Changing a company's culture is one of the most challenging and ambiguous goals an organization can undertake. Organizational culture is a complicated web of roles, processes, values, communications, and assumptions. Because cultural shifts often have a hard-to-define end goal, they often fail. Classic change management methodologies depend on a clearly defined end state to create a linear plan that walks the organization through the change from A to Z. These approaches may struggle with culture change efforts where the end state is loosely defined. In comparison, Agile methodologies, with their embrace of changing requirements, would be well suited.  

To explore this idea, Heather McFarlandRachel Crocker, and I examined an organization's cultural change effort and identified some areas where Agile could lead to a successful outcome. 

The Scenario

A consumer product company was aware that their employee culture did not fit business objectives. The company began as a homegrown, successful startup that felt more like a family than a business. It grew into an almost $300 million organization but continued to rely on the familial culture and let everything form organically and without structure. Company meetings without clear objectives would last for hours and were not productive. Roles were poorly defined and employees didn’t understand their responsibilities and what was expected of them. Each team and individual operated differently, using the methods that seemed best to them. 

Half of the employees were individuals that had been there for more than a decade and the other half were relatively new with only a few years under their belts. Varied experience levels and differing business perspectives along with the lack of clear direction led to inefficient workflows and an ambivalent culture. The company’s ownership also changed numerous times over the years which fostered fear and mistrust from employees towards leadership.

The only thing employees could rely on for guidance was the strong external brand and the quality of the product that they were creating, but their internal brand identity was outdated and undocumented. Aggressive revenue targets were set for the next 5 years and the leadership team knew they couldn’t achieve this growth without high-performing teams. They decided to create a cultural impact team of influential employees. The employees came back with a plan to reduce meetings, draft an internal manifesto, and create an internal culture that more closely matched their external brand of high-quality consumer products.

Leading the Change Effort Agilely: 3 Examples

There are 12 principles of the Agile movement and one of the key advantages of leveraging these ideas is an increased ability of a project or goal to adapt to change. 

1. Agile Principles: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.

How these translate to non-software projects: Welcome changing your plans as circumstances or feedback dictates. Harness the change to deliver greater value.

Recommendation: In a rapidly evolving market, high-performing teams need to respond quickly. The first step in welcoming changing plans is to cultivate a culture of change and to create an environment where feedback feels comfortable. In this case, the leadership team should create a strong, tangible strategic vision that includes actionable steps for the culture adjustment. Implementing an employee feedback mechanism would increase buy-in right from the start. Additionally, a leadership team that is accessible and transparent and follows through with the strategic vision will contribute to a culture that is amenable to change.

2. Agile Principles: Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months with a preference to the shorter timescale. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjust its behavior accordingly.

How these translate to non-software projects: Work iteratively with a bias for shorter iterations that are reasonable to the domain. Regularly reflect on what’s working and what’s not, adjusting accordingly. 

Recommendation: Businesses that are easily able to adapt their business model will be able to quickly react to market changes. Measures of success are a necessary part of determining whether something is working or not and to determine whether adjustments are needed. In this example, improved business results and reducing the length and number of meetings could be measured and referred to consistently to create a sense of tangibility. Having regularly scheduled retrospectives would enable individuals and teams to reflect on progress and be comfortable with modifying plans. Because it’s uncertain what changes will elicit the desired cultural changes, an iterative approach will allow teams to develop reasonable hypotheses about what process, policy, or behavior changes will produce a positive impact. Where the team finds a winning tactic, they can implement deeper changes and when they determine that a change didn’t work as intended, they can learn from it and try something different. 

3. Agile Principle: Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. 

How this translates to non-software projects: Build project teams with a representative body of participants. The best work comes from empowered, self-organized teams.

Recommendation: The key to a successful team is a group of individuals with diverse perspectives and decision-making ownership. The cultural impact team referred to in the case study should be made up of individuals from a variety of cross-functional areas, experience levels, and diverse perspectives to more accurately reflect the needs of the larger organization. Allowing this team to be fluid and giving them autonomy will create innovative ideas and help to keep employees engaged in the change.   

Of course, simply applying Agile principles doesn't guarantee a win or even a different outcome, but having trained and experienced Agile and change practitioners guiding an organization through a costly and difficult transition will greatly improve the chances of success.

Propeller recently hosted workshops in Portland and in San Francisco to discuss Agile principles with change management professionals. Get in touch with us if you'd like to attend a future workshop.

If you'd like to read more about Agile or change management perspectives, check out the following case studies and blogs:

• Case Study: Going Paperless at a Financial Services Company

• Blog: An Inside Look at the 2017 Association of Change Management Professionals Global Conference

• Blog: Look to Change Leadership, Not Change Management, For Business Transformation

• Blog: Eight Reasons Going Agile Might Slow You Down