Do you SAY “agile” a lot? Or do you DO it?

March 16, 2013


Agile is your business culture. Period.

Agile process allows innovators the space they need to explore while making the minimum number of concessions to the existing business hierarchy. It ensures day-to-day operations continue long enough for a working, evolving strategy to emerge.

Exploration. Testing. Re-evaluation. These are the gradual repetitions of a solid agile process:

  • Scrums
  • Sprints
  • Backlogs
  • Dual operating systems
  • Downward mobility
  • Complementary opposites
  • These repetitions in time produce a lasting company culture, because culture isn’t something you collaboratively write and agree upon in a meeting. Culture is something that emerges through the repeated process. It supports—or spites—what you say you are doing.

    Case Study: Enron

    We all know people and companies that say one thing and do the other. In fact, a copywriter I know insists that the business taglines clients like the best do either one of two things:

  • The tagline states the exact truth.
  • The tagline states the exact opposite of the truth.
  • And companies have a hard time telling one from the other. They know what they like when they hear it, and often what they hear is a mirror image of the truth.

    For an example, sadly, one need not look too far into the recent past. In his book “How Will You Measure Your Life”, Clayton Christensen recalls Enron, an energy company whose explicitly enumerated points of culture included:

  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Communication
  • Excellence
  • Blah, blah, blah. All of that proved in time to be total hogwash when compared to the actions that were common in the real culture of the company. And when it all surfaced, the company was done for, and people went to prison.

    Culture doesn’t come from a list of highfalutin words like “integrity.” It comes from a backlog of work priorities and the repetition of a process for how to use resources to achieve them.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    Let’s Do Have a Purpose, However

    Rather than making a statement about company culture, agile managers make statements about purpose. These are not the same things. Capabilities create culture, and culture tries to live up to a purpose.

    “Whether they want one or not, every company has a purpose—it rests in the priorities of the company and effectively shapes the rules by which managers and employees decide what is most important in each unique situation,” writes Christensen.

    A statement of purpose has three main things:

  • a likeness the company is trying to embody
  • a commitment to that likeness, and
  • metrics to measure the progress of fulfilling that likeness
  • Christensen continues: “Companies that aspire to positive impact must never leave their purpose to chance. Worthy purposes rarely emerge inadvertently; the world is too full of mirage, paradox, and uncertainty to leave this to fate. Purpose must be deliberately conceived and chosen, and then pursued. When that is in place, however, then how the company gets there is typically emergent—as opportunities and challenges emerge and are pursued.”

    Do your company’s capabilities—resources, processes, priorities—create a culture you would say has a purpose worth writing down?

    Do the words match the actions?

    Do you say “agile” a lot? Or do you do it?


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