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Organizational Culture & Agile Transformation

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

This lesson explains how to assess an organization's culture and determine appropriate steps to 'evangelize' the change necessary in order to adopt Agile. It also discusses some common challenges to organizational change.

Assessing an Organization's Culture

Cultures of business organizations are unique, and trying to define them is like trying to explain what differentiates snowflakes. However, there are some key markers to use when defining organizational culture. The following questions can lead to accurate mapping of organizational culture:

  • Are goals and strategies clearly defined?
  • Is there a clearly defined decision-making process?
  • Open lines of communication?
  • Do employees find meaning or purpose in their work?
  • Are there opportunities to learn and grow?
  • Is everyone held responsible and accountable?
  • Are employees engaged in their work?
  • Do people collaborate and work in teams or isolation?
  • Is there rigidity or do plans adapt to circumstances?
  • Is the tone of the office one of trust and integrity?
  • Does the workplace engender a sense of respect and fairness?

Defining Agility

Agile teams first appeared in the software industry. But the concept of fostering creative, collaborative teamwork that could adapt to any and all changes during the process quickly became a sought-after business model across industries. Google, Netflix, and Über are the kind of exciting new agile organizations of today. By emulating them, businesses in all sectors are shifting to the agile model.

An agile team is a creative entity, or a collaborative problem-solving organism. Individual teams are tasked with projects and encouraged to develop creative solutions in new, unique, and individualized ways. Projects, departments, and even whole divisions work with an agile model. But full-organizational agility has become highly prized. More than anything else, full-organizational agility is a culture, and the shift into an agile environment requires a cultural shift.

How to 'Evangelize' the Change to an Agile Environment

There are five basic tenants to agile culture. Each one of these is particularly appealing, but they are even stronger when used in combination.

  1. People Take Priority Over Process - Companies like Zappos and Spotify encourage employees to self-organize, which leads to groups that pop up around different topics like objectives, work environment, skillsets, interests, and so on.
  2. Dynamics Rather Than Documents - Slavishly following documented procedures is a hindrance in an agile environment. The agility culture demands collaboration. This means shorter but more intense work periods instead of traditional, proscribed methodologies.
  3. Collaboration Rather Than Cascading - Collaboration in the agile environment creates a lack of ownership. Each idea or project is 'ours,' rather than 'mine.' Because of this, the culture is inherently more trusting, communicative, and adaptive.
  4. Adaptive Rather Than Prescriptive - Agile culture asks that people change, try new approaches, and constantly adapt to any new information that arises. This culture has little room for reasons why something can't happen and instead urges thought about how it can happen. It asks, 'How can we do this?' rather than, 'Why can't we do this?'
  5. Leadership Rather Than Management - The job of executives and managers in full-organizational agile cultures is to enable those working under them and facilitate their employees' needs. Frequently, this means posing the problems that need to be solved and allowing their subordinates and teams to figure out how to solve them.

Common Organizational Challenges

While it is easy to see why an organizational agile environment is attractive, transformation to this paradigm has its challenges. There are a few common challenges to this kind of organizational transformation.

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