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Agile culture and organisational immune systems

Written by Ben Hayman, Transformation Lead at Assurity Consulting and Digital Leader New Zealand

There has been plenty of writing about culture change being essential if organisations are to get decent value from Agile as a set of methods. It’s also mostly recognised that Agile requires the right mindset and that just changing processes is not going to work. Pretty much everyone also acknowledges that to do that you need to rethink the organisation’s operating model. Even still, with all this common opinion it seems that people struggle to know what this change in culture really means. How will they know if they’ve achieved enough of it to create the conditions for the right kind of Agile organisation to thrive?

As part of our Digital LeadersNZ activity, we have recently polled members to work out what topics they want DLNZ to focus on and its shed a useful light on how they see Agile and its relationship to culture change.

Our local NZ context is that we need to sustain transformation in a small economy with a natural tendency for partnerships and “getting stuff done”. Being a place that’s had to invent and fix things – rather than purchase product from well stocked easily, reached marketplaces – it’s very much a part of our DNA. That said, we also know that in many ways NZ has a poor track record of managing businesses well. We are often a fair bit behind the curve, internationally, in terms for maturity of things like Agile and Digital. So we have much to learn in order to improve.

Our DLNZ members recently came up with a list of themes to explore and improve this situation. They highlighted the need for culture to be shifted and how that shift could be made. The top three relevant themes that relate to culture-shift were:

  • Organisational Immune Systems – How can we disrupt or change the way decision-making is undertaken to allow new approaches to take hold?

  • Leading differently – How do we develop leaders with collaborative styles and the confidence to let go?

  • Making learning the organisational priority – How do we get our organisations in the right state to take real value from learning and to value it (learning) as a result?

Each of these points could be a huge enabler for culture change if tackled effectively. So we are going to dig deep in some Salon events and through the sharing of ideas and content to see what works and what doesn’t.

We also know that we can’t deliver big change in an organisation – like shifting the culture – without a compelling story and ongoing narrative of “how it’s going”. To enable this we need to measure something so that we know where we are at the start. Then we need to create a language that encourages everyone to keep improving things even when progress is hard to see. It’s a long haul after all.

We are now exploring with our DLNZ members what real world staff experiences we could measure to achieve this. We are looking for day-to-day things that will indicate that an organisation is shifting from a culture that activates the immune system too often, to one that celebrates the right kind of leadership.

Chris Buxton, CDO at Statistics NZ is deeply involved in the transformation of his organisation tackling these issues head on and has this to share:

A culture change process such as the embedding of Agility is unlikely to succeed unless we involve the whole business. If we don’t, it’s all too easy for the areas of the business that are not meaningfully engaged to get perceived as being resistant, undermining rapid decision making. It’s true that some parts of the business will have much more to do to shift processes and mindsets to create the new culture than others, but the culture is by definition everyone so all of the people need to be engaged in an appropriate way.

Making it practical and real for decision makers is also very important – let them know what will be expected of them that’s new (before they get confronted with it out of the blue). Demonstrate how they will be asked to respond quickly and with a new approach to risk. We are practising this in a range of connected, small ways within our organisation currently, one example being through the running of internal accelerators. We involve business managers and governance people along with the accelerator delivery teams in an Agile, Lean Startup process that requires the business to make commitments and decisions swiftly. And we are trying this approach business wide not just with a focus on technology or digital.

It’s fair to say that NZ organisations adopt new things very rapidly but, due to the small size of our economy, workforce and population, we often lack the number of people here that have deep experience in applying new methods in the wild. Our enthusiasm can sometimes outpace our capabilities to maintain a good level of quality and, as a result, Agile has been applied with wildly varying levels of success here.

We think it’s all the more important therefore to focus on practical, cornerstone changes to how leadership is approached if we are to rapidly create the right conditions for Agile to flourish across our nation’s ventures and agencies. We are trying to get super-practical about this and to find ways of measuring the impact of a different approach to leading.

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