How to Foster Culture Change to Increase Agility

Culture seems to be a hot topic when it comes to adopting agile. Whether it’s about having the “right” culture to foster agility, getting changes done that are needed but are not happening due to the existing culture, or people looking for ways to change the company culture to reach their goals; culture appears to be something that needs attention in many companies when their aim is to increase their agility.

Culture matters! It can make or break things. Get people moving or inhibit them. Drive people toward results, or drive them nuts.

It’s hard, but we shouldn’t ignore culture. Culture impacts how people collaborate, and collaboration is essential to work in an agile way.

In his article, I’ll dive into organizational culture and provide a coaching “tool” to visualize and explore your culture and foster culture change.

Why culture matters

Before exploring why culture matters, let’s first build an understanding of what it is. Here’s how Edgar H. Schein defines it:

“The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values and behavioural norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions.”

The beliefs and values that people have impact their behavior. Similar to that, the way that people collaborate is driven by shared beliefs and values. If something needs to change in an organization, it often starts by changing the culture, the mindset of people, and their attitudes.

Culture has an impact on employee engagement and motivation which are factors that play an important role in team performance. If you want to establish self-organized teams, you have to ensure that the culture enables and supports this.

The culture in an organization sets expectations for how people are supposed to think and act, and what behaviors are acceptable and what are not. If you want people to behave differently, the culture will have to change to create conditions for the behavior to happen (and unwanted behavior to stop).

Visualizing culture

Culture is something abstract. It’s hard to describe the culture that a company has. Still, if we want to change the culture then we somehow need to visualize what the current culture is.

One way to visualize the existing culture is to describe its key aspect. An exercise that I often do is to have people state their culture using adjectives. I’ve created a deck of cards, called The Culture Cards, that help to identify and discuss cultural aspects in organizations using gamification and exercises.

Depending on the context and needs of the participants, different exercises and game formats can be used with the cards. Examples are using the cards to get people talking, self-assessments, or identifying cultural blockers, weaknesses, and strengths.

For an ice-breaker or warm-up exercise: Spread out the culture cards on a table or (online) whiteboard and ask attendees if there’s a card that describes an aspect of the culture of their organization, team, project, etc. Anyone can pick a card to talk about how their culture looks, how that works for them, what challenges it poses, what they like or don’t like about their culture, what they would like to see changed, etc. Think of this as storytelling, campfire chats, or any other relaxed low-structure format.

A culture self-assessment can be done by asking people to pick one Culture Card that resonates with them, having a word that describes their current culture or a change in culture that they would like to see. The cards can be ranked or turned into a culture words cloud or wordle. You can also use dot voting to agree upon the cards that best describe the current or desired culture.

You can also use the cards to identify cultural blockers or weaknesses. Ask people to select cards with words that are related to possible cultural issues like “biased”, “boring”, “disengaged”, “unethical”, or “unfair” and make those cards visible on a (virtual) whiteboard for the attendees. Invite attendees to share stories triggered by the words on the cards. Not that this exercise requires strong psychological safety where people dare to talk about what’s not going well. As an alternative, you can also use the cards to visualize cultural strengths.

These are just some examples of exercises and games that can be done. In my workshops and when I’m coaching teams I often come up with new formats, geared towards the needs of teams and professionals.

Facilitating discussions about culture can help to bring out the elephant in the room. Visualizing culture helps to take collaborative action.

The Culture Cards are not intended to be a tool to classify a company’s culture. Their purpose is to support discussions, and to help people share their thoughts and insights. They enable discussing culture in an engaged and safe way to create a shared understanding of culture.

Play with the Culture Cards

The Culture Cards is a new Agile Coaching Tool that you can download from my webshop. It consists of 78 cards with words like “Empowering”, “Disengaged”, “Competitive”, etc., and empty cards where people can add their own words for describing the culture. It’s a powerful and flexible “tool” for experienced facilitators that possess knowledge of cultural aspects and culture change.

The Culture Cards can be used together with other Agile Coaching tools in self-assessments, agile retrospectives, culture change initiatives, organizational transformations, and more.

You can download the Culture Cards and other Agile Coaching Tools from my webshop. These tools come with Free Lifetime Support.

Let’s foster culture change

If you would like to work on the culture in your team or organization to increase agility, if you want to help people focus and jointly works on a cultural blocker, or if you want to leverage cultural strengths, then the Culture Cards are there to help you.

Feel free to share your experiences from working with culture in the comments below.

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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