Agile steps

Culture

How to build an agile culture in four easy steps

Even before COVID-19, senior managers in large companies had a hard time knowing what their employees needed to execute their corporate strategies effectively.

And serving hundreds of different markets, it is inevitable that different country managers and employees need different things to succeed.

During the COVID-19 crisis the need for distributed responsibility has increased dramatically and so has the need for organizational agility.

It’s no longer enough to invest in agile development, innovation and management - you must cultivate an environment that enables all levels of your organisation to quickly adapt to change.

1. Agile transformation programs make it harder than it needs to be

But can't you just wait for your agile transformation program to do wonders? Isn't the whole idea of implementing SAFe, Scrum and ART that your organization will transform into this evolving organism defined by small self-organizing teams, working in short cycles and obsessed with delivering value to customers?

Won’t the change from top-down hierarchy to an interacting network of teams, all focused on working together happen by itself?

No.

In fact, complex frameworks and implementation plans make it harder to build an agile culture than it needs to be, because they:

  1. Take something familiar like ‘collaborating on delivering value to customers’ and turn it into something alien like SAFe, Scrum and ART
  2. Create sub-cultures of change experts who spend a lot of time understanding and developing special titles, programs and plans for how to train their colleagues to understand and use the frameworks, and thereby
  3. Create a devastating gap between those who spend time understanding the frameworks and those who don’t have time to understand the frameworks because they are busy understanding and delivering value to customers

Instead of breaking down silos and empowering everybody to better adapt to change, terms like SAFe, Scrum and ART and titles like ‘agile coach’ and ‘scrum master’ divide the people working in your organization into two groups: 

Those who understand the frameworks and make plans for how to implement them on the one hand and those who don’t understand the frameworks but are expected to execute the plans on the other.

So no, the change from top-down hierarchy to interacting network of teams doesn’t happen by itself. And adding change management frameworks and models like ADKAR doesn’t change that.

On the contrary, the more complexity you add on the framework and model side, the less complexity your organization will be able to handle on the culture-side.

At worst the top-down hierarchy is strengthened and you create a culture where everybody is waiting for someone else to tell them how to think and act. 

2. The secret to any culture is the questions people ask (and don’t ask)

So, let’s return to the purpose of building an agile culture and the fact that ‘collaborating on delivering value to customers’ is familiar to everybody working in your organization.

Instead of waiting for your transformation program to do wonders, I want you to think of a daily activity that is also very familiar and that is already doing wonders when it comes to people communicating and collaborating on delivering value to customers. 

I want you to think about the act of asking questions.

Each and every day asking questions helps you show other people what you think is important. It also helps you understand what other people think is important. 

And if you alternate between asking and answering questions - and spend as much time listening as you do talking - it helps you feel part of something bigger than yourself; a team where you collaborate with others on identifying and solving problems together.

And there is more:

Asking questions help you decide whether you should open up your mind for new ways of thinking and acting - or stick to what you know and do business as usual. 

When you ask a question you take a chance - you indirectly say, ‘I am willing to share my thoughts on this - are you willing to share yours?’ 

And depending on the response you get, you either connect and commit to your fellow human beings or pull away from them.

This familiar, yet almost magical everyday act is why some company cultures are defined by curiosity, confidence and collaboration while others are defined by fear, distrust and silos. 

It all comes down to the way organizations deal - or don’t deal - with questions.

3. Three revelations on how questions impact organizational agility

It’s my experience that most executives have never thought about the impact questions have on corporate or any other culture. And to be honest, neither had I before I started studying the nature and impact of questions. 

My first revelation was that the power of questions have been monopolized since the earliest days of human civilization. 

For some reason we have always left it to philosophers, scientists, lawyers, journalists, teachers and other authorities to ask questions. And most companies still leave it to HR and management consultants to design surveys and interview guides.

We seem to believe that the act of asking questions is part of someone's job - so instead of inviting everybody to ask questions, we focus our attention on making leaders, change managers and consultants ask ‘the right questions’.

My second revelation was that this monopolization of questions is structural, meaning that not only does it come with a long and strong tradition, it is also built into the methods we use to understand and develop companies and communities.

