Why Not to Focus on a Company’s Culture

In a transformation, do not focus on culture. Although culture is incredibly important, it is not something you can address directly. Rather, focus on the management system that helps to shift culture over time.

Culture is air. The management system is earth.

Here is a paraphrase from Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions by David Mann.

Culture is important, but changing it directly is not possible. Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change.  Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of culture or a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way a company’s culture is a result of how people collaborate with each other. Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your method of collaboration.

Focus on agreements, behaviors, specific expectations, tools and routines practices. Lean systems make this easier because they emphasize explicitly defined agreements and use tools to make the work and agreements visible.

Alignment is critical. This requires both what we are all working towards and how we work together towards that.

A few years ago, Al Shalloway was at a Scrum Gathering that was focused on issues of trust. Most of the participants had bemoaned throughout the conference the difficulty of working with teams when trust did not exist. Everyone wrestled with the dilemma of how to get Scrum to work without trust while also struggling to get trust into a culture which is difficult and time consuming. At the end of the Scrum Gathering, everyone gave their final comments about the event. The talk mirrored the lack of trust in organizations and the difficulties everyone faced. It was clear that everyone felt this lack of trust was just part of many company’s culture and that culture was difficult to change.

When Al’s turn came, he quipped, “Maybe we need to find better customers… those who had established trust already and wanted to implement Scrum.” The reality is that these were few and far between.

Here is the situation.

  • A cornerstone of Scrum is trust on the team
  • Most companies do not have a culture of trust
  • It will take a long time to get this trust
  • This implies it will take a long time to be able to implement Scrum

No wonder people were depressed!

Take action… culture change will come

One of the Net Objectives T-shirts says, “I feel so much better since I gave up hope!” In this case, the hope was to find a group that had trust. The back of the shirt says, “Now that I have no hope, I’d better take action.”

What can we do to move Scrum forward even without trust? Lean-thinking can help. Suppose you have have a team that does not trust each other or management. Here is what you do.

  1. Get them colocated.
  2. Get them working on one project.
  3. Build software in stages.
  4. Hold Daily Stand-up meetings.
  5. Have someone available (the Scrum Master) that will help them remove impediments in their way.
  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.

It would be better if they trusted each other; but if they just changed these actions would they get improvement? Surely they would (as we have seen dozens of times with many different teams). And would getting better results end up building trust? Trust in the system and trust in the team? Our experience has shown that it does.

This is what David Mann is suggesting. Work on the teams’ actions and it 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.

This leads to another important concept: Understanding principles will help you follow practices.

In this case, Al’s intuition was that it would be a good thing to focus on action, not on culture. Perhaps he did not consciously think of this but that intuition lined up with principles he had learned. And it worked.

How many times do we miss opportunities for action that could help a team or an organization transition simply because we are too focused on trying to change culture?