It has taken us years to master these behaviors, and to be honest, there’s still more we can improve upon.

But this past year, I’ve witnessed a dramatic transformation at Geonetric: Agile has become something much, much more than a software development technique. Within that same software team, Agile behaviors (daily standups, sprints, retrospectives) have evolved into an Agile culture.

Most company cultures are, frankly, aspirational claptrap derived by overzealous HR departments: they’re imposed from the outside. An authentic culture comes directly from the team itself, from its attitudes and beliefs. And those attitudes and beliefs can and do change over time.

So if I’m telling you that the culture of Geonetric is evolving into an Agile culture, what the heck does it look like? Here are some examples of our Agile culture

  • Peer accountability and candor: During a recent sprint retrospective, one team member, in front of about 20 peers, said that an impediment to the success of the sprint was “my bad attitude.” People have bad days and that’s hard enough to admit even in one-on-one conversations, much less in an almost public forum. Most company cultures frown on this sort of candor. To say something like that to your team takes maturity and accountability to your peers, especially when the team knows that the team member is taking steps to prevent it in the future. That’s an Agile culture.
  • Rapid decision-making: No committees. Practically no meetings. Decisions are made on the fly, almost immediately, by the team. If the situation changes, the team chooses how to adjust priorities, in negotiation with other teams if necessary. There’s no flagpole to run things up for approval. Earlier this year a client made a big and unexpected change right in the middle of a series of sprints and the team adjusted to that change almost immediately, with no problem. Such a major shift in priorities at most companies would cause tremendous upheaval. Responding to change rapidly. That’s an Agile culture.
  • Team value delivery is more important than individual output: At any given time, we might need more or less of a particular skillset. Geonetric’s team understands and works around the principle that the only output that matters is the finished product, so any individual’s role may sometimes be the critical linchpin holding a sprint together, and at other times, they’re doing work that isn’t their favorite or that they’re not the best at. It doesn’t matter: what matters is the end result. When team members do whatever needs to be done without drama. That’s an Agile culture.
  • The speed of improvement: Since we do retrospectives at the end of every sprint, the entire team sits in one room for an hour discussing how to improve in the next sprint. What’s interesting about this is how fast it happens – every two to three weeks – so that’s around 15 times per year, specifically focused on improvement. The team usually picks just a handful of items to improve, but a few improvements every two to three weeks add up to tremendous improvement over time! That’s an Agile culture.
  • Self-accountability for improvement: The software team at Geonetric isn’t accountable to their manager for improvement; they’re accountable to themselves! That self-accountability is a major Agile cultural marker; most teams decide to change practices or behaviors only when an outside force – such as a manager – decides it should change. At Geonetric, the vast majority of improvement happens automatically as part of the natural work process. It has shifted the accountability for improvement onto the team itself – and that’s an Agile culture!

There are many other cultural changes I’ve noticed during the last year’s transformation. I’ll be blogging about them in more detail, and showcasing other aspects of Agile as we proceed. These first steps in the shift from Agile behaviors to Agile culture have been fascinating to watch, and I’m excited to see what’s next!

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