Ogla Karantanou, Management Consultant – Digital Delivery within Financial Services at Capco
The concept of ‘organizational culture’ has been frequently debated, with management style and the level of autonomous decision-making among employees identified as one core aspect.
In his influential 1999 book The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, Edgar H. Schein argues that culture is not a one-dimensional, monolithic concept, but rather a mosaic, a set of championed principles, beliefs, and practices present in the company.
Schein sees culture as having three distinct levels:
Level 1 – Visible Artifacts – The first and most obvious level is ‘visible artifacts’: aspects that relate to the working environment, routines, habits, dress code, or how people talk.
In the context of agile transformation, this layer would translate into dividing working periods into sprints and holding agile ceremonies changing role titles to include scrum masters and product owners or forming cross-functional teams to discuss and review agile implementation.
Level 2 – Adopted Values – The second level refers to the ‘adopted values’ of the organization: the set of values that employees consciously hold, as well as the strategies and philosophies that explicitly guide their patterns of behavior.
These may not be as obvious as the visual structures and processes of level 1, but members of the organization are aware of and have knowingly adopted these values.
Level 3 – Underlying Assumptions – The third level is the underlying basic assumptions: the mental models and values shared by employees which are held subconsciously and encapsulate the company’s identity.
These patterns have become ingrained in the way people think over time and are therefore harder to recognize or acknowledge. In an agile context, this level would represent assumptions that have delivered results in the past, as well as emotions or social characteristics.
For example, certain individuals, especially at the senior management level, might naturally exhibit a negative reaction when presented with a way of working that essentially replaces top-down management in favor of an approach where the leadership team simply set the direction and desired outcomes and the agile organization has autonomy in achieving those outcomes (within agreed guardrails).
A successful agile transformation across culture levels
Transforming the visible artifacts outlined above represents the simplest part of the agile journey, since most practices are prescribed in agile manifestos and have been widely explained in detail in the relevant literature.
However, adopting these visible artifacts is not enough to effect real change in the culture. For a company that aspires to be agile, simply adopting daily rituals or roles defined by the agile methodology will not be enough to ensure these practices gain real traction.
Agile transformation, Multiple case studies1 of real-world companies have shown that agile transformation is most frequently successful when core values have been addressed.
Our own experience has proven that organizations that treat agile transformation training and coaching as an essential part of their agile transformation journey have a high level of success with adopted values.
agile transformation, Encouraging employees to be creative and to ideate, even if this initially delivers worse than expected results, is key to driving the right adoptive values: start working on a task and obtain early feedback, and then determine early in the process whether to continue working on that task or instead take a different approach.
Successful agile transformation requires buy-in from the entire organization, from delivery teams all the way up to the executive level. The main challenge is how to move away from practices that have worked in the past toward better future solutions.
It is critical that leaders understand that this change in ways of working can help achieve the real benefits enabled via agility through a agile transformation focus on outcomes and a clear alignment of delivery that realizes customer and business value.
Addressing culture holistically
While distinct, these three culture levels are interconnected, and they collectively shape an employee’s understanding of their work. It is therefore important to address organizational culture holistically to tap into individuals’ intrinsic motivators and hidden character.
Even if agile adoption may appear successful in the beginning, when evidenced by formal structures and language, we need to be conscious of individuals’ real beliefs and understanding of the new environment to drive agile transformation success.
Tools and practices must be supported by the values espoused by the agile philosophy, and those values must be supported by core assumptions.
In other words, daily meetings, a horizontal hierarchy, and/or iterative design methods all require commitment, participation, responsibility, and open lines of feedback, which in turn must be underpinned by an openness to creativity and innovation, as well as trust in the competence and expertise of employees.
Ensuring a successful transformation