Disciplined Agile

Attending to Culture

“Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast and dinner.” – Peter Drucker

Culture is important for any organization, but changing it directly is not possible. It is not something to target for change explicitly.

Culture arises from experience. That is, an organization’s culture is a result of the experience of people working and collaborating with each other.

Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your methods of collaboration.

Improving a Company’s Culture

Improving an organization requires attention to its culture. This requires looking at several questions.

  • How attached are people to their roles?
  • How fast are people willing to move forward?
  • What is the amount of discipline needed?
  • How likely is it that people will resist an approach that is mandated on them?
  • Do teams prefer to have a structure imposed on them?
  • How much do people already know about the new ways of working?
  • How much do people think they know about the new ways of working?

As obvious as these factors may seem, they are often ignored when beginning an agile transformation. It is very important that they be attended to.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the adoption of any given improvement approach may face different challenges.

Agile Culture is Built on Trust and Respect

Agile is a mindset based on values and principles and being agile is different than just doing agile. To be agile means that the teams and the organization embrace the agile mindset and live by its values, and not only go through the agile rituals.

How, then, does an organization become agile? Changing people’s “being” is difficult.

Lean includes suggestions on how to create trust and respect: trust and respect come from people working well together. Systems thinking tells us that the ecosystem people are in has a significant impact on their behavior, and that if we improve their environment they can work better together.

The question isn’t if trust and respect is a good idea, the question is, how do you create it if it is not already there?

How to Build an Agile culture

“It is easier to work your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting.” – Sternin

“Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your method of collaboration.” – David Mann

In other words, changing the actions of teams shifts their culture. While culture is incredibly important, it is not something you can affect directly; you have to come at it in a different way.

Culture is an idea arising from experience: the culture of an organization is a result of what people experience when working there. In this way a company’s culture is influenced by the way people collaborate.

A good way to start building an agile culture is to focus on agreements, behaviors, specific expectations, tools and practices. Lean systems make this easier because they emphasize explicitly defined agreements and use tools to make the work and agreements visible.

The Disciplined Agile promises define a collection of behaviors that enable effective and professional collaboration:

  • Create psychological safety and embrace diversity
  • Accelerate value realization
  • Collaborate proactively
  • Make all work and workflow visible
  • Improve predictability
  • Keep workloads within capacity
  • Improve continuously

Management Must Change the System

“A bad system will beat a good team every time” – Edwards Deming.

“Only management can change the system” – Edwards Deming.

Management plays a key role in creating the ecosystem people work in and what Deming observed is still true today:

“A system must be managed; it will not manage itself. Left to themselves, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system … The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization.”

In other words, management must change the system to allow those doing the work to be able to self-organize to get their work done.

This is not top-down management; it is what is called “middle-up-down management.” In a nutshell this means that middle management looks up to see the vision of the leaders of the organization. It then looks down to where the work is taking place and works with those doing the work to improve their ecosystem based on their needs.

People are Inherently Good

If we trust and respect people, management does not need to focus on them. Instead, they can focus on helping them improve their work, learn faster, collaborate with others and be more creative. This clearly involves a cultural shift. The challenge is, that although culture is incredibly important, it is not something you can address directly. Instead, we must focus on the management system that helps to shift culture over time.

In other words, we want to shift from “what values do we need to do Agile?” to “how do we learn to work together so that trust and respect will go up?” This is clearly a culture change.

The Disciplined Agile principles provide a good starting point for that learning journey:

Starting With Small Changes

Some organizations will do better by making a big jump, others through a series of small steps. Neither approach is necessarily optimal, both rather depend upon the organization and its current culture.

To start with small steps:

  1. Collocate teams.
  2. Get them working on one project.
  3. Build software in stages.
  4. Hold daily coordination meetings.
  5. Assign someone as team lead to help them remove impediments.
  6. Have either the customers more available to them or have someone fill the role of the product owner so the team can get guidance on what is needed.

What gets in our way is not so much resistance as habit. An organization’s journey to improvement requires breaking old habits while adopting new ones. Starting with these small steps will establish new habits.

Changing culture takes time.

Attend to the Workflow

Changing culture also requires attending to processes outside of the team. In all organizations, the amount and clarity of what is being requested of the team often has a bigger impact on the team than anything else. When multiple teams are involved and need to work together it is often best to first see how they work together before determining the actual practices of the team.

Disciplined Agile provides guidance to help you develop a fit for purpose process to realize business agility. By using the DA tool kit, you and your team can better understand how seemingly segmented activities can work together in a context-sensitive manner.


Lean tells us to change the system and to have management drive from the viewpoint of meeting organizational needs, while supporting their teams in being able to improve their ways of working.

Culture can’t be changed directly since it is a reflection of the organization. It is best changed by changing the methods of collaboration and the agreements within and between teams.

Teams don’t resist change as such; but imposed change without apparent value is usually resisted.

December 2022