How To Use Agile Principles To Build An Agile Culture

by Rajesh Navaneetham and Koen de Boer

February 24, 2021

Agile – the very word has a lilt to it, doesn’t it? It makes you think of something that’s light, nimble and unfettered. Like the little flower in the grass, the dandelion’s fluffy white sphere, which takes off with the lightest breeze to proliferate everywhere, agile methodologies have become ubiquitous in the world of business. What started as a radically different approach to software development has now made inroads into a wide range of industries like manufacturing, entertainment, logistics and energy to name a few. For, today’s businesses operate in hyper-dynamic environments that need to be innovative not just about what they sell, but also about how they function in tandem with the latest technology.

In fact, agile has become synonymous with greatly improved success rates, higher quality, faster production and increased productivity. But, is it too good to be true? There’s no denying that it’s proved its mettle over the past three decades – however, not all companies that use agile methodologies have fully embraced its spirit. Many leaders think of Agile as merely a product development process.

Let’s, for a moment, cut back to the origins of agile – the original authors of the Agile Manifesto envisaged it as an entirely different organizational operating system. But, over the years, it’s been narrowed down into merely prescriptive methodologies for software development like Scrum, Kanban or DevOps. Without a holistic understanding of agile, managers often act in conventional ways that are in contrast with the principles of agile and unwittingly undermine their agile teams. In fact, one of the key tenets of Agile is to put people over process – but ironically, Agile itself has been interpreted as a process and is being imposed on people. In short, one set of development processes have merely been replaced by another.

So, how can organizations restore the balance and move away from command-and-control ways of working? How can they build a culture where agile teams can set their own pace, and manage themselves? And, finally how can they use the very principles in the Agile Manifesto to guide their transition into a truly agile culture?


If an organization wants to reap the full benefits of Agile, it needs to implement the three Rs of change. An organization cannot hope to become truly agile if the way it operates, at every level, is rooted firmly in conventional hierarchies. For, the hierarchical set-up is highly conducive to the cascade or waterfall methodology of working where the top brass decides what needs to be done and issues orders for the teams to execute.

1. Redesign the operating system

Agile teams need a trusting and equal environment
 where the input of the team is no less valid than that of the management. Managers need to vest their agile teams with the power to make their own decisions whenever they can and collaborate with the management when required. For example, let’s take a scrum team that has a backlog of features. The decision to prioritize one feature and place another on the backburner needs inputs from both management and team.

The management might have a bird’s eye view of the requirements from other departments working on parallel projects, but the team’s close understanding of client needs, and their own workload is equally important too. When inputs from all ends come together, it creates a healthy dialog about what would be the best decision to make, given the circumstances.

Involving teams in decision-making needn’t be restricted to product-related decisions alone – it can extend to people-related decisions as well. A common irritant that undermines trust in organizations is who gets rewarded and who gets left out. Organizations can redesign their people processes to bring in transparency as well as explore ways of involving teams in making such decisions.

For example, when an opening in the team needs to be filled, the team can be involved in the process, right from the beginning. They can assess what skills need to be enhanced in the team and accordingly decide who the right fit for the opening would be. Another area where teams’ inputs can be solicited is in assessing the manager’s performance. These are just a few examples of how the engagement and levels of ownership within teams can be significantly enhanced.

Companies could also think about drafting their HR policies to encourage teamwork and reward team contributions over individual contributions. Teams must be free to set their goals by themselves, collaborating with management as and when necessary. The team could also be involved in decisions relating to team performance, ratings, and rewards. At the end of the day, if the team is involved in goal setting, performance evaluation and rewarding, the levels of ownership, motivation and productivity will increase considerably.

This shift towards a more participatory decision-making requires a redesign of the organizational operating system. Sure, there are some decisions that need to be made swiftly and unilaterally by the management. But, the rationale behind those decisions need to be clear and transparent. There should also be clarity on who can decide what and which decisions call for a dialog.

2. Reimagine the roles

That brings us to the next dilemma
: How can organizations step away from conventional roles for management and teams, and reimagine them within the context of agile principles?

It’s quite common to see organizations implementing agile in an off-kilter manner: While teams are expected to have sprints and work with a backlog, the management continues to manage with the old waterfall method. This, predictably, creates friction and leads to loss of agility.

Easing this tension calls for a shift in the roles of the management and teams. Managers can no longer see themselves as the ones calling the shots. They need to embrace their new role as the facilitator of their teams’ success, enabling them to not only reach their goals but also set some boundaries for action. They can do this by

  • coaching the team,
  • sharing their knowledge and experience in problem-solving
  • procuring the resources that will enable the team to reach their goals

On the other end of the spectrum, the team needs to grow and mature in order to take up greater ownership over goals and results. They can do this by reflecting on:

  • how they can assess themselves as a unit and set goals accordingly
  • what they need from the management in order to reach their goals
  • what they can do for themselves by stretching their roles and responsibilities and
  • how they can self-manage, resolve internal conflicts and create a conducive work environment by adopting appropriate behaviours.

Initially, it may be a good idea to engage an agile or team coach who can help the team mature into their new roles and responsibilities. With increasing maturity, the team can be more involved in setting its own pace and deciding its priorities. But it can’t happen unless the management steps back and resolves to not swoop-in and fix things at the first hint of trouble.

If they do that, it will erase the team’s confidence in managing themselves, or worse, instill the expectation that the management will anyway fix their mistakes and thereby reduce ownership. Managerial interference may also prevent the team from voicing any concerns they have about achieving their goals, leading to a lack of transparency and trust.

3. Reboot the culture

Changes in the roles of the management and the team don’t happen in a vacuum
 – the culture of an organization forms a constant backdrop and ultimately determines its destiny. Culture of an organization is exhibited by behaviours that are, in turn, influenced by processes, procedures, and reviews in an organization.

One distinctive feature of the agile methodology is the emphasis it places on not building a product in its entirety in one go. It, instead, advocates the organic and gradual build-up of a product through multiple iterations. It involves the incorporation of feedback on each level before allowing things to move forward.

Can the same organic and iterative process be used by organizations to reboot their culture so that it aligns well with agile principles? That’s exactly what the Semco Style Framework and roadmap aim to accomplish. They provide a clear blueprint for organizations looking to transition into agile ways of working, offering them a step-by-step process on how to get there.

The roadmap follows the principles of agile to build an agile culture. If you want to change your organizational culture, a big-bang approach may not be the best way to approach it. The framework will show you what works instead:

  • starting small
  • incorporating feedback and
  • building on the change momentum.

Consider this metaphor: When we step into the shower, we typically test the temperature of the water and keep adjusting it until the water’s at the right temperature. Only then do we enter the shower. Similarly, organizations need to keep adjusting their operational procedures until they develop a culture that’s perfect for agile to flourish.

This iterative approach will help them refine what their priorities (both at the organizational and team levels) need to be and how they can promote greater opportunities for collaboration. It allows teams the time to mature into self-management and trust the management to provide them with all the information and resources they need to reach their goals. It finally empowers teams to evaluate their performance, choose their peers and/or leaders and resolve their conflicts themselves. And that’s how the Semco Style Framework helps organizations to gradually transition to a culture of trust that brings forth the true benefits of implementing agile.

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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