When I teach classes on root causes of agile project failure, I’m often asked which of the causes is most difficult to overcome. From an enterprise perspective, that is an easy answer: bad culture.

Sociologist Ron Westrum defines culture as “the patterned way that an organization responds to its challenges, whether these are explicit (for example, a crisis) or implicit (a latent problem or opportunity).” Westrum believes every organization fits into one of three cultural patterns: pathological, bureaucratic, or generative.

A pathological culture is created by individuals who focus on their own personal power and hoard information for their benefit. Groups and divisions do not cooperate with each other because their leaders feel they are in competition. Higher-ups shoot the messengers, so everyone learns to keep their mouths shut. When things fail, management seeks to find scapegoats to take the blame. Innovation and creativity are discouraged, as they threaten the status quo and power structure.

A bureaucratic culture emerges when leaders emphasize following rules and defending turf. There is some amount of cooperation within the organization, but only within the rules that exist. Responsibilities are doled out very narrowly and everyone must stay in their swim lane. When failure happens, justice is sought out and served. Innovation and creativity are looked at as a problem.

A generative culture arises when performance and business outcomes are rewarded. There is high coordination between groups that need to interact to get a business result. Individuals feel responsible and accountable for their successes but are not afraid to fail. Failure leads to retrospection and improvement, not punishment. Creativity and novelty is rewarded, particularly when it leads to business success.

It’s pretty clear from the descriptions above where agile is most likely to thrive. A generative culture has all the characteristics necessary to support self-directed teams, shared responsibility, blameless retrospectives, a culture of experimentation, and continuous process improvement. If you reside in an organization with a generative culture, agile will likely take hold very easily.

But what about the rest of us? Most large organizations did not grow up in an era where a generative culture was the norm.

Westrum’s research shows that most large companies do not have one culture throughout the entire organization. As culture is very tied to the beliefs and attitudes of the leadership, some groups can be generative even if the entire organization is not, and agile can take root there. Your challenges will arise when your group needs support from others that aren’t so generative.

If the rest of the organization is bureaucratic, you’ll have to work within the established rules and expect long lead times to get what you need from others. However, if you are successful at demonstrating business value with agile, a bureaucratic organization can slowly add new rules that are more agile, and the entire organization can adopt an agile philosophy.

Unfortunately, if your organization is entirely pathological, you are not going to get very far with agile. The norms and leadership are not going to allow teams to self-organize or innovate. If agile is part of your belief system, you have no choice but to vote with your feet.

This blog is a repost from Techwell Insights.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *