Agile, Power, and Culture

As I work with more organizations and across more cultures, I've been realizing that agile exposes a huge piece of the power in the organization that many people may not want exposed. I didn't have a name for until I read Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he talks about Hofstede's Power distance index. (Here is the author‘s site with all the data and a way to compare countries. Here is an illuminating world view.)

That's the ability of the less powerful people in the situation to talk to the more powerful people in the situation. Where do we hear about successful agile transitions?  Israel, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Finland: countries, and by extension, organizations, that we assume have low power indices. This is an assumption. I know of organizations in these countries that do not have low power indices.

The countries, and by extension, organizations, have had more trouble with their agile transitions, have had a higher power index. That's because it's more difficult for people in less powerful positions to talk to people in more powerful positions.

This has implications for geographically distributed teams, for project managers, program managers, for anyone working across the organization to accomplish work, not just the agile teams.

What can you do about it?

  1. Acknowledge it. Recognize that some people are intimidated by others and their titular power in the organization. (I'm not, but that's just me 🙂
  2. If you have to work with people who revel in their titular power, acknowledge their power, because it makes them feel good. Now, move on. Know what you want, and help them acknowledge that what you want is also necessary for the organization to succeed.
  3. Stay positive. Sometimes, the other person needs to put you down, because he/she has no other way of dealing with other people. I allow it for a limited timebox (10-20 seconds, maybe up to a minute) and then I move the conversation on.
  4. Look for common/joint objectives. What will make us both happy? Often, this puts us on the same power plane. Usually the other person doesn't recognize this until we are done talking.
  5. I'm happy to build a long-term relationship to make this work.

I avoid gossiping about other people. I need to keep my integrity. I don't make promises I can't keep. I need to keep my integrity. I especially don't let the other person blame my team, my project, or my program for the other person's emergencies or failings. I also don't blame his/hers. I keep my integrity. I didn't say this was easy!

I've come home from these meetings and said to Mark, “I need a drink and it's not water!” When you have these conversations, you are re-educating the person about culture. Sometimes it takes, and sometimes it doesn't.

Agile exposes this power differential. Yet another transparency.

Can you make and keep the transition to agile with this power differential? I don't know. For me, the jury is still out. When I see organizations with a high power differential, they keep falling back to command-and-control approaches, because the power differential is so ingrained in their culture. This is why a transition to agile is not just a technical issue, but a cultural issue too.

If you want to explore this in more detail, please join me at the AYE post-conference workshop (if you will be at AYE) or at Agile Testing Days for my tutorial.

I'll also be exploring this at Agile Vancouver in my keynote and tutorial, and in my tutorial at OOP. (My influence tutorial is an entire day at OOP.)

5 Replies to “Agile, Power, and Culture”

  1. Thanks for sharing this! Had read it before but forgotten…
    Relates nicely to a talk I had at ACCUS last week about how highschool social behaviours lead to Agile Coaches in the US have a harder time approaching management compared to Germany…
    Surprised though, that in the world index Germany and US seem quite close. On the other hand, the text just chooses these two countries as an example, so maybe the difference btw 35 and 40 is bigger than it seems.
    Great post. Will try to meet you at AgileTestingDays:-)
    Take care

  2. I wonder if looking at the transition in the military from traditional command/control power structures to the more flexible structures used by special operations units might not make an interesting case study for those organizations attempting to introduce Agile into a traditional command/control culture.

    There are few national cultures that are as strong as the military culture, and they have over the years made several changes that run counter to their natural tendencies.



  3. finally; and I thought I was going crazy! how do you handle and organization that says they want agile but doesn’t want to change? and how can I track my own progress as a person who wants to achieve when there’s so much resistance.

    in my first three months as scrum program manager I got a slap on the wrist – for exposing the power structure as imbalanced, outdated and hostile. i backed down. that was a big mistake; now I think it’s gotten harder and harder to earn the trust of my team.

    i’m still here almost eight months in – wondering what i’m doing sticking around. the title paired with my inability to act makes me feel like a fake. i’m starting to think coming in dressed in a suit would make some kind of difference – what are some steps I can take when I feel like my job is in jeopardy for wanting to draw a line between scrum and standard project management?

  4. Thanks for pointing me back to Gert Hofstedes work!
    If you look at the power distance index alone you tend to be surprised by the similarity of the values of e.g. Germany and US, because depending on our experience we do see differences. That is of course partially due to to reducing a “culture” to just one value. Nobody is actually doing that, but I do recommend investigating the four other dimensions the Gert Hofstede studied – namely “Long Term Orientation”, “Masculinity”, “Individualism” and “Uncertainty Avoidance”.
    The differences in these other values often account for the (subtle) differences that we perceive when comparing cultures.
    I tend to think that at least some if not all of those additional dimensions play a role in the transition of a (company-) culture to being Agile.


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