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Elements of Culture: The Third Rail of Change


Organizations interested in garnering the benefits of Agility may need to make fundamental changes to…ahem…culture! (Cue the ominous music.) Culture can be like the third rail of an electric train (touch it, and you die). Leaders work long and hard to build a culture. They also know that changing it is a long and painful process. More importantly, it is the core of the organization’s identity.


Agile practitioners with a deep understanding of what it takes to be successful know that some level of cultural change will be necessary for the journey to continue. How they talk about this is critical to success.


Elements of Culture

If we look more deeply, it is clear that “culture” is not one thing. Using the term broadly is a disservice to helping leaders understand the requirements of a successful Agile Journey. So let’s break it down. Cultural components fit into two categories:


  1. Components that define the “secret sauce” that makes the organization unique

  2. Components that can change without fundamentally changing the identity of the organization.

Secret Sauce

These elements include:


  1. Core values are the fundamental beliefs in how the organization and its people should behave. Examples are accountability, empathy, customer-centric, fun, and community support.

  2. Diversity, equity, and inclusion speak to how the organization values people. Organizations have varying degrees of concern for DEI. While the execution of those beliefs can change, the actual core belief is sticky.

  3. Social contract refers to the relationship an organization has with the community. This is built over time and may be critical to an organization’s identity. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, Zingerman’s is an excellent example of this. They have chosen to remain local and are deeply committed to community engagement. If you live in the area, you will likely have been touched by this, making it an essential part of your perception of the company.

  4. Innovation is increasingly vital to any company, but some organizations make it part of their identity. Companies like Apple live and die by their ability to lead the field with breakthrough technologies.

Malleable

  1. Leadership styles are hard to change but evolve without destroying the fabric of the organization’s identity. Leaders are people who can grow and improve over time. Command-and-control organizations can become more egalitarian. Leadership styles influence the amount of trust or fear.

  2. Communication, like leadership, involves responsibilities and interactions. Communication has many components, like pathways, transparency, style, and tone. Thoughtful changes to communication strategies and tactics fundamentally affect how the organization operates.

  3. Recognition and appreciation of individual and team accomplishments have a subtle yet profound impact on organizational culture.

  4. Work/life balance demonstrates the organization’s commitment to “whole people.” Companies like Amazon are known to prize performance through extraordinary effort, whereas Menlo Innovations prizes their 40-hour workweek expectation.

Some Change is Good

It should be clear from these two lists why saying “your culture must change” is likely to trigger resistance. We don’t have a proper term for separating fixed and malleable elements of culture. Leaders may understand the “magic” of what makes their organization unique. If they don’t, helping them to do so is an essential early exercise in any Agile Journey.


Agile journeys eventually impact some aspects of the culture. By starting with clear intentions, change agents can protect the organization’s heritage and persona while advancing operating practices that improve performance. Maybe we need terms. I’d suggest Identity Culture and Practical Culture. Both of these can change but for very different reasons. Thinking clearly about how we communicate these ideas is fundamental to organizational change. Failure to do so can cause instant death.


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