I recently experienced an agile immersion with a multinational IT firm who is adopting agile as part of its “transformation”: as a means to innovate and deliver customer-centric products to the market faster. Along with so many tech and non-tech companies, it is embracing agile’s promise of adaptive innovation in an increasingly competitive, always changing and high-speed marketplace. I was brought in as a culture doctor: to identify patterns and blind spots; dissolve roadblocks to agility; increase cross-organizational collaboration; and to empower leadership to accelerate the transformation. This meant cultivating vision, building trust, and breeding an aligned, engaged company. Such organizational health is the symbiotic fluid necessary for agility to take hold and thrive.

From its engineers to the thousands of employees outside of software development, agile was as new to 95% of this company as it is to “the rest of us.” What began as an evolution of innovative software development methodologies in the 1990s, grew into a movement that informed tech start-ups and small IT teams in the 2000s, and now extends to a range of functions and industries, in companies of many types and sizes across the globe. Agile has entered the mainstream, at least in name, and is certainly a buzzword. Yet what exactly “agile” is, and how to use or approach it is less clear. Limited and multiple understandings of agile permeate even those firms who are adopting it. Given the resources an agile adoption requires (time, money, energy), knowing how to achieve its promises and avoid its pitfalls is paramount. Key to this is understanding the role of organizational culture to its success.

Agile is a set of tools, processes and a mindset, all geared to innovation velocity: Developing and delivering incrementally in small, collaborative teams; testing for value with customer feedback; and beginning another iterative cycle based upon what we’ve just learned. The extent to which an organization systemically learns and adopts an agile mindset determines its ability to know when and which tools and processes to use to “be agile.” Agile as a mindset is its least understood and most relevant dimension–for software technologists and for those outside IT.

An agile mindset is a growth mindset. Also called a learning mindset, it’s the proclivity to learn from experiences and nimbly adapt. An agile organization is a continuous learning organization. Professionally and personally, agility requires transparency, systems thinking and collaboration—none of which can occur in the absence of trust or fluent, skilled communication.

For this reason, more important than an agile mindset is a culture that supports it.

Agile is not a Silver Bullet for Culture Change

Agilists roundly acknowledges this necessary “culture piece.” Yet the belief that implementing agile methods will generate culture change is a causal fallacy. “Agile processes and tools” (in the words of Agile Business author Bob Gower), as “install mechanisms for culture,” works in high-alignment, high-autonomy, high-trust cultures. (Spotify’s successful and innovative agile adoption make it the “agile posterboy”). From the Daily Standup to sprint planning, interactive meetings involving lots of sticky notes, and software demos to which all stakeholders, including customers, are invited, agile processes are designed for collaboration. This is why–as the recent HBR article, “Embracing Agile,” highlights–“favorable conditions for agile” are “creative cultures with high levels of trust and collaboration.” It is also why, for many established companies, the path to agile adoption is fraught with roadblocks that, like the “whack-a-mole” game, recur at every turn. Transformation becomes just a signpost rather than an authentic organizational experience; and companies encounter the pitfalls of agile without fully reaping its promise.

Implementing agile methods will surface the cultural operating system of your company, and make more visible the conditions inimical to agility: transactional management, command-and-control behaviors and low trust. Just as an application runs within your operating system, so too does agile run within your corporate culture. Both software and agile implementation require healthy operating systems. Adopting agile into a hierarchal and/or functionally silo-ed organization produces a conflict of cultures, wherein the default culture wins. When cultures conflict, the established culture is the one in which it is safest to survive. Without a high-trust culture of generative dialogue, agile becomes rote processes: people “show up” for the Daily Standup, or in newly formed cross-functional teams–but withhold their boots-on-the ground perspectives. Agile coaches call this “doing agile,” versus “being agile,” and it inhibits the creative free-flow exchange necessary for innovation.

Full-scale agility requires a clear line of sight, a culture of trust and mutual influence, individual and organizational emotional intelligence, and skilled communication. Here’s why:

Being agile is like skiing a mogul run. Standing at the top, you pick your “line” and take it, eyes ahead, feet beneath you. But as you actually ski, you adapt to the moguls: to what your evolving vision encounters. You may need to turn in a different part of a bump, or adjust your line to turn in powder versus an ice patch. This enhances both your successful “zipline” and your fun. (Just as a company of truly engaged employees is productive and fun).

As the shortest route between ideation and benefit realization, agility requires a clear line of sight with responsiveness to reality on the ground—not only customer needs, but also the inner capacities of your company to satisfy those needs: realistic “time-boxes” for cross-organizational planning, collaboration and delivery; what works and what doesn’t. To be agile, people on the ground need to be empowered to dialogue with their managers and say, “This is what it’s going to take to get this done”; “Here’s where I think our best ROI is to achieve this goal.”

