Agile – Culture or Characteristic?

Jeff Patton says agile is a culture. Rob Lally says no it’s not, it’s a characteristic. Both make compelling arguments. Jeff points out that agile is ultimately a culture which promotes certain processes and practices, whereas Rob argues that agile isn’t a culture unto itself but a quality an organization can adopt and make part of its own culture.

Agile has a strong culture. Jeff makes this argument clear with vivid examples of language, legends/stories/myths, values/norms/taboos, beliefs/attitudes, rituals/ceremonies, etc. But, does having a strong culture make agile a culture all unto itself that an organization needs to adopt as its own in order to succeed with agile? I don’t think so and this is where I agree with Rob. Agile is not a culture an organization adopts, rather it is a quality organizations can choose to add. Although, I never thought Jeff was arguing that an organization needed to replace its culture wholesale for that of agile’s, as Rob positions his argument against. I interpreted Jeff’s argument more along the one I was making in my 10 Questions to Think About Before Adopting Agile post, which was an organization’s culture needs to align with that of agile in order to realize success.

Rob makes an interesting observation in regards to selling agile as a culture:

Presenting Agile as a culture is something I’ve seen many times, and it puts more people off. Agile zealots, a club I was a member of a decade ago, try to sell Agile as a culture in a way that reminds me of Mao and his Cultural Revolution; they want to come in to your organisation, declare your culture to be bankrupt and rip it out, replacing it with an idealised regime of their own.

I don’t think there is any escaping the scary part of agile. Strong cultures are often scary to those looking from the outside in, whether those cultures belong to agile, lean, open source, religious groups, political groups, social clubs, etc. Those of us advocating agile need to be sensitive to this fact, but there is no escaping it as Rob seems to imply.

In the end, I think the most important takeaway in both Jeff and Rob’s posts is what they agree agile is not – a process or a set of processes. Those that see agile in this way and attempt to adopt it as such are almost certain to fail.

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