Back to Basics – insights on culture from Agile Australia 2018

The tenth Agile Australia conference held earlier this year, reminds us how far we have come in the past ten years as a community. Agile is no longer just for IT teams. As Australia’s organisations embrace enterprise agility, the agile values remain at the front and centre.

Culture consists of the beliefs, behaviours, objects, and other characteristics common to the members of a particular group or society. Through culture, people and groups define themselves, conform to society’s shared values, and contribute to society.[1]

In this blog, we will look at how the perspectives from across the agile community come together to create a unified culture, enabled through storytelling, a disruptive mindset, and a new management philosophy.

Bringing it back to the core – principles and values

Martin Fowler, John Sullivan, Steve Denning and Aubrey Blanche, through very different stories, provide us with a timely reminder that agile is based on valuing people and expertise, quality outcomes that deliver value to customers, and understanding community.

Regardless of framework or level of customisation in the practices implemented, an agile culture is dependent on understanding agile principles. By basing practices on purpose, mastery and autonomy, teams can focus on delivering customer outcomes. Fowler encourages enhancing technical excellence through:

  • Connectedness to achieve purpose
  • Nurturing of technical skills to be ‘masters’ of the craft
  • Primacy of the team and ability to change rapidly to enable autonomy

Fowler concentrated on the importance of getting back to basics by highlighting the need for working in small teams delivering value to customers and simultaneously supporting individuals as valuable team members.

While Denning focused the perspective of the customer, he also recognised the importance of working in small teams focused on delivering value to customers in short cycles, and networks demonstrating connectedness across teams with a free and fluid flow of information and communication.

When looking at undertaking an agile transformation journey, organisations need the support of experts with depth of experience and skills to guide changing behaviours and to develop new beliefs and mindsets. The interaction within and between teams defines an agile culture that extends beyond adopting practices alone. A skilled practitioner can see the changing interactions and guide on how to get the best and to tailor where needed without losing the desired outcomes.

The dynamic between organisational culture, methodologies and frameworks is explored in more detail in a previous blogs.

Storytelling – creating connectedness

Storytelling is key to bringing people and purpose together. As an artefact of the culture in which it exists, stories reflect the beliefs of those to which they belong.

Storytelling is useful to convey messages of purpose. Culture depends on stories as the communication framework and ensures connection between people and place, belonging and resilience. Jirra Lulla Harvey reinforces the importance of connectedness and in living our values, and of stories that incorporate local knowledge and practices as the mechanism through which we connect purpose, stewardship and accountability. Stories and storytelling at so many levels are integral to the success of agile adoption, developing and supporting culture, and building connectedness.

Denning described stories as only living for as long as the underlying issues they encapsulate remain unresolved. Once the problem or need no longer exists, the story loses currency and is forgotten. The longevity of stories is something that is very relatable in everything from developing culture and purpose, product visioning and development, to backlog management and delivery.

Just as storytelling is intrinsic to culture, stories within an enterprise are indicative of the mindset and provide the connectivity between people, products and customer. Stories can also provide a mechanism to convey direction and purpose through storyboarding, roadmaps and other communications that create greater transparency. When delivery teams and executives alike are walking the same path and telling the same stories, it is very powerful to observe and even more powerful to be a part of.

Embracing a disruptive mindset

One of the key attributes of successful teams is the continual inspection and adaption that allows a learning culture to thrive. Learning is gained from looking to external sources, and just as importantly, by looking within for opportunities to improve.

Disruptive teams are built on mindset, strategy and leadership. James Brett and Marina Chiovetti describe a spectrum of attributes that embody a disruption-focused mindset and guidelines that will encourage its growth.


Figure 1: James Brett and Marina Chiovetti – Creating high-performance teams using the Human Full Stack

Turning the dial on the mindset spectrum from the more static or current state focus to the disruptive can be visualised in the table below (disruptive attributes on the right, static attributes on the left). Teams need the ability and willingness to incorporate the disruptive mindset while also maintaining balance within the team, with individuals who are spread across the spectrum.


Based on James Brett and Marina Chiovetti – Creating high-performance teams using the Human Full Stack

For teams to be disruptive they need a disruptive mindset, the time to experiment, and the support and safety to do so. Culture can also provide resilience. The openness to inspect and adapt and a culture that provides the opportunity to experiment will simultaneously provide the opportunity to elicit innovation. Additionally, organisations looking to encourage and develop opportunities for innovation need to make disruption a strategic priority fully supported by the organisation.

To grow a culture that is supportive of change, disruption and innovation, it also needs to be tolerant and supportive of failure. Organisations need to see failure and experimentation as stepping-stones to discovery that will allow these opportunities to surface. This again requires strategy to align with the desired culture.

A new management and leadership philosophy

As one of the last speakers of the conference, Nigel Dalton reinforced the themes of others who had presented before him over the two days.

