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One of the problems with any transformation is that preference is often given to tools and processes rather than culture. It is easier to mandate a new process or tool, but it does little to transform a company’s agility. Culture has a wide-ranging definition. It is hard to identify what contributes to a culture, but it is easy to identify when a culture is damaging. Additionally, there are corporate cultures, and sub cultures tied to departments and teams. The trick is working on refining and reshaping your culture if needed, or reinforcing the culture if you have it where you want it.

Process is Downstream

If you are looking to implement an agile transformation, or even change the way your team works, you have to pay attention to culture first. It is easy to give into the thinking that if you change a tool or process, the culture will then change. If this is your approach, change may occur but it will not last or it may even spur personnel changes that are not desired. People come to a job for more than a process or a tool. Compensation and benefits get a candidate in the door, but the culture is what retains key talent. If you are trying to change the culture by implementing a new tool or process, you may have bought some time. But, eventually, the culture issues resurfaces despite the new tool or process and you will find yourself in the same predicament. Process is downstream from culture.

What Makes a Culture

There are various ways of defining culture as it is a pretty nebulous term. However, I think of it in terms of the sum of your actions; the reasons for your actions. It isn’t necessarily written on your walls, or website. It is the actual guiding principles that make up the reason for decisions. On top of that, your values should reinforce the reason for why your company exists. So, if you don’t have a vision for why the company is there, start by defining that. For example, here’s a summary of Apple’s Values from Tim Cook:

“We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us.

We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot.

And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.” Source

This quote sums up why Apple exists and outlines some of the ways that they will achieve their vision. But, what makes this work is the actions are inline with that statement.

What’s the vision?

When was the last time you heard or reviewed why your company is in business? What is the vision or beliefs that you are moving towards? On top of that, values are in place to get you to your vision? Are those used as a constant guide? If not, then they aren’t really your values. Here is what Amazon says for their values:

“We use our Leadership Principles every day, whether we’re discussing ideas for new projects or deciding on the best approach to solving a problem. It is just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar.” Source

Note that Amazon’s states that they use the leadership principles everyday. Their challenge, like everyone else, is that they have use the values they’ve identified throughout the entire organization. From the CEO down to the person delivering an Amazon package.

Prioritize Culture

One of the biggest traps is hiring people for what they can do instead of how they work. Technical skills are important and necessary, but if the way a person works doesn’t jive with the values your culture has, it won’t be a good fit over time. The reason why people/companies fall into that trap is that they don’t have their core values defined. In the absence of a defined value, you shoot for the tools a person has and can bring to the table. This gets you qualified people in the door, but how you are going to keep them there is an uphill battle.

Additionally, when decisions are made, you should either have the vision and values internalized so the decisions sync with the values you have identified. Too often, culture is only addressed when there are serious problems, or stagnating growth. This shows a lack of priority and understanding that your business is comprised of individuals that contribute to a goal, seek to deliver value. If the culture is only an afterthought, no one will take your stated values seriously. Your business is a network of humans not a network of abilities.

What Changes a Culture

There are a number of things that you can do to change your culture. But, none of it is going to work unless you start with trust. If you have the trust of your team mates, co workers, or employees, then you have overcome the biggest hurdle. Now you have to maintain it through this transition process. If you don’t have trust, you’ll need to cultivate it through daily interactions and consistency in actions. One thing that can gain trust during this culture shift is defining your vision and values, and then sticking by it. When people see you act in accordance to your stated principles, they will take the principles seriously.

Know your people

Actions of one person will not change the culture of a company. You need to know who has influence. People with influence doesn’t necessarily mean that person is in a position of authority or power either.  If you know your team well, you should already know who your influential people are. Meet with them and give them a say on what the values or vision of the company should be. If you have their support, others will come as well. This requires a good deal of trust as well. If you aren’t willing to trust their opinions, or act on them, or have an active discussion with the realities that maybe they aren’t aware of, then you risk losing them. The Harvard Business Review did an excellent analysis of a corporate culture change here. One of the key steps identified is working with the influential people within the organization to achieve the desired cultural change.

This is not exhaustive

There are a variety of other things that can be done to facilitate a change in culture that are not outlined in this article. If this is really a priority, which it should be, simple research will start you on the right path. Remember, invite to change, don’t mandate change. People respond to invitations better than mandates. This is something preached in the OpenSpace Agility framework and is one of the points I agree on in the framework.


At this point it should be obvious that a cultural transformation is a good idea if you are struggling with high turnover, low employee morale, and a large amount of noise within your organization. But, just like everything else in life, you have to make it a priority. Agile transformations will never work if there isn’t a cultural shift that accompanies it. It is hard work, but definitely worth it. Just ask Twitter, Instagram, Honda, Netflix, HP and others here and here.

Thanks for reading!

Being > Doing

David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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