Think about the survey method you use for measuring employee engagement, leadership performance, customer satisfaction and public expectations.

Your internal and external ‘question experts’ probably send out hundreds of questionnaires each year asking your employees, customers and stakeholders to answer a set of predefined questions on a scale of one to five.

By doing that they - at your request - maintain and strengthen the idea that some people are meant to ask questions while others are meant to respond, that is: passively wait and react instead of proactively identify and solve problems together. 

In other words:

By maintaining ancient roles when it comes to asking and answering questions, you also maintain ancient roles when it comes to making and executing decisions.

In fact, you nurture an organizational culture where some people consider it their responsibility to think and act strategically while others (the vast majority) don’t. 

In short: You strengthen the top-down hierarchy and prevent the agile culture your company depends on to succeed.

Finally, my third revelation was that by systematically democratizing the power of questions, you can change everything. 

For all levels of your organisation to better adapt to change, you cannot depend on a few people to ask ‘the right questions’. You need questions to do wonders for all the people working in your organisation. Everybody needs to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and everybody needs to commit to solving problems together.

By replacing the structure that divides people into those who ask and those who don’t ask with a structure that empowers everybody to alternate between asking and answering questions, you not only open up everybody’s minds for new ways of thinking and acting, you also unleash their unique perspectives, experiences and ideas.

Or to put it differently:

By replacing the ancient structure that prevents the majority of the people working in your organization from asking questions, you also replace the organizational structure that prevents people from thinking strategically, taking responsibility and acting agile. 

4. Building an agile culture is easier than it sounds

An environment that enables all levels of your organization to better adapt to change doesn’t call for multiple models, processes and tools. It calls for a collective and collaborative approach to the problems your company is facing.

And the only way to ensure that is to make it easy for everybody to relate:

  1. to each other, and 
  2. to the problems your company is facing

Instead of a top-down vertical approach to your organization, you need a peer-to-peer horizontal approach to your organization. 

And luckily that’s easier than it sounds. 

While the idea of values, underlying beliefs, informal ways of interacting and other fluffy culture stuff may make you a little dizzy, the beauty of a structure that empowers everybody to ask questions is that it is as simple as it is structural.

It’s easy to build an agile culture because human beings are designed to adapt. 

Nobody knows who or what a newborn will turn into growing up. It depends on our genes, upbringing, environment, education etc. 

Common to all of us, however, is that we find our way through life by asking questions - to ourselves, our fellow human beings and the world we share: 

Who am I? 

Who do I depend on? 

What should we do to make the best out of the situation we’re both part of?

Unless something is wrong we ask these questions from the minute we become conscious to the minute we die. It’s how we connect and commit to each other.

So, by tapping into this basic structure of human interaction, an interacting network of teams, all focused on working together to increase value to customers, actually does happen by itself!

5. Four easy steps to an agile culture

All you have to do is:

  1. Invite everybody to ask questions about the topics that matter the most to your company - this way you strengthen employees’ ability to take a position on what is and isn’t important => focus on identifying and solving important problems
  2. Make everybody look for answers in their immediate surroundings - this way you strengthen peer-to-peer conversations and collaboration => support local problem-solving
  3. Create transparency, so everybody can tap into the collective experience and contribute to the company’s overall impact => empower shared responsibility
  4. Repeat!

The thing about customers, markets, nations, humanity and nature is that they evolve. 

Constantly. 

So, for your company to do the same, you must systematically tap into the basic structure of human interaction that allows your employees to evolve together.

6. To lead an agile culture, you need a new toolbox

If the monopolization of questions causing organizations to maintain an anti-agile culture, is built into the tools you use to understand and develop your company, it goes without saying that you need a new toolbox.

Surveys cannot help you strengthen peer-to-peer conversations and collaboration. And communication and collaboration platforms are not designed to map the collective insight you and your employees need to deal with the problems your company is facing.

However, if we can build tools that make us pull away from each other, then we can also build tools that make us connect and commit to each other. 

We just have to remember that we are designed to adapt to change. So, if anything needs changing, it’s the complex frameworks and models we design.

Pia Lauritzen

Pia Lauritzen

Co-founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.

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