Building an Agile Work Culture: Creating Inclusivity and Collaboration

Creating an inclusive and collaborative work culture stimulates innovation and adaptability, benefiting both employees and organizations alike. Scott Ambler shares more on the advantages of building an agile culture and how to get started.

Written by Scott Ambler • 20 May 2021


Image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Aristotle once said (if you can believe what you read online), “We are what we repeatedly do.”

That’s a pretty good definition for what we mean by a word that is bandied around a whole lot—culture. Cottage industries have emerged focused on the question of how to build cultures that allow organizations to be more innovative and agile.

Unfortunately, it takes quite a bit more work than adding a ping-pong table to the office—and the other cosmetic touches that organizations sometimes fixate on—to develop a new cultural ethos.

The disconnect could stem from the simple challenge of defining what exactly we mean by that word “culture.” We’ve heard Aristotle’s take; others might describe it as the repeated patterns of behavior that emerge in your organization, or simply “how people act when nobody is watching.”

In the world of agile, culture has always played an outsized role in determining the effectiveness of an enterprise. It’s right there in the guidelines of the Disciplined Agile mindset, which places an emphasis on creating effective environments that foster joy at work and the obligation of teams to drive sustainable culture change by improving existing management systems.

So what exactly does an agile culture look like?

  • It empowers people to collaborate and take smart risks. It expects that new products and services will require iteration, rather than perfection on launch. A culture that emphasizes “doing it right the first time” will generally discourage experimentation and improvement.
  • It focuses on “pulling, not pushing”—rewarding and incentivizing agile behaviors with carrots, rather than sticks. Forcing change on people is much more likely to backfire and they may resist and even subvert the change you’re seeking. But if they feel a sense of shared ownership and buy-in, they’re far more likely to identify ways they can contribute.
  • It focuses on strategic alignment and value over delivering projects on budget and on time.

This is easy to say, of course, but very challenging in some highly regulated environments like the government sector, in which leaders are rightly scrutinized very closely. These organizations face very different incentive structures than organizations in more competitive environments who must be agile simply to stay relevant in the face of emerging competitors. It’s an entirely different proposition to evolve the culture of a large established organization with myriad stakeholders with some degree of oversight authority, as opposed to a small team or start-up.

However, we increasingly see pockets of innovation within the government where forward-thinking leaders have driven agile cultures. We saw this progress in research that PMI recently developed on the impact of agile on the United States federal government. Our report identifies organizational culture as a critical category in assessing the readiness of an organization to adopt agile principles.

So how can organizations go about the hard work of getting started in building agile cultures? Here are some ways organizations might consider getting started.

Recognize it will take time. Cultural change never happens overnight, requiring a great deal of patience—while still coupled with the urgency and bias for action inherent in agile approaches. Maintaining employee (or to use a more appropriate word, talent) engagement over this long time-horizon can be enhanced by encouraging them to find motivation in learning and continuously mastering their craft.

Focus on improving systems. Culture ultimately is a reflection of management systems in place; therefore to change a culture, overall systems must be evolved as well. For example, it’s increasingly come into vogue for leaders to take public steps to address the challenge of non-stop ad hoc requests pouring in via email and instant messages. Some CEOs have even called for steps like “email-free Fridays”; but a culture that has taken form around expectations for rapid-fire responsiveness can’t meaningfully change beyond an individual level, unless an organization completely re-thinks its approach to how information is shared and retrieved.

Strive to foster joy. Attracting great talent and fostering innovation requires building an environment that encourages talent to view the workplace as something that can be fun and even joyful, not a place of drudgery. Done right, more of what we consider to be work can feel like play. Experiments and experimental-based work tends to enhance the feeling of joy that teams feel; I’ve seen firsthand a variety of experimentation-based approaches work very well, as seen in trends like the DevOps and Lean movements.

What comes to mind when you think of an agile culture? Does your organization fit the bill—and if not, what steps could your team begin implementing today to create it?

Scott Ambler headshot

Scott Ambler
Vice President & Chief Scientist | Disciplined Agile, PMI

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