Line of Sight

This clarity and candid dialogue requires two things. One, a clear line of sight between every employee’s daily work, the company vision and its strategic objectives to realize that vision. A clear line of sight is one of the strongest factors in employee engagement. Lack of line of sight mires people in silos of work prioritized by urgency versus importance and perceived versus real business value. People experience a disconnect between corporate messaging and their work-in-progress (“WIP” in agile terms), processes and managerial directives. In a small or start-up company, line of sight is easier to establish and communicate. In an enterprise, grown quickly or over decades, and often by merger and acquisition, line of sight becomes much more elusive. Add in individual egos, agendas—and perhaps a history of layoffs that is the collateral damage of M&A–and line of sight often becomes less important than job security.

This human dimension of agile adoption in a corporate environment must be acknowledged and addressed. It explains why, in the words of CA Technologies CTO Otto Berkes, “Deep adoption of agile requires changing established culture and will challenge even the most evolved agile supporter.” In most companies, “the most evolved agile supporter” is a technical expert, promoted to management. Through no fault of their own, experts-as-managers are often bereft of leadership training to improve their emotional intelligence, communication, trust and relational skills. This lack of “people skills” breeds insecurity about the role and at the same time a corporate-climber agenda (sometimes unconscious). This reinforces a transactional management style, which leads us to the second requirement for generative dialogue.

Transformational Leadership

Open, candid communication at all levels in an organization, vertically and horizontally, depends on transformational leadership. Transformational leadership occurs by influence and relationship rather than by positional authority. Such leaders cultivate relationship-building as a way of doing business, and a “conversational sensibility” that engenders a cross-pollination of ideas. Boris Broysberg and Michael Slind, authors of the HBR article, “Leadership is a Conversation,” call this “organizational conversation.” “Chief among [its] benefits is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or capture some of the qualities—operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment—that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.”

“Operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment”: This is the very picture of agile.

Organizational conversation does not occur within a system acculturated to transactional management: where “Get-it-done” or “Make-it-happen” missives carry the day; where employees are warned to communicate “in your chain of command.” Yet these are the orders many of us have heard issued repeatedly–as a matter of verbal habit—by managers charged with and even leading agile adoption.

Culture is unconscious, and under stress people revert to inherited, learned behaviors—often defaulting to Command-and-Control rather than Trust-Ask-and-Learn. A smart company doesn’t hire smart people to tell them what to do; it invites their recommendations—so to learn together how to do business differently. This is how we collaboratively enact a growth mindset. Agile requires an inquiry-based approach that says, “Here’s where we’re going; research this and tell me what it’s going to take to get it done?” OR, “What’s your sense of the best way to meet our goals?” As Broysberg and Slind put it, “It’s less about issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.” Dialogue and listening-to-learn are the markers of organizational health–regardless of agile adoption, and essential for it.

Prescription: Culture Change (Call a Doctor)

Culture change does not occur by fiat, nor as the ancillary effect of implementing agile methods, but by intentional design and top-down commitment to learn, practice and model transformational leadership. Agilists are technical experts—sharp engineers, developers, architects—who, like most smart, engaged employees, are interested in and affected by culture change—yet more so, because their mindset and commitment to innovation depends on it. But agilists are not culture change experts. Going to or expecting a technical agilist or agile team to transform the entrenched culture of your enterprise is like going to the maker of your multi-feature elliptical machine to improve your health. S/he can tell you how it works; recommend a process for using it as an exercise tool; model and coach you as to its use. But only an experienced doctor can diagnose the behavior patterns that impede your holistic health and prescribe the means to transform it–and educate, coach and support you in that journey from the inside out.

Culture change is a different dynamic, both higher-level and deeper. It’s the water we swim in, and often, like fish, without awareness of the pervasive way it empowers or disempowers our mindset–and the actions and results that ensue from it. Culture is relevant to the entire organization with agile departments or parts – HR or marketing or finance, e.g., in addition to software development.

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As the sum of behaviors in an organization, culture is the strongest driver of long-term sustainability. With a skillset and trained senses unbiased by any particular organizational body, an expert culture doctor empowers the corporate body to heal itself and function in a fundamentally different way. She identifies patterns where the organization is stuck, and teach leaders the mindset – and skillset – to move from transactional management to transformational leadership. Only then can leaders build trust, create a clear line of sight, foster organizational conversation—and breed these skills throughout the enterprise. Creating these conditions for innovation is the surest way to ensure ROI on your agile investment. Because true agility is less about engineering and more about human interaction.


Marni Gauthier, PhD, is a leadership consultant, culture doctor, and transformation advisor. She specializes in developing synergistic teams, transformational leaders, and agile, sustainable companies.