agile culture ripples out from leadership

Many leadership teams seem to think that talking about agility will magically transform their organizations. If only change were that simple. Talking isn’t doing.

A department, division, or organization’s culture ripples out from its leadership team. Organizational behavior reflects leadership team behavior. A team that wants to change “them” needs to start with a deep look in the mirror to change “us.”

A rigid leadership team stuck in traditional methods of internal focus, functional accountability, and empowerment can’t reshape their organization with more agile approaches of customer focus, horizontal teamwork, and “empartnerment” by talking about it. Leadership teams need to hit the shift key with less talk and more action. Their culture ripples out from what they do, not what they say.

Culture change strategies, programs, branding, and communication campaigns can help shift “how we do things around here.” But the single biggest cultural lever is leadership behavior. The authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Agile C-Suite,” studied hundreds of companies. Key findings include:

  • Senior leaders of successful agile transformations “quadrupled the time spent on strategy (from 10% to 40%) and reduced the time spent on operations management by more than half (from 60% to 25%).”
  • Leaders need to get out of their silos and work together as a multidisciplinary group to rebalance and realign the organization.
  • Meetings need be focus less on operating details and more on strategic issues.
  • Key projects and initiatives need owners with technical expertise and leadership skills in coordinating the team and customers, senior executives, and functional managers.
  • Rapid and transparent feedback loops and shifting from commanding to coaching are critical.
  • Meetings must become collaborative problem-solving sessions rather than “tedious reviews of activity reports.”

The authors concluded, “Agile leadership demands that executives create a carefully balanced system that delivers both stability and agility — a system that runs the business efficiently, changes the business effectively, and merges the two activities without destroying both elements.”

Getting Your Shift Together

We’ve found these five steps are key to successful culture development:

  1. Assess current systems, practices, culture, and readiness for change.
  • This can range from the least rigorous such as self-assessment by the executive team (next step) to interviews, focus groups, surveys, or a rigorous audit.
  1. Leadership Team Planning (click for typical agenda)
  • These are often offsite retreats (or online sessions). Broadly they often follow this flow:
    • Divergent Thinking— reviewing/assessing, learning, defining key leadership behaviors, and aligning systems/processes.
    • Convergent Action— (Re)setting vision and core values to anchor culture change, (re)establishing 3 – 4 Strategic Imperatives, setting up steering/project teams, robust implementation framework, and disciplined follow up processes.
  1. Realign/integrate/prune current projects, processes, systems, and development initiatives.
  • The goal is pruning, aligning, and streamlining existing work, not piling more on top of an overloaded organization.
  1. Plan implementation strategies and timelines.
  1. Monitor, follow up, and adjust implementation plans
  • Senior leaders actively involved in working with Strategic Imperative Teams in monitoring, coaching, and adjusting implementation activities.

Leadership teams must set their culture compass. Failing to map a route through the many swamps and sinkholes of building a more agile organization is why 70% of culture change efforts sink and disappear. Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist, and storyteller observed, “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Further Reading