What does it mean to have a 100% Agile organization?


This is a question that comes up from time to time and to me, it’s like asking; “What does it mean to be 100% Chinese, Indian,  German or Italian?”

If we have everyone doing Scrum, does that mean we are 100% Agile? That’s like asking, “If I listen to Italian music, eat Italian food, drink Italian wine, and live in Italy, does this make me Italian?” Maybe it does…maybe it doesn’t! If you  have read about my talk at Agile-2011 know where I am going with this. Being 100% Agile to some extent means we cannot explain why we are Agile, we simply are. Why am I Italian? I just am.

I come from a Punjabi culture. While  preparing my talk for Agile-2011, I asked my sister why we value respect and deference to our elders. Her comeback was “The culture of guilt and shame.” We laughed. She reminded me of how if we failed to accord the appropriate respect to our elders, which included our parents’ best friends, we were taken aside and admonished with, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Go say sorry to your Auntie!” Mom and Dad never explained WHY we should feel ashamed, only that we should…

Culture is like that. It becomes so embedded we forget about WHY we do things. Culture change requires us to think about the WHY. Culture is self-perpetuating. It evolves to be sure, but it is passed down generation over generation through values – how we aspire to behave. We value our elders and we demonstrate this value through norms – how we should behave. This in my case includes referring to my mother’s best friend as Auntie, and always being polite, and never raising my voice to her. I will do what she asks of me. I can’t remember my mother telling me WHY this was important, only that it was. My daughter sees this behaviour and continues the tradition. When she asks why, I have to dig deep for a rational answer. My mother has a simpler answer. “We raised you, fed you, schooled you, and we know more than you kids. You owe us.” My mother can be blunt and direct.

Getting back to an Agile culture, you know it is taking hold when the WHY question is not being asked as often and when people simply state that “this is just the way it is.” If we want deep change, the kind that takes hold and lasts, it is like trying to change the culture of a town or city. It will take time, and lots of effort, and continuous calling out of behaviour that is not aligned with the desired culture. Having a bunch of Scrum teams and knowing the definition of a Product Owner  and  ScrumMaster doesn’t even scratch the surface. It IS the surface. When people start living the values and principles, just because “this is the way it is”, then you know you are getting somewhere. Of course we should never stop questioning WHY, but the cultural parallel to being Punjabi or Parisian helps to make the point. When new people join the organization, we should explain WHY. And we model the right behaviours, the HOW. And we have evidence of our culture, the visible signs, the WHAT.

Hope to see you at Agile 2011!

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