Creating an agile culture for your organisation

Jerome Parisse-Brassens

After ten years of implementation of Agile by organisations around the world, I’m only seeing mitigated success.  Agile takes its roots in the 2001 Agile Manifesto, when software development adopted the idea of “Agile” in an effort to make software development more efficient and purpose driven. The more cynical of us might say that Agile is just another consulting fad, destined to rise and fade as have BPR, Lean, and Six-Sigma. The more optimist among us will say that Agile has helped to bring awareness of the need to do things differently, and to think differently, to the business community.

What is the difference between Agile and agile? Implementing Agile involves following a set of specified methodologies, daily routines and practices. Agile is a process, something that you do. Implementing agile involves borrowing certain practices and concepts from Agile, shifting the patterns of behaviour in your organisation - agile is a way working and being.

Many organisations, especially the larger, more global ones have become increasingly complex and bureaucratic on the basis of more control, regulation, and a need to protect oneself in a tough environment. Who hasn’t been asked to produce a 50-slide pack, just in case? The need for consensus is slowing down decision-making, with perfectionism often the icing on the cake. The consequences? An inability to make decisions fast, a feeling of disempowerment, and decreasing customer satisfaction. Agile was welcomed as the solution for speed and simplicity. However, working on Agile on its own is not enough, and businesses need to simultaneously work on agile, on the mindsets and behaviours that will make change sustainable.

There are four characteristics of an agile culture, which are interdependent and need to occur together to realise the full benefits: customer-centricity, self-direction, experimentation and collaborative networks. The mindsets that sit behind each one are respectively, curiosity, personal responsibility, learning, and trust/teamwork. In an agile culture:

  • The customer sits at the heart of what people do and think. There is a genuine interest and curiosity about the customer – who they are, what is important to them and how you can help them solve their problems or enhance their business/life.
  • People believe that they are responsible to deliver to others and leaders trust their employees to deliver on their promises. The contribution of all is valued and there is a belief in the power of
  • In an agile culture there is openness to feedback and learning. Testing and experimentation are at the heart of how work is structured – this means moving from a right/wrong view of the world to always asking ‘I wonder what this intervention will produce?’ or ‘let’s try it and then see if it works’.
  • Unlocking the potential of people in teams becomes fundamental for an agile culture to flourish. Teams are self-driven and are connected to customers and each other. They are dynamic, forming and dissipating around specific goals. Time is spent talking and forming connections creating alignment within and across groups.

To foster an agile culture, you neetrustalign the behaviours of your people - especially the leaders - the systems, processes, and symbols sent to employees. Leadership and structure are also necessary, even in agile cultures.  The role of the leader, however, is to enable teams with the right capabilities and conditions to operate within a network, and the vision that multiple teams should be working towards spending time on the ‘dark matter’ between teams. According to our research at Walking the Talk, the #1 challenge facing a leader in an agile culture is letting go of fears related to losing control and not being needed. The transition from “command-and-control” to a mindset of trusting and serving people to help them be their best is key. To develop your agile leaders, I strongly suggest the use of a 360 tool focused on the key behaviours for agile, and a combination of one on one coaching with intact team work. Systems that need to be realigned will include decentralised decision-making, clarity of roles and responsibilities, design thinking to build empathy with the customer, shared targets across teams, a solid continuous feedback process and visible shared learning from mistakes.

A truly agile culture is one where trust forms the basis of any relationship and where feedback is not only received with open arms but sought out by everyone. There is no better test to evaluate how agile a culture is than to assess these two cultural attributes. They form the healthy soil on which typical Agile initiatives can flourish.


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