Practices vs. Culture

I saw a LinkedIn discussion thread that was initiated by Allen Holub. The initial post can be found here.

What practices are best at promoting culture? A couple years back, Robert Martin and I had a somewhat public debate about whether culture or practices come first. Bob advocates the shu-ha-ri approach: start doing practices, even by rote, and the culture will naturally arise. He used someone bowing when stepping on the mat as an example. At first, it’s just rote. Eventually, respect emerges. I took the opposite approach: start with culture and good practices will emerge. If you have a culture of trust and autonomy, better lead time is a natural outcome.

In the real world of consulting, however, it’s very difficult to *start* with culture. The people writing the checks typically want to improve something more hands-on. So, my question is: in that world, where you need to start with practices, which practices (if any) lead to a good culture the fastest? If you’re introducing practices in order to change culture, which practices would you introduce? I have my own ideas, but I’m interested in your experience.

I’d like to riff off of this a bit. I’m thinking of a couple of things:

  • Do practices lead to culture OR flip it. I think it’s a flip and Allen seemingly agrees BUT then backs off because it’s hard.
  • Is that the right approach? Or is it a business-related copout?
  • And what about the idea of Culture Hacking. Which I haven’t heard a lot about lately. Could that be part of it?

I like this post because it gets to the root of what a view as a BIG problem. And if everyone ignores it, where does it leave us?

It depends on your goal

I don’t say this often enough to my clients, but it depends on their (and my) goals.

If their goals are to –

  • Create a kick-ass agile organization.
  • Truly disrupt their organization and change the overall culture.
  • Realize the full benefits of agile in execution (delivery of high-quality & value).
  • Create a sustainable change that stands the test of time.

Then practices don’t really come into play that much. Yes, you need to decide on the practices. And yes, implementation details (flow) are important. But those are simply tactical details.

The cultural changes need to come from the top-down and be organizationally broad. It needs to be intentional and more long-sighted in strategy.

However, if their goals are to –

  • Go “Agile” or “agile”.
  • Get their teams to produce more…” stuff”.
  • Put on a good show of improving things.
  • Simply “buy” organizational change.

Then the tactical, practice introduction approach is the way to go. It will “feel” like things are changing. And certainly, there will be a lot of change-churn.

However, they will be missing real results. The real potential of agile transformation done well. As Sutherland often puts it, they will not become a high-performance agile organization delivering 3-4-5x more than they did while operating with a Waterfall / Command & Control mindset.

A cop-out

One of the things that got me riled up a bit is the realization that most coaches (agile coaches, change agents, internal and external, consultants) go for the practices. I’m reacting to this part of Allen’s quote:

In the real world of consulting, however, it’s very difficult to *start* with culture. The people writing the checks typically want to improve something more hands-on.

And I agree with him, it’s hard to start with culture.

But I think if we as agile consultants go “All in” for “too long” on the practices side of the equation, then we’re risking never achieving the overall organization transformation that many clients are looking for us to help them with.

Sure, they want practices. But I fundamentally believe they also want sustained and powerful change.

Wrapping Up

So, what should your focus be – practice or culture?

It depends. On your and the client’s goals. And on your skill and courage level.  It’s really your choice.

So, which is it…Blue Pill or Red Pill?

At Vaco Agile we lead with the Blue Pill, that is, focusing on a culture shift while still enabling solid practices. It’s a strategy that we believe leads to the best results. But, that’s our choice…


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