Dalton emphasised that the journey starts with management and leadership. He demystified the evolution of current thinking and the relationships between frameworks and practices, with values and principles by navigating the history of management thinking via the image below. The command and control pathways are shown in orange and the rise of agile based thought leadership are shown in the green and blue pathways on the right.


Figure 2: http://agileaustralia.com.au/2018/slides/agileaus-2018-nigel-dalton.pdf

To create an environment based on agile values, management have the responsibility to ensure the shift from practices and mindsets that no longer fit the organisation’s values and principles. The management model remains a major factor in determining culture. It holds the responsibility for driving organisational health, productivity and capability, and is the starting point for becoming an agile organisation.

The need for resilience in a time of change and the ability to bounce back, or ‘bouncebackability’ at individual, team and organisation level, are key to providing the psychological safely needed to drive innovation. Establishing a culture that is supportive and builds resilience must be supported by the organisation through management techniques and styles.
Figure 3: http://agileaustralia.com.au/2018/slides/agileaus-2018-nigel-dalton.pdf

The combination of management, resilience, and the ability to nurture an innovation-focused environment provide the foundation for a lean and agile mindset. Leadership therefore requires a synergy between management and a true embodiment of the agile values and principles, and the ability to embrace the mindset.

Dalton brought a slightly different perspective to the agenda by placing agility at the end of the process. Without the right management enablement and support, everything else is difficult if not impossible to achieve. It is often overlooked that if management and or the leadership of an organisation are struggling to make the transition to applying agile principles in daily work, it will be extremely difficult for the rest of the organisation to live up to the values also. Culture is an intricate play between all factors. A culture of resilience, innovation and responding to change starts with leadership that is willing to invest in taking the necessary steps towards these outcomes.

Change is hard – how to affect culture change

Affecting a culture change within an organisation can be extremely challenging.

Change is never easy; and many types of resistance will emerge. By surfacing resistance and hearing what those affected have to say, we are able to encourage open discussion based on principles and purpose, fostering an understanding of the why, and shaping a culture founded on trust.

Things to do to embrace Agile principles though deliberate practices include:

  • Creating the right structures and mechanisms to support the desired behavioural change, which will provide the necessary shift in context to reinvent how “things are done around here”
  • Adopting new measures that reflect the values of an organisation to create the right environment for developing aligned practices and behaviours
  • Supporting the delivery of different outcomes in new, novel ways that create disruption, through demonstrable acceptance that not every experiment will succeed
  • Traversing the inherent risk in the unknown and embracing that landscape through managed experimentation, enabling a mindset shift, and hence a culture change that will have room to grow and flourish.

Supporting the desired culture, by making very deliberate changes to existing practices and processes will engage a mindset shift towards embracing disruption and experimentation. This requires a level of openness, vulnerability, and courage while continually challenging what we know and what we think we know. Changing current process and practices reinforces the need to embrace change and to do things differently.

It is not about the specifics of the practices as defined within any given framework that matters. More importantly, it is about understanding the principles behind them and doing things differently, even if that is uncomfortable. This requires a much deeper understanding of how agile principles are designed to foster shifts in both behaviours and mindset, and how those changes affect culture change. This makes the Agile Manifesto just as relevant in today’s landscape as it was when signed in 2001 and ten years ago at the first Agile Australia.

Conclusion

The clear focus throughout the annual Agile Australia conference was on realigning to the values and principles. The key elements to achieving an agile culture are therefore:

  • Understanding purpose at individual, team and organisational levels
  • Building an inclusive community
  • Building people and teams
  • Fostering technical expertise
  • Ensuring connectivity with customers
  • Prioritising for innovation through strategy

Developing an agile culture isn’t easy, but is a required pursuit for many organisations embarking on enterprise agility. The starting point to affecting a culture change requires the right supporting structures and management approach to be in place.

It takes years to reset the brain and unlearn previously learnt behaviours that have become internal truths. New truths need to be written in their place and into culture. These new truths need to be internalised to unlearn old strategies, patterns and behaviours, allowing a new culture inclusive of purpose, people and place, with common held beliefs and behaviours to develop.

The introduction of new practices and processes must align to creating and fostering the desired culture and be based on values and principles. As we continue to expand the reach and materialise the benefits of agile at individual, team and at enterprise, the imperative remains to stay true to the underlying principles above all else.

References

[1]CliffsNotes. n.d. Culture and Society Defined.Accessed 20 September 2018].

Maria Muir and Tahlia Oliver. 2017. Finding balance between Agile frameworks and mindset. [Accessed 20 September 2018].

Agile Aus 2108. 2018. Presentations.[Accessed 20 September 2018].

Jirra Lulla Harvey. 2018. What can tomorrow’s leaders learn from Indigenous stewardship. [Accessed 20 September 2018].

James Brett and Marina Chiovetti. 2018. Creating high-performance teams using the Human Full Stack. [Accessed 20 September 2018]

Nigel Dalton. 2018. Agile is the last thing you need.[Accessed 20 September 2018].


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