Five Ways To Boost Agility

by Rajesh Navaneetham

January 22, 2022

What is Agile Culture, and what are its essentials?

Agile has clearly caught the world’s fancy, and in the last two decades its adoption has expanded beyond software. And for good reason. Companies are seeing benefits with respect to speed and adaptability of their business. Traditional methods of management that relied on long term detailed planning and sequential execution of plans are finding it difficult to keep pace with the rapid change the internet has wrought upon all aspects of life. Agile, with its focus on shorter execution cycles by cross functional teams, has demonstrated its ability to respond to change faster. Added to this, the uncertainty posed by the pandemic has only hastened Agile adoption across industry segments across the globe.

As organizations rush to adopt Agile, the number one challenge they face is culture. Most industry research bodies such as Gartner, IDC and State of Agile report that Culture is by far the most difficult hurdle in Agile adoption that organizations face. While organizations have transitioned their product development teams to Agile, their culture continues to be rooted in the traditional mindset. The industrial era culture was mostly focused on efficient execution. Focus of leadership was on ensuring the organization executes to a plan. Hierarchical structures and mindsets were tuned to decision making and planning by a few at the top while the employees were expected to implement the decisions. Whereas with Agile, the intent is on empowering team members to make decisions and not just follow orders. A key tenet of Agile is to focus on building the ability to react to change than following a plan. When Agile practice frameworks such as SCRUM, SaFE etc that are designed to react quickly to change is run in a culture that is focused on following a plan, the results are sub optimal.

Agile culture boosters

To get more out of Agile, in addition to redesigning work, the organizational culture also requires a revamp – top to bottom. Here are five ways to get started.

1. Empower teams

Agile Culture is characterized by a focus on empowering teams to take decisions. The gap between customer facing roles and development roles is reduced dramatically to ensure that the development teams are in tune with market realities and requirements. In traditional management pyramids, market information goes up the chain from sales personnel to senior management as information and then comes down via development team leaders to the team members building the product as instructions. This long chain not only dramatically reduces the speed of response but also distorts the quality of instruction. A case of Chinese whisper is inevitable. Agile cuts this chain and insists on developers interacting with sales personnel directly and frequently. In such a mode of operation, the role of leadership is to make sure that the teams are aligned on organizational goals, coach the teams on decision making and remove hurdles in the way of execution as opposed to taking decisions and directing teams. Receiving and processing information is no longer the sole prerogative of leadership.

2. Stimulate trust

Another distinct characteristic of Agile culture is a focus on creating an environment of trust. A shift from conventional management style that is based on command and control to a culture of trust and transparency is tough but essential. The Semco Style Framework provides a proven set of practices to build such an environment. Vital to this transformation is a conscious effort to reduce power distance in the organization. While vertical power distance between different levels of hierarchy is obvious, the not so obvious but damaging power distance is one that exists between functions – in other words, horizontal power distance. This can be seen often between Sales and Development, Finance and Operations, Dev and QA, Marketing and Sales….in short between any two functions. This hampers the effectiveness of Agile teams significantly.

3. Stimulate cross-functional collaboration and re-contract role of manager.

At the heart of an agile organization is the cross functional team. For best results, these cross functional teams need to be self-organized. What this means is that the team decides how to organize the work among themselves. This has fundamental consequences to the role of a traditional manager. The role of a manager in conventional organizations is generally to decide who will do what in the team, monitor progress, assess the performance of the team member and influence his / her career progression. Agile teams are expected to organize themselves and decide who will do what by when. The manager is expected to coach the team in aspects of decision making and business and should don the role of a servant leader – clearing procedural and other hurdles in the way of the team.

4. Structure around the client

Having established that to truly embrace Agile, an organization needs to reset its culture, lets look at what it takes.

Culture of an organization manifests itself in the attitudes, behaviors, and actions of the employees. These are in turn influenced by how the organization is structured, how it is governed, its operational and employee process framework.

An org structure that is designed around the customer (or value added to the customer) is better suited for Agile than a functional structure. Functional structures, while good at improving efficiency, tend to slow down the organizations response to change. A change in the market will need to be translated into appropriate changes to each function and this is seldom smooth. Functional priorities come in the way of organizational outcomes.

5. Redesign Governance

Most organizations are governed through operational reviews and metrics dashboards. What is measured, how often and by whom it is tracked are aspects that need to be relooked when an organization moves to Agile. Focus in Agile shifts from measuring task outputs to project outcomes. The tone and tenor of leadership in operations review meetings needs to change from command and control to support and encouragement.

Semco Style  to support your journey

The Semco Style Framework and Roadmap to self-management serve as proven tools for organizations that desire to build an Agile Culture. First, of course, is to build awareness among leadership that Agile is as much about culture than it is about product development. After all, in the words of the authors of the original Agile manifesto;

“…..Agile Methodologists are really about “mushy” stuff—about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about “people as our most important asset” but actually “acts” as if people were the most important, and lose the word “asset”.”


Looking for more Agile Culture inspiration? Have a look at our Agile Culture Essentials Page here, where you find more content, webinars and workshops that help you to create truly Agile organizations.

This article is written by:

Rajesh Navaneetham

Rajesh Navaneetham

SSI India | Certified Expert

Rajesh, co-founder of SSI India, is passionate about building high-performance, happy teams. Over a three-decade career playing leadership roles in technology organizations, Rajesh has been instrumental in setting and scaling up engineering teams in India. A strong advocate of a purpose-led approach to building organizations, he has led transformation initiatives using Semcostyle practices enabling organizations to exceed their business goals by leveraging their human potential